As is likely the case with anyone from our area that counts themselves as a NASCAR fan, my first ever experience with the sport came at Dover Downs in Delaware. When I was little, I never cared too much about racing but I knew my dad was a fan. Half of everything he owned a Dale Earnhardt #3 on it, since "the Intimidator" was his favorite driver. You see, my dad always saw the number three as his lucky number because he had three sons. I remember him telling me that he became an Earnhardt fan after going to a race at Dover, seeing this guy driving the number three car and asking his friend "who is that?"
The friend laughed and went on to explain who "that" was one of the best NASCAR drivers that ever lived. Ever since that day, my dad was an Earnhardt fan and he was hooked on NASCAR. So the next year, he asked me and brothers if we wanted to go a race with him. To be honest, I was more excited about spending a weekend with my dad than I was about the idea of going to sit through an entire NASCAR race. Of course, at that point I'd never really given it a chance.
Now, when he asked if he wanted to go, I just assumed we would head down on Sunday, sit in the stands, watch the race and head home. Little did I know, that's not how Dover is done. We are going to packing up the truck with sleeping bags and camping equipment and heading down a day early to camp out to be sure we got a spot in the infield. For NASCAR neophytes, the infield is the large area inside the oval. Turns out, you can watch the race from there...
So we hit the road (cue the Steppenwolf music in your head) and made the trek from South Jersey to Dover. Frankly, you wouldn't think that wouldn't take all that long, yet when thousands of NASCAR fans in Winnebagos are driving through rural parts of little Delaware with tiny two lane roads, it does tend to take some time. When we did arrive though, I remember being taken aback by the atmosphere. There were hundreds of campers and campsites set up, people selling food, vendors everywhere and more "Welcome Race Fans" signs than you could count. Suddenly, it became clear to me where my dad got all the signage that acted as decoration for his garage.
So we found ourselves a spot, parked and set off to see the sights. There was a Busch series race that day (that's what it was called then) and so the whole track was open. After my dad outfitted us with the proper Dale Earnhardt gear, we went in to watch the race from the stands. We didn't know any of the drivers, so my brothers and I were just rooting for brands that we liked. I remember adopting the Snickers car, but it came in second to the "Big Johnson" car. After the race, I remember my dad taking us down to meet NASCAR legend Harry Gant, who at the time drove the green "Skoal" tobacco car. I actually believe that year was at or close to Harry's final year. We got his autograph and somewhere amongst my childhood belongings is a photo of 14 year old me with Harry. I even got take a picture inside his car(not the one he drove though). This was back when it was cool for kids to take pictures in a car with a giant advertisement for chewing tobacco on it.
At that point, I was into this. As the day wore on and night fell, the whole scene there changed. The area where all the campers were parked became really a giant party. I remember a big outdoor movie screen was set up and you could take a blanket over and watch "Days Of Thunder," which of course we did. In that movie, Tom Cruise plays a driver named "Cole Trickle," which had to have ripped the name from real life NASCAR driver "Dick Trickle" whose name my brothers and I spent a good hour laughing about. My dad refused to get us any Dick Trickle merchandise however... I'm still not sure if that was because of his Earnhardt fandom or because his name was, ya know... Dick Trickle.
Long after the movie was over, the party raged on back over at the campsites. There was people with almost an entire band playing music, about 80 different games of horseshoes going on(which in the night is an interesting game), and a fair bit of drinking. In fact, I remember vividly that there was a couple that was hanging out a party area near where we were that had clearly had a few... and decided that they were going to hop in the bed of their pickup and well.... I'm sure you can guess. By the way, this paragraph would seem to confirm every single stereotype that people have about NASCAR fans right? Anyway, I think it was at that point that my dad decided that a late night trip to a nearby Dennys was a good idea. A hasty, "we're going now boys" late night trip... When we came back, the parties had died down and we went to sleep.
The next morning, the RVs started lining up at the crack of dawn to ensure they would get a spot in the infield. It's an interesting place in the infield because once you're in, there's kind of no way out. The RVs and trucks would literally have to drive on the track to get to the infield. So you would have to get in early and in the morning and you can't leave until the race was over and pretty much every one else has left. Then you would drive your RV on the heavily banked track, defy gravity by not tipping over and go home. In the meantime, you'd spend all day in there.
To get a good view of the race from the infield you had two choices. You can either get a spot in the fence, or have the tallest vehicle you can find. People would take their huge RVs, bring up lawn chairs and sit on top to see the race. Others would build incredibly tall and, I assume, incredibly unsafe scaffolding on their trucks. Of course, you couldn't get into the infield with scaffolding built already, so these particular folks would have to build once they got into the race. So adding to drinking, partying, and the occasional boob flash (not as cool as it sounds to be honest) there was also construction in the infield. Of course, more than one of these trucks has actual construction company logos on the side, so evidently these guys knew what they were doing. We were lucky enough to get a spot on the fence that day, although in later years my dad would among those building his own scaffolding. We thought we were even luckier to catch a three car crash directly in front of us because for some reason, my brothers and I had been rooting all day for a crash. We did feel kind of bad when one of the drivers had to be taken to the infield medical center though...
Things did get more exciting though as the race neared lap 500, Dale Earnhardt was in serious contention. Even though we'd never really even seen a race before and didn't really know who he was, my dad was into it and we had our #3 shirts on.... so we got excited. It didn't end up paying off however, as Rusty Wallace took the checkered flag and Earnhardt finished second. As I learned this was a double wammy because not only was it apparent that a lot of people didn't like Rusty Wallace, but he also drove a Ford... and if Earnhardt didn't win, at least another Chevy could have. To this day I don't think anyone has really been able to explain that one to me.
But hey, I was pulling for Harry Gant and I don't remember what he drove.
I don't watch every NASCAR race, but I rarely ever miss one at the Monster Mile. I have some good memories at that place and I imagine I'm not the only the guy in the area whose dad took him to his first race there.