I recently had the opportunity to cover the NASCAR races at Darlington Raceway as a member of the media. Below is a summary of my experience, slightly skewed for entertainment purposes.
My journey began with a trip to Darlington to pick up my media credentials to cover the upcoming Nationwide and Cup Series races. While I was there, I just had to stop by the Darlington Raceway Stock Car Museum.
As I stepped out of my car and looked at the faces adorning the front of the museum, I knew that I was in for a treat. Everywhere I looked, I saw a different piece of stock car racing history. Some things were immediately familiar like the number 43, trademark blue, 1967 Plymouth of Richard Petty.
And then there were the surprises.
Over to one side was a 1956 Ford convertible. This particular car won 22 races in a single year racing in the convertible series. One of my favorite parts of the museum was a glass case with an array of confiscated items taken off the competitors cars. I just had to laugh at the ingenuity of these drivers who used every advantage they could find to win…at least until they got caught. It seems like some things never change.
I also got to see the Dodge Hemi engine that powered Buck Baker’s car when he won the 1964 Southern 500. This same engine was outlawed for the 1965 season. The museum also houses Darrell Waltrip’s 1991 Chevy Lumina, which rolled eight times in the 1991 Pepsi 400. It’s still considered one of the worst crashes in stock car history.
I could go on and on, but you get the idea. It may not be the biggest or fanciest racing museum out there, but it is well worth the $5.00 price of admission. Besides, bigger is not always better. This wonderful slice of NASCAR is a perfect complement to the Darlington Raceway.
Now that I’d had a little preview of Darlington, I could hardly wait for the racing to begin.
On Friday morning, I was at the racetrack by 9 a.m. and Nationwide Series practice had already begun. I found my seat at the media center and settled in for what would prove to be a wild ride. Press conferences were set to begin about 10:15 am so I took a little walk outside to take a look at the action out on the track while I waited.
As I stood there watching, I realized that I had a big grin on my face. I just couldn’t help myself. The pungent smell of exhaust fumes was like the sweet aroma of roses and the roar of the engines was music to my ears. Or maybe the gas fumes were making me delirious. All I know is that I couldn’t stop smiling.
The driver interviews soon began and I had to keep reminding myself that I was there as part of the media. I had to conduct myself with professionalism at all times. Today I was not a fan; I was a journalist.
Although I’d seen these drivers interviewed countless times, it gave me an entirely new perspective to see them in person. Their charisma and personalities came through so much more clearly. Everything was going smoothly until Jimmie Johnson’s press conference. He was patiently explaining how the entire Hendrick Motorsports organization was working to perfect their programs.
Perhaps he should have put more thought into the phrasing of his explanation as he summed it all up by saying, “So we are all kind of massaging our packages.” At this point, I’m biting my tongue to keep from laughing and berating myself for being childish. But then, I look around the room and see the same pained expressions on everyone’s faces as we’re all trying not to laugh out loud.
I’m not ashamed to admit that it was my favorite quote of the weekend.
Another highlight of the day was watching the qualifying runs. The media center was situated right in front of pit road and I was able to stand within a few feet of the cars as they waited their turn to qualify.
Earlier in the week, I had arranged to interview Trevor Bayne after he finished qualifying. I decided I’d walk over to pit road to watch him and was almost side swiped by someone driving a golf cart. Imagine my surprise when Kyle Busch jumped off the cart and ran over to climb into his race car.
It was time for my interview so I headed to Bayne’s hauler. I’d talked to him a couple of times over the phone but this would be my first time in person. We walked into his hauler and there were about six other guys in there, including a couple who were lying on the floor. They all continued to talk and go about their business as if I wasn’t there. Not the best setting for an interview, but interesting, to say the least.
I’m guessing they weren’t too impressed by this journalist but Bayne was completely focused and gave me his full attention as I asked my questions. I headed back to the media center just in time for the next press conference and then it was time for Cup qualifying.
Did I forget to mention, there’s a race tonight?
I won’t go into every detail. Just think of yourself as an insignificant piece of debris in the eye of a hurricane. You’re standing still while there’s a whirlwind of activity around you. You just have to hold on tight and enjoy the ride.
After a great Nationwide Series race, I submitted my race review, finally headed home and climbed into bed about 2:00 am.
Saturday got off to a little slower start and I arrived at the media center around 1:00 pm. I took a few notes in preparation for the Cup race and caught up on what I’d missed. I was amazed to learn that while I’d been sleeping, painters had been working all night re-painting the walls of the track.
I’d like to take a moment and say thanks to the folks at the media center. They kept us constantly updated with transcripts of all the press conferences, race results, points standings and more. If you had a question, chances are you already had the answer at your fingertips.
By this time, I was almost giddy with excitement. Thanks to a colleague from SpeedwayMedia.com, I was going to take a ride in the pace car. With Brett Bodine at the wheel, we took off in a Camaro for a couple of laps around the track. We only got up to about 122 mph on the straightaway, but what a thrill.
This was probably the highlight of my weekend and I was ready for more. My shouts of, “Do it again, do it again,” however, fell on deaf ears. Of course, I didn’t really shout out loud but the phrase was certainly bouncing around in my brain.
Still full of adrenalin, I decided to take a walk and do some more exploring before it was time for another press conference. It was another day full of everything NASCAR and I loved every minute of it.
It was getting close to race time and I decided to head for the Press Box located in the Sprint Tower. Overlooking the track above turn three, we had a panoramic view of the entire facility. After watching another exciting win by Denny Hamlin, it was time to file my last story. I caught a ride back to the media center where my car was parked and headed home.
I was exhausted. “The Lady in Black” had welcomed me with open arms and it was an experience that I will never forget.
In closing, I’d like to take this opportunity to thank my “sponsors,” SpeedwayMedia.com, NASCAR, the staff of Darlington Raceway, Showtime and the city of Darlington.