Based on my incessant tweeting, Facebook picture-posting as well as the last article posted on this site, I’m guessing that by now, most of you know that I attended my first NASCAR race over the weekend. That’s right, while many of you may have been focused on London, my attention was 4,000 miles away in Indy and the Brickyard and while you were arguing over Phelps vs. Lochte, I was debating Dale Jr. and Jimmie Johnson. Granted, it wasn’t a trip I ever necessarily planned on taking, but one that I will be forever thankful I did. My first NASCAR race exceeded any expectations I could’ve ever had on the sport on the experience of being there.
First let’s get to the particulars, and let me answer the most basic question most everyone is probably wondering. That question? It’s something to the effect of “Hey Aaron, why were you- a kid from Connecticut who had never even been to Indiana before and couldn’t even spell NASCAR a few months ago (blame it on my state school education!)- in Indianapolis over the weekend? Did someone get you confused with Brad Daugherty and send the wrong press credential or something?”
Funny stuff. Only the answer is way more complicated.
To take it from the top, let me start by explaining this: Crown Royal is the title sponsor of the event, and for the sixth year in a row, their big initiative at the Brickyard was to honor what they term “hometown heroes,” in an event they called the “Your Name Here contest.” As I mentioned in Friday’s post, while we spend so much time glamorizing the athletes we cover and celebrities on TV, it is actually the police, firefighters, military personnel and others who make the true difference in our everyday lives. And while we might not think to honor them on a day-to-day basis, the good folks at Crown Royal went out of their way to make sure they got their due this weekend. We all have hometown heroes in our lives, and I think I speak for a lot of people when I say that we can all be grateful to Crown Royal for doing that.Anyway, after a nationwide search, Crown Royal awarded Curtiss Shaver, a firefighter from Troy, AL as this year’s hometown hero, and awarded him the grand prize “Your Name Here” contest winner (In essence, they named the race after him). And in large part, Curtiss was one of the main reasons I was in Indianapolis in the first place. My assignment (along with a handful of other writers from across the country) was, in essence, to get to know Curtiss and tell the world his story.
Well, after spending three days with he and his wife Traci, what I can confirm is this: In every way shape and form, Curtis is an absolute hero, and someone truly worthy of the honor given to him this past weekend.
To give you a little background, Curtiss’ story actually starts with one of the most traumatic experiences any man can imagine, when a late afternoon accident on his father’s farm led to his leg getting caught in a piece of machinery. As Curtiss tells it, construction was going on across the road from the farm as the accident happened, and because of it, the noise muffled out his screams for help. After two hours and no assistance in sight, Curtiss admitted that he had come to peace with his life, and was ready to die in that very field.
Thankfully though the construction stopped, and his screams were heard. Eventually the Troy Fire Department saved him from the machinery, but not without lasting damage. The entire leg that was caught in the accident was lost that day, and Curtiss currently walks with a prosthetic leg.
Now, if that were the end of Curtiss’ story that’d be amazing in its own right. Incredibly though, it was actually only the beginning.
Well, after the traumatic accident, rather than moping, Curtiss decided to take action. The farmer’s son who had never considered a career as a firefighter made the decision right then and there that he wanted a future in the field. It took him 10 applications to be accepted to the department (after all, being a firefighter is a hard enough profession to break into if you’re fully healthy, let alone with only one leg) but eventually he did get hired. As he tells it, outside of his wedding and the birth of his three children, the day he was accepted as a firefighter was the happiest day of Curtiss’ life.
(On a personal note, that really was the most inspiring part of Curtiss’ story to me. Yes, I was amazed that he survived such a brutal accident. Sure I was overwhelmed by the damn near pathological optimism that he carries around with him every day. But for him to continue to persevere after the accident, and more importantly after nine rejections from the fire department, really did touch me in ways I can’t fully describe. It’s as I said at the beginning: Curtiss is a hero in every sense of the word.)
Anyway, while professionally this weekend was about honoring Curtiss and other hometown heroes, it was also important to me personally as well. It was my first NASCAR race, as you may have guessed by now, I had a blast.
Most of the weekend centered around a “NASCAR scavenger hunt” at the racetrack that myself and a handful of other writers and bloggers competed in while Curtiss was handling other obligations around the track. Like every other scavenger hunt you’ve ever been on, we were tasked with finding all kinds of goofy things around Indianapolis Motor Speedway, including random artifacts, cool pictures and answering NASCAR trivia. Needless to say, I’m about 2,000 percent more knowledgeable on the sport of NASCAR and on Indianapolis Motor Speedway than I was a week ago.
But beyond just the knowledge, what the scavenger hunt really gave me was an appreciation for the sport, its history, and the track where Sunday’s race took place.
The first thing that I couldn’t help but notice at IMS was the sheer size of the track and the grounds it was on. Frankly, I cannot explain the size of the complex appropriately in words, but let’s just say this: The venue has a maximum capacity of 250,000 people, but if you’d asked me to give you a number just by looking around, I’d have guessed it was closer to 500,000. Or a million. Along with the size, the complex had everything you could ever imagine it would and even more. From grounds for RV’s, a museum, big fields where concerts were held, food and beverage stands at every turn, and a massive, almost overwhelming infield where tens of thousands of people hung out during the race, there literally was action going on in every corner of Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
And the view from the suite we were in was even more intense. If you looked all the way to your left, all you could literally see was bleachers into the distance. Look to the right, and it was the exact same. And the scariest part? We could only see half the track from where we were! To put it in a different perspective, when another writer and I decided to walk out onto the infield to catch the race from one of the turns, it took us 45 minutes to get out to the edge, and another 45 minutes to get back. Did I mention that we started in the exact middle point of the track? The point being, the place was freakin’ huge.
The other thing that stood out to me was that a lot like other sporting events I’ve attended, a NASCAR race really is an event more than it is just about the sport itself. Going in, I thought I knew what to expect (mainly that there’d be a handful of people lined up in campers and a bunch more people joining them for the race on Sunday), but what I didn’t know was the sheer volume of people who make a weekend out of attending a NASCAR event (including one woman we saw walking the grounds early Sunday morning in a bathrobe. Think she hadn’t been in Indy for a few days?). As a matter of fact, if there was anything that impressed me more than the race crowd itself, it was that there were literally tens of thousands of people who showed up on Saturday just to watch the qualifying event. Granted, it’s no different than people attending an NFL training camp or Final Four open practice. But still, to have that many people show up just to watch a practice round truly boggled my mind. It also showed me how much NASCAR
really means to so many of its fans.
Really though, if I really have to take one thing home from my first experience at a NASCAR race, it’d be something that I mentioned in Friday’s post that was only reiterated by going to Indianapolis this weekend: Although some might not think of NASCAR as a “sport” in the same way you do football or basketball, it really is. The things that lead to ultimate success in those sports and others; things like teamwork, mental strength and endurance, go into success on the racetrack too.
Sadly, this was news to me.
Now in my defense, I’m not ashamed to acknowledge that I was a NASCAR novice entering this weekend (in a lot of ways I still am), however, what I am embarrassed about was how truly naïve and uneducated I was on the sport as well. I always just assumed that success in racing came down to simple things. The guy who could maneuver the best and avoid the biggest crashes would be the winner. The pit crew was there to change the tires. Beyond that, I never gave the strategy of it all much thought.
So I guess what I’m trying to say, is that basically I’m an idiot.
As a matter of fact, maybe my favorite part of the weekend was having access to pit row, if only because I feel like I learned more walking around down there than I could’ve by watching 100 races on TV. It was also on pit row that I had my greatest appreciation for NASCAR and how similar it is to other sports. Simply put, success in NASCAR isn’t about avoiding crashes and changing tires quickly. Instead it’s about every single guy working together under the most averse of circumstances to get- and keep- the car running at maximum levels. While the driver gets all the credit for a win on Sunday, he’s only as good as the other 25 or so guys working behind him.
Speaking of which, another thing that surprised me was how big the pit crew is, and how much detail their responsibilities entail. Again, it’s so much more dynamic than I could’ve ever imagined. It’s about having a spotter above the track to tell you the every move of your competition. It’s about having four or five guys in the pit box on computers checking everything from tire pressure to fluid to engine temperatures. Actually, you know what it’s really about? It’s about pre-planning for every little thing that could possibly go wrong, and troubleshooting it all before it happens. In the same way that Bill Belichick and his staff spend all week overanalyzing everything that could happen on Sunday, so too do a crew chief, driver and the crew.
In that way, NASCAR teams really are more like a family than a “crew.” As a matter of fact, one of the most surprising and enjoyable things to me about the whole race to me was the sheer joy that Jimmie Johnson’s crew had when they officially won the race. Simply put, it wasn’t about a driver crossing the checkered flag, but about 25 or so guys pouring their heart and soul into something for weeks and months, and achieving their ultimate goal. There weren’t any calm handshakes, but instead hugs and high-fives and a whole lot of goofy jumping around. They were a team in every sense of the word, and celebrating a truly fantastic victory. No different than any other group, in any other sport after getting a big win.
In the end, it only seems appropriate to end where I began and say that my first NASCAR race exceeded every tangible expectation I could’ve had for it. From hanging with Curtiss to hanging in pit row, from the scavenger hunt to the woman in the robe, to victory lane and beyond, I really do need to thank the people at Crown Royal and their partners at Taylor Strategies for giving me such a unique experience.
Over the coming years I may end up going to another NASCAR race, or two, or 10. But I doubt I’ll ever have as much fun as the first.
Thanks to everyone who made it all possible.
Also for his continued take on all things sports, and updates on his articles, podcasts and giveaways, be sure to follow Aaron on Twitter @Aaron_Torres, Facebook.com/AaronTorresSports or by downloading the Aaron Torres Sports App for FREE for your iPhone or Android Phones)
Good stuff Aaron. Like you I am a NASCAR novice and only went to my first race last year. To my great fortune, it was a Bristol night race. We actually camped outside the track (a mile or so away), cooked out, went to the race & slept in a tent. YOU CAN BRING COOLERS INTO THE TRACK. I can't adequately explain how awesome I found that. Everyone was so nice to me as a noob and I can't wait to go back. As a great man once said: "I highly recommend it of you have the means. It is so choice."