Sunday morning we had breakfast, checked out of the hotel, and arrived at the track at 10am. As expected, traffic was much heavier; fortunately we were able to park in the same lot near the crossover bridge.
We made our way across the footbridge, past no fewer than 4 credential checkpoints, and we were back in the infield. Another 200 paces or so brought us to the main entrance of the Sprint Cup garages. Here we got our badges scrutinized once more, along with the hairy eyeball, before being allowed to pass. We were IN!
The setup was a mirror image of the day before: team trailers on the left, garages on the right. We arrived in the middle of pre-race inspections. NASCAR inspects all cars pre- and post-race to make sure they conform to certain requirements. This involves large aluminum templates and other mechanical guides that fit over and around the car. A car that is too low, has the wrong angle on the rear wing, or has otherwise manipulated sheet metal could have an illegal aerodynamic advantage.
The inspection happened in three stages, and the cars lined up as they waited between stations. This provided us the opportunity to photograph and examine some of the cars up close. We also had the chance to talk to all the team members who accompanied the cars through the process. Everyone was so friendly! They were more than happy to talk about any part of the car, the inspection process, anything you could think to ask. And seeing the cars in person, all suited up for the race, raised a lot of questions! “What does this number refer to?” “What is this plug for?” “Why does that car have two ports here and yours only has one?” We asked a lot of questions!
As we walked up and down the long line of trailers, we caught glimpses of some drivers and got to briefly meet a few. Of note, I was able to shake hands with my favorite driver, Carl Edwards, and also meet his team owner, Jack Roush. We also met driver Jeff Burton and crew chief Bootie Barker.
Around 11:30 we left the garage area and headed for pit road. All the inspected cars were now lined up in their starting order. All the team pits were setup, too, and it was fun to see the variations from one team to another. We took a lot of pictures, especially with our favorites, which were more than halfway down the row of 43 boxes. In fact, once we saw them both, I needed a break. So we walked back to the start/finish line and plopped on the grassy hill behind one of the teams. We knew we couldn’t be in this area once the cars were on the track, although the few people around us had “hot” passes and were settling in for the entire race.
Driver introductions began, and some of them walked right past us on their way to the temporary stage. We could see the back of the stage as drivers chatted, waiting for their name to be announced. Then came the invocation, the Star Spangled Banner, a spectacular flyover, and finally, the command to ‘start your engines.’
Seth and I looked at each other. ‘They should kick us out of here at any moment,’ we thought. We put the cooler between us; I took out a drink and tried to look as settled in as possible. Then the cars started to roll out onto the track. We plugged in to our radios and listened to the countdown to green…
‘Here they come, here they come, HERE THEY COME!’ I thought. Vrrrrrrrroom! We watched the start of the race sitting only 50 feet from the cars. After a couple of laps, Seth and I locked eyes: we made it! And then I spotted the man in the yellow security shirt. He was at the next area over, checking credentials of the people sitting on the grassy hill. And he was headed our way.
Seth had reentered his photography trance, and I was intently watching the race. ‘Stay cool, don’t make eye contact, and act like you belong,’ I told myself. After all, I deserved to be there just as much as anyone else, I thought. As the cars sped down the front stretch, I would focus on one, follow it with my head, then intently focus on another, and repeat. He checked the badges of the people in front of us. I leaned back a bit, grasped my Diet Coke, put my chin up, and pretended I was the coolest thing ever. He glanced in our direction – and kept walking.
I was thrilled. I felt like I pulled off the caper of the century! Of course, now we had some restrictions. We couldn’t go anywhere, not even to the bathroom or snack bar. Any movement might draw attention to us and our illegal status.
After a thrilling 200 laps (half the race), we decided we were ready to exit pit road permanently. We walked through the rest of the infield (where we were allowed to be), took some great photos and videos at the crossover bridge, and headed for souvenir alley.
I purchased a t-shirt, and we had a slice of pizza before retiring to the seats for which we had paid good money. I had prepped myself with Pepcid Complete earlier in the day to combat the problem of Saturday. The steps still sucked. Bad. But I finally made it, much to the dismay of the other people in our row. “You missed half the race,” one guy sneered. “No,” Seth replied, “we were right down there behind Newman’s pit box.” We didn’t get a response.
The rest of the race went off without a hitch. My favorite driver had a catastrophic tire blowout in the first half of the race, and Seth’s favorite finished fourth. But it was a spectacular weekend. We got to meet a lot of people, even if just in passing, and we learned a lot about our favorite sport. I’m so thankful to the person who was able to get us special passes and a big thank you to Seth for an awesome birthday gift!