Because I’ve only ever been at Nascar races to write stories—and Nascar is what you call media-friendly—I’ve never had a true Nascar experience. An experience that was not meticulously scrubbed of inconvenience. So I had questions: How do you rent an RV? Where do you park it? What kind of tickets do you buy so you can see cool stuff but not blow your budget for fried bologna sandwiches? Is there stuff to eat besides fried bologna sandwiches?
My first call is to a woman named Cathy, who works in sales for Charlotte Motor Speedway. I’m going to the fall Roval 400 race, which will use the track’s new infield road course to throw a few right turns into the Nascar formula. This isn’t some kind of automated Ticketmaster deal—Cathy is selling me tickets, but she’s also advising me on where I should be and what I should do. Infield, yes. Along the fence, yes. Pit access with free admission to the Sammy Hagar concert Saturday night? Hell yes. And buy in advance, yes, because the price goes up in the weeks before the race.
“One important thing to remember,” she says before we hang up, “is to make sure your RV isn’t taller than thirteen and a half feet. That’s the height of the tunnel leading into the infield. Taller than that and you’ll be parking outside.” Duly noted. Also noted is that the space I’ve booked is rather minimalist, in that it’s apparently a chalk outline on a plot of grass. Which means that I’ll need an RV with a generator, because there’s no power (or water or sewer) hookup.
My searches on Outdoorsy.com, an RV rental site, narrow considerably. Especially once I factor in my destination. Many owners have specific prohibitions against going to Nascar races. Huh. I wonder why?
Eventually I find the perfect ride: an almost-new Thor Axis motor coach that sleeps five, has a generator, and doesn’t have any anti-Nascar language in the listing. I book it and, on the Saturday before the race, my wife, kids, and I show up at a house in the Charlotte suburbs and claim our rolling hotel for the weekend. The owner doesn’t ask where we’re going and I don’t volunteer it, since “infield Sammy Hagar concert” seems like the kind of phrase that might raise the hackles of someone handing over the keys to a $120,000 vehicle.
The RV’s owner says we can park the truck I brought—a 2019 Ram 1500—in front of her house while we’re gone but I elect to bring it. It’s nice to have a nimble pilot fish once the whale is parked, just in case you need to make a quick drive out to Bojangles’. I mean, the Charlotte infield has its own Bojangles’, but in case you need to go somewhere else. Our space is forty feet long, which should be enough for both Ram and Thor, the newest Marvel duo in North Carolina.
Before you drive into the track, you pull over in a dirt parking lot and get searched. I don’t know what they’re searching for—maybe making sure I have moonshine—but the security guard apparently satisfies himself that I don’t have too many chainsaw-wielding escaped convicts inside. The other thing I don’t have is tickets, since Cathy mailed them to me a long time ago and then I lost them. I was counting on the track to be cool about my idiocy, and they are. They look up my name, write me a parking pass, and tell me to find my spot. Then, I can visit “will call” for my pit passes and radio vouchers. (Cathy convinced me to order a pair of those so I can listen to the track announcer and team chatter, which I hope will involve plenty of threats and cussin’.)
Granted, this is my first time driving an RV into a Nascar infield, but not my first time driving an RV. So I know enough to pull over before I drive into my “neighborhood,” a cluster of spaces hard against the fence along the back chicane. You want a sense of what you’re getting into, you know? I jog ahead to find our spot, which turns out to be a good idea since there’s an F350 in it. This belongs to our neighbor in the triple-axle trailer next door, who is cordial but obviously disappointed that I showed up to park on his side lawn. I guess most people get there before Saturday—my parking pass entitled me to arrive as early as Wednesday. He moves his truck but the challenges are just beginning. For one thing, I hadn’t really considered how we’d actually watch the race. Cathy told me most people sit on the roofs of their RVs, but everybody seems to have specially constructed platforms for that. The Thor doesn’t. Also, I can’t really get the RV near the fence, since my spot isn’t flat—about twenty-five feet back, there’s a steep banking that kicks up a few feet and then levels off toward the fence. I can reverse the Thor up to that point, but can’t get closer to the fence. The solution, arrived at after several failed experiments in Ram–Thor Tetris, is to park the pickup behind the RV. The Ram’s bed becomes our elevated viewing platform, especially when I put the air suspension in lifted mode. Perfect. Just like I planned it. Of course, we’re boxed in, but where are we gonna go, anyway? We’ve got everything we need right here.
Our arrival coincides with a practice session, one that’s on hold because Erik Jones slammed into the tire barrier right in front of our spot, at the exit of the chicane. My boys—age seven and eight—stand at the chain-link fence watching a forklift move the barrier back into place. A track worker spies them and approaches with something in his hand: yellow lug nuts from Jones’s mangled car. He passes them through the fence to the kids, who are delighted, as am I. How cool is that? I can assure you that if you go to a Formula One race and somebody crashes, they’re not handing you pieces of the car as a souvenir.
I take a stroll around the infield, always an entertaining adventure ahead of a race. It’s an economically diverse crowd, with some fans rocking multimillion-dollar Prevost RVs and others staying in dilapidated school buses that look like they drove through a time warp straight from Janis Joplin’s set at Woodstock. I’m of course compelled to hang with the latter group, who tend to be much more likely to offer homemade liquor to strangers. So when one wizened captain of an ancient blue school bus invites me aboard for a Jell-O shot, I think it rude to say no. He directs me to a small Igloo cooler at the top of the steps, and when I open the lid a rubber snake—attached to the lid with twine—springs out at me and all the guys on the bus bust a gut laughing. This is the best possible situation, because Jell-O shots are disgusting and I’ve got to keep some powder dry for the Hagar concert. Which is awesome. The concert is free for anyone on the infield, but our pit passes give us access to an uncrowded fenced-off area close to the stage. When it comes to the Van Halen canon, I consider myself more of a David Lee Roth guy, but the Van Hagar tunes hold up. And I’m glad my kids are getting to hear “I Can’t Drive 55” live from the guy who starred in possibly the most ’80s music video of the entire 1980s. Fun fact: Cars led to Hagar joining Van Halen, since Eddie and Hagar’s shared mechanic suggested that Eddie get Hagar for the band after Roth left.
If there’s a downside to the concert, it’s that we stupidly arrived hungry. While there are two food trucks nearby, only one of them is open to the likes of us—a barbecue truck. The other, which has some vegetarian options, is apparently reserved for people who are not us. This seems dumb, because there is no line for that truck, yet they literally cannot sell us any food, and my wife, Heather, and our friend Lynn (who is both vegetarian and a huge Nascar fan) aren’t real excited about barbecue. Be forewarned that if you have particular dietary needs or desires, you probably want to pack in your own grub, since the racetrack food pyramid sits on a foundation of fried meat.
Back at the RV, I obey quiet hours by shutting down the generator (and thus the AC) before we go to sleep at 10 p.m. But my next-door neighbor Randy keeps on playing emo country at high volume deep into the night. I know that’s his name because, sometime past midnight, his wife emerges from their camper and shout-whispers at him to put a sock in it. “Randy!” I hear through what are undoubtedly gritted teeth. “Go to bed!” Thank you, Mrs. Randy.
The next morning, we rise early to go check out pit lane—and catch a ride around the 2.28-mile road course in one of the Camry pace cars. In this, I admit that I’m pulling my media card to do something that would otherwise be an expensive indulgence. Any fan can angle a pace-car ride, but it’ll probably involve making a generous donation to one of Nascar’s charities or otherwise spending money in such a way as to get on the radar as pace-car worthy.
Our chauffeur turns out to be Kyle Busch, something of a Nascar bad boy. In 2011 he got a speeding ticket for doing 128 mph in a Lexus LFA, and just this morning we saw a guy wearing a T-shirt that read “Warning: I’m a Kyle Busch fan & an a**hole so if you don’t want your feelings hurt, walk away.” I don’t want to ruin Busch’s rep by saying that he’s perfectly genial during our lap, but he’s perfectly genial during our lap. As we head into the back chicane at perhaps 100 mph, he says, “Here comes the crash corner.” There’s a narrow racing line through the chicane but the view through the windshield seems like all wall—tire wall jutting out on the left, outside wall wrapping around on the right. I ask Busch how fast he’ll be going here when he hits the brakes, and he says “Probably about 160 mph.” Tell me again, smug F1 fan, how Nascar drivers don’t really have skills.
Once the race actually starts, we quickly lose track of who’s in the lead, but that’s what the 200-foot-wide video screen is for. It’s tempting to glue your eyes to that display, but the action just on the other side of the fence is mesmerizing: car after car heading right at us at 170 mph—Busch underestimated his speed, it turns out—the drivers nailing perfect rev-matched downshifts while negotiating the treacherous chicane. Almost everyone gets a little squirrelly at the corner exit as they get back on the gas to head onto the banking. I watch one car paint stripes from the rear tires as the driver rides a power slide out of the corner. There’s serious talent on display. For all the crashes you see in Nascar, there are probably a hundred almost-crashes that happen every lap. These guys are driving on the hairy edge and it’s fascinating to sit here in the bed of a pickup right against the fence, watching it all.
The race finishes in dramatic fashion, with Jimmy Johnson crashing into Martin Truex Jr. on the last chicane of the last lap, taking out both cars and allowing Ryan Blaney to steal the win. In a charming example of old-school Nascar orneriness, Truex expresses his discontent with Johnson’s botched pass by ramming his car and spinning him on the cool-down lap, after the race is over. There are no post-race blows to the head, but it’s still nice to see a driver expressing genuine pissed-off emotion. However, I don’t see any of that in real time. Per my standard practice at sporting events, we leave a few minutes early to escape the traffic. I know, I know: I’m lame and not a hard-core fan, but I have to return the RV and the kids have school tomorrow and those realities overcome my desire to watch the finish unfold on the video screen. I concede it was a mistake to leave early, but cut me some slack. I’ve still got a lot to learn.
This article appeared in the June 2019 issue of Seniorhelpline. You can .