NASCAR is one of the most popular sports in the United States, not just motorsports, but all sports. Millions of people watch it on television and thousands attend each race. But for most people attending those races is a lot more than something akin to an evening ballgame. People travel from afar, whole families with their RVs and campers, to spend a long weekend trackside. There a lot more here than just a race, it’s an experience.
Last weekend NASCAR came to New Hampshire Motor Speedway, what I would call my home track, about a 90 minute drive from Boston. Knowing that, the nice people from Toyota invited me to track for Friday’s practice and qualifying. They give me a rather unscheduled tour of the NASCAR world on a race weekend from their perspective, and the race. You may have seen me post some pictures from there to the Hooniverse Facebook page.
Truth be told, I didn’t really care about the race. I never had much interest in NASCAR. The last race I watched, even partially, was Daytona 500 where car number 3 crashed in the final laps. I didn’t know anything about the current teams, drivers and their dramas, or even how the NASCAR series was divided. Like for many gear-heads out there, racing cars that do not seem that technologically advanced, in a big circle, just does not sound that interesting. Millions of others find this racing fascinating however, so that just shows what I know.
The whole race weekend is rather overwhelming. The amount of trucks, buses, RVs, trailers, golf carts, promotional vehicles, generators, and everything else that Toyota, and I assume the two other automakers, Ford and Chevy, brought to this race, and every other race from February to November, is just astounding. Each team has its own race trailer and at least one bus-based recreational vehicle. Each automaker seemed to have at least two bus-based recreational vehicles for their own people to use as conference rooms and communication centers, and whatever else they didn’t show me. And that is just to make the race cars go.
There is a whole other side to each race weekend and that is fan interaction. Toyota set up camp outside the track where they had their most popular new car models. They had a gift shop, a display with TRD parts, a performance stage, a Tundra monster truck, and a freakin’ Ferris wheel. There had to be a ton of people running all of this; a host for hosting, girls for dancing (I guess), technicians making it all work, and product specialists to, let’s be honest here, sell Toyotas. The coordination and logistics of it all must be amazing.
The obvious end game for Toyota’s involvement in NASCAR, as well as Chevy’s and Ford’s, is selling more cars. But Toyota also seems to be doing all of this NASCAR stuff to prove to Americans that after all, it is an American company. Throughout all the stands and displays, there were numerous references to things being American made, American designed, Texas, trucks, longest lasting, Toyota’s American facilities and factories. Does all it work? Does it sell cars on Monday after a Sunday win? Is all of this NASCAR stuff worth the millions of dollars that Toyota is dumping into it? I guess so – they have been doing it for over a decade.
All the team trucks were neatly lined up next to one another on the poddock. Outside of the trailers, each team had stacks of tires, a compressor, a make-shift kitchen, and other miscellaneous stuff, all neatly arranged. The tailgate of the trailer works as an elevator to move the cars in and out of the top trailer area. It also serves as an awning and access to the trailer’s roof deck. Amazingly, everyone working there was extremely nice and courteous to each other as well as the fans and media that were meandering through. I didn’t see any of the anger and drama that the media tends to feed us.
I was granted access to two of the trailers: No. 78 Furniture Row Racing Toyota, driven by Martin Truex Jr., and No. 20 Dollar General Toyota of Joe Gibbs Racing driven by Matt Kenseth. As anyone could imagine, everything in these trailers is neatly organized. Every tool, cart, coffee pot, jack, radio, and helmet has its own place. Everything is neatly stored and arranged for easy access. Rick Wainright, Director of Sponsor Services for Furniture Row Racing, said that despite having huge abilities, ideally they don’t want to do any work at the race because if they are not ready to race when they get there, it’s too late. Doing any kind of work, or using a backup car for anything, usually means that the team is in serious trouble that weekend.
While in the Dollar General trailer I briefly chatted with Matt Kenseth, who ended up winning the race, pending post-race inspection. He said that while this was his job, an awesome job, because he gets paid to drive race cars, it is also a crazy lifestyle, as he is on the road for most of the year. His wife and little kids come to most races, but not all. He always wanted to race stock cars and never really raced anything else except for one 24 Hours of Daytona in problematic car. His time off is spent at home and he takes a ski vacation every winter.
Across from the trailers each team has a garage space. Each garage space has a huge tool chest, jacks, fuel tanks, tool cart, and alignment tools. One team was actually using the good old string to perfect their alignment, not unlike many 24 Hours of Lemons teams. And that is what really surprised me here – it’s all racing and it’s all very similar. I don’t doubt that these set-ups are much different at 24 Hours of Le Mans, Formula 1, or any other kind of racing. Each team has to be prepared and expect a good race but also be ready for everything to go wrong.
More similarities were found in NASCAR inspections. Each car was brought to three different inspection stations where detailed measurements were taken using many template tools which checked for aerodynamics, vehicle height, and number of others. BS Inspection is what Lemons calls it and it seemed very appropriate to what was going on here.
A closer look at each race car revealed everything any enthusiast might expect – a simple race car. A series of tubes welded together in a uniform fashion inside a door-less body. Inside is a driver’s seat, shifter, electronic data display showing what was once conveyed by a series of AutoMeter gauges. There is nothing really there that would not be on a Spec Miata racer. The hood opens to reveal a healthy, now fuel-injected engine. Fresh paint, big air cleaner on top, and shiny headers on each side make each engine look like it’s from a Revell model kit car.
NASCAR is always criticized for its lack of technical progress but it is rather unfairly so. Yes, the push-rod V8, twenty year old fuel injection technology, four-speed transmission, and the live axle have more in common with my Lada than with anything the either of those three automakers actually produce. Even the 15-inch steel wheels are like a throwback to 1982. But this low-tech approach makes for an even playing field among the drivers and development costs are probably much lower than that of Formula 1 or any Le Mans series. But there is beauty in simplicity and that simple formula clearly works because it brings in fans and sponsors back year after year.
In the end, like all of professional sports, racing is about money. Automakers participate in NASCAR in hopes of selling more cars, in hopes of capturing customers and developing a relationship with them that can last for generations. Each team spends a ton of money in hopes of people tuning in and coming out to the races. Those hopes are monetized by sponsors, who hope that in the end the public will use their products and services. Then there are the people who are willing to live the racing lifestyles; the drivers, the mechanics, the techs, and countless others who make these spectacles happen weekend after weekend. But none of them would have those jobs if it was not for the millions of fans.
Disclosure: I had to take a day off from my job to go there. I traveled to the track on my own dime. I managed to anger my wife, too, as I was late to pick up our son from camp. Toyota provided parking, access to the pits, race trailers, interviews with crew and driver, and their sweet track suite where I grabbed some water and a Diet Pepsi. There was lunch, too, but I was busy taking pictures so I just grabbed some chicken nuggets on my way out. They offered me tickets for Sunday’s race but I politely declined.
NASCAR, From the Paddock to the Showroom
Some years I get free tickets to the races at Kansas Speedway. At that price, it’s worth the trip but, yes, roundy-round stock car racing is not really my cup of tea.Loading…
You should see them race at Sears Point. They do everything wrong compared to sports cars, but it’s pretty exciting racing.Loading…
That’s a race I would pay to attend.Loading…
I really miss when there was an actual relationship between a NASCAR body and a regular car body, you’d get all sorts of cool and weird stuff you could buy, and you don’t get that anymore. Imagine a Camry with a weird aero kit that they made to make something that’s kind of a crazy cheat legal, used to happen all the time!Loading…
Right, when they did not paint fake headlights on the cars. Then the original headlight placements were either blanked or had screens in them to channel air in.Loading…
I went to Fontana last year with free all access passes from a TV network. NASCAR fixed the race so Roger Penske’s driver could win. He had a late race strategy that made no sense whatsoever until NASCAR threw an imaginary debris flag to bring about a green-white checker, eliminating the huge lead that the legitimate would-be winner and everyone else that was competitive in the race had over Brad Keselewski on his new tires. I’ve historically defended NASCAR against the people that say it is fixed, but I learned my lesson. Track access from the freeway was also a multi-hour-long travesty. Free was far too much to pay for what we experienced. The funny thing is that I wonder how many paying customers there really were. We watched the race from the pits, with what seemed like about half the people in attendance. I can’t imagine what it would be like trying to get to the parking lot in the morning if they actually had something approaching full grandstands.Loading…