Race Day in Richmond — A Recap

As I have stated here before, I have known Eddie Pickering for over 20 years…more than half our lives. Had someone told me even ten years ago that I would attend a NASCAR race in person, I would have laughed in their face and written the comment off as insanity. However, had someone said even five years ago that I would own a Buck Owens box set and have a ‘favorite country music’ themed playlist on my iPod that totals more than 200 songs, again that would have seemed impossible not so long ago.

Well, things change.

I just kind of fell into attending NASCAR races with Eddie. In the summer of 2008, Eddie’s wife Tucker gave birth to their second child and she doubted very much that she would be able to attend the race in September that they had tickets for. She also told Eddie there was ‘no chance’ he would be able to attend a race without her. Knowing she had said this, I told Eddie one night, ‘Well, if Tucker can’t go, and she says you can attend if I take her ticket, then I would be honored to see a race with you and find out what this thing is all about.’ I said that because I was truly interested in the phenomenon, but also knowing there was little possibility of Tucker giving the go ahead for her husband to see a race without her — something neither had done in the then almost ten years they had been married.

To my surprise, Tucker said Eddie and I could go. Only thing, that weekend a tropical storm blew through town, so a scheduled night race got rained out and turned into a Sunday afternoon race. Eddie and I went, and I had fun. But, I was very ill at the time and was nowhere near 100% healthy, maybe not even 60%. However, the overwhelming feeling I came away with that day was the wonderful sense of community that race fans have. I was floored by it actually. And, as Eddie dropped me off at home after that first race 18 months ago, I couldn’t wait to get back to be part of it again.

Due to circumstances beyond our control, 2009 was a no-go for us. So, this past weekend marked Eddie’s, and my return to Richmond International Raceway for the wonder that is Race Day. The kicker this time was, instead of just the two of us, also part of the ‘crew’ was Tucker and Eddie’s mom, Carolyn. Eddie’s parents truly are family to me. Every time I talk to Eddie, I always ask about them, but I hadn’t seen them in years.

So, now a recap of ‘Race Day 2010 — Pickering style

The fun actually began Friday night as Eddie dropped by to pick me up around seven o’clock. We had planned to have dinner at his house and then, later in the evening, drop me off at his parents’ house to crash for the night, then Eddie and Tucker would bring the family van by the house to pick Carolyn and me up. Plus, staying overnight at their house gave me a chance to catch up with Eddie’s dad, Al; someone I always love spending time with. Though he’s had some ‘health events’ the last few years, I am happy to report that Al still has his twisted, bawdy sense of humor fully in tact. His job is selling insurance but his true calling is that of a master storyteller. Whether he was reciting stories from when he first met me, or trying to tell me stories that were ‘half truths’ at best, it truly was a joy to see him again before sleep pulled me away.

After pizza at Eddie and Tuck’s, I went to Al and Carolyn’s and eventually fell asleep just after midnite. Carolyn had said she would be up at 4:30 to fry sausage for biscuits to take to the track. I fully expected my nose to wake me around 4:45, but surprisingly, I slept until 6.

Coffee downstairs while Carolyn checks, double checks and triple checks her mental list of food and supplies that will need to be transferred to the van once Eddie arrives around 7:15. Al wakes up a half hour before we leave, so we talk a bit more, compare smart phones [he said he liked my Taylor Swift wallpaper better than his background] and wait for Eddie.

Eddie arrives around 7:30 [life is never really on schedule when you have two kids at home, one, age seven, who wants to go to the race and one, about to turn two,who just wants mommy.] Eddie, Tucker and Carolyn load the van with the precision of a military strike and, after a quick stop to get ice for the three coolers of food, we’re race track bound.

Over the next hour, we get to the track, find a handicapped parking spot, set up ‘camp’, put up the tent and slowly unload the breakfast food. I then noticed that the gas grill that was going to cook our dinner that evening was still ‘new in box’ and, as yet unassembled. While Tucker, Carolyn and I ate the aforementioned sausage biscuits, Eddie ventured to assemble the grill.

The grill came with instructions that were 90% art/drawings and 10% written. That would have driven me crazy. I am a linear thinker and need to see it ‘written out’ as opposed to ‘drawn’ in order to make sense of it. Eddie enlisted Tuck and Carolyn for assistance in handing him the right pieces at the right time, and, after about an hour [or the time it took me to consume a biscuit and a large piece of homemade banana bread], the grill was assembled and ready for action. To his credit, if Eddie was frustrated, he didn’t show it, and he did a great job putting it together without the aid of a screwdriver. [Props to Tuck for advising to use a spoon as a screwdriver…it worked!]

The place we set up camp happened to be beside a group from Connecticut. They were Tony Stewart fans, and one was ‘a friend’ of Joey Legano who knew him personally. Both camps came to quick agreement that if Stewart didn’t win the race, we would be happy with ‘anyone but Jimmie Johnson’.

Around 10:30 or 11:00, we decided to head toward the numerous souvenir trailers, setup for each driver to sell merchandise. You want something with your favorite racer’s face on it? You’re gonna find it here. As I left my house Friday night, my mom said ‘Get me a Denny Hamlin polo shirt if they have ’em,’ so that was on my list. I also wanted to rent a scanner/headset so I could listen to in-car audio during the race, as well as look at the Tony Stewart merchandise since all I had was a Home Depot hat that I paid five bucks for when it was announced in 2008 he was forming his own team.

Walking around the concourse amid the hawkers and trailers, I was struck at how varied the age of the NASCAR fan now is. Years ago, this was strictly a southern sport for ‘good ol’ boys’, but now with races in Vegas, Michigan, California and Phoenix to name but a few, it’s well documented that NASCAR is now a nationwide sport [pun not intended, for those who get that joke]. The fans used to be predominantly young white males, but I saw entire families out at the track; two toddlers as young as maybe four, walking with dad, all three shirtless wearing grey shorts. I am not sure how NASCAR did it, but it has crossed over to appeal to women as well. And, speaking as a fan who always enjoys eye-candy, let me just say thank you and amen! 😉

In the hour or so we walked around, we managed to hit not one but two Tony Stewart trailers, and Eddie bought an item at each. We rented the headset [I’m buying my own before September] and got mom her polo shirt. Later on that afternoon, Eddie and Tucker walked across the street to the merchants selling items cheaper than inside the track, to find some small souvenirs for the two boys. During that time, Carolyn and I talked at length for the first time in probably a decade. That was wonderful, and drove home the point that, yes we were there to watch a race, but above that was the chance to spend time with one another. The race is important, but it really isn’t the memory I’ll take away from the day. It’s that sense of  ‘community’ again, something I don’t think any other sport offers. Other sports, fans are usually trash talking or combative. And, at a baseball game, you only have two teams to focus on. At a race, anyone can find a common driver to root for and the common driver to root against. It makes for fast friends, even if your new friend is a Jeff Gordon fan.

Now a word about Carolyn. She knows me very well, and she remembers what I like. Years ago [1991 to be exact] Eddie and I stayed up all night at his house on a Thursday night while I ‘assisted’ him with a history paper that was due the next day. After we were done, around 5:00 in the morning, Eddie slept a bit on the couch while I stayed awake. I stayed awake by eating two huge pieces of a lemon strussell cake Carolyn had made. It tasted unreal. It may have been the adrenaline from being awake going on 24 hours, with another school day ahead before bed, but I couldn’t stop complimenting her on the cake. A few years later, when I was coming over to visit, she had looked for the same lemon cake only to find that it was no longer made. [Yes, sadly ironic that, of all the stuff she makes from scratch, it’s a box cake I remember. I blame the sleep deprivation.] Well, for the race day menu, since the lemon strussell was not an option, she made home made lemon pound cake. She also made a pan of brownies and two Ziploc bags of her fried chicken, which I again raved about after having it only one time in high school. Yes, we ate very well Saturday. That’s an understatement.

Everyone relaxed and almost snoozed as it neared four o’clock, which was when we said we had to start cooking dinner [more food!!] in order to make it to our seats by 6:15. We had steaks on the grill and twice baked potatoes. Again, we ate like kings, and Eddie got several requests from passers-by on how ‘they’ wanted ‘their’ steak cooked. If you’ve never been to a NASCAR race, tailgating and making a day of it, and bringing along your own food is the ONLY way to go. You’ll save a mint and the food will taste far better than what’s offered at the track.

Around six o’clock, we cleaned up, took down the tent, packed up the coolers and loaded the truck. Donning my new Tony Stewart racing shirt, I was ready for the night’s festivities.

After all this, we still had a race to watch!!

We made our way to the grandstands and ventured to find our seats. I knew we had seats high up for a better view. How high? There were thirty-four rows in our section. Our seats were in row thirty-three. I stood at the bottom of the staircase, which did not have a railing, requested Eddie’s help [‘just hang on to the right elbow please’] and, slowly, methodically, started the trek up the grandstand. Ten rows up, someone on the aisle said ‘You’re a rockstar, man!’ Seventeen more rows up, two-thirds the way there, someone said, ‘Almost there man.’ Standing at row thirty, someone said, ‘You’re close.’ Once Eddie and I found our row, I found my seat. I didn’t immediately stow my canes under my seat, as I usually do. I just sat there. I wasn’t really out of breath, but I was trying to collect myself, take in the view and convince my bladder that we were gonna be in this seat for the next four hours, so he better behave.

Pre-race festivities flew by, and before I knew it, the green flag was set to drop. I put on the headset and found the Motor Racing Network broadcast feed and was set.

Richmond International Raceway has truly become one of the best tracks on the circuit. They installed a new screen in the middle of the infield, but you don’t really watch that. What is very cool is below the screen is a new automated scoreboard that instantly reports position changes and laps completed. That was handy, not because I was watching Tony’s rise to the top ten [he had issues the whole race and finished in the lower twenties] but because I was checking on the status of Denny Hamlin, from Chesterfield, VA. His number eleven FedEx car was in the top ten most of the night, even at times breaking into the top five. But, the car of the night belonged to Kyle Busch. Busch drives for Joe Gibbs Racing. Now, I am a Redskins fan, so I love Joe Gibbs and all he stands for. That said, I ‘hate’ Kyle Busch. How much? So much so I was actually rooting for Jeff Gordon at the end of the race. That’s akin to me rooting for the Dallas Cowboys…it’s not supposed to happen!

The race had very few cautions, maybe six or seven. The last one though came with five laps remaining. Gordon had the lead, but Busch, who really dominated all night, quickly overtook him to lead the last three laps and take the checkered flag. Eddie said ‘Well, sometimes races suck.’ True, the driver we rooted for didn’t do well, but I still had a blast. Night racing is a sight to see, and to actually feel the stands shake as the cars rumble past at speeds well over 100 miles an hour, it was a rush.

I’ll end the recap with the phrase that I have been saying since I saw my first race in September 2008: Everyone, and I mean everyone, should attend a NASCAR event at least once in their life. It really is an unforgettable experience, especially if you’re lucky enough to spend the time with dear friends that are like family. Thanks to Eddie, Tucker and Carolyn for making the day great and for inducting me into your racing family. I hope health and finances allow us all to do this again for many years to come.

The NASCAR marketing line is ‘Everything else is just a game…’ That’s the absolute truth, and if you doubt that, then you haven’t been racing yet.

Thanks for reading,