nascar debacle

sometimes it seems the planets are aligned against you. no matter what you do, whatever can go wrong, does go wrong, and whatever can’t go wrong, does go wrong (or at least goes less than swimmingly). but we try to look on the bright side – if you’re with a good friend and you can laugh at your misfortune, then everything is good.

fun in the sun

my canadian buddy jason turner invited me for a day in the sun, the roar of nascar engines filling our ears, the thrill of the race in our hearts. as a long-time racing fan, who was i to refuse? we set up the details, left early (anticipating traffic), and planned an excellent day. (aside: jason is the only person whom i refer to as my ‘buddy’ – saying buddy in canada is like saying ‘you betcha’ in minnesota. in other words, it’s required.)

you want traffic?

roughly 3 miles before we got to Infineon Motor Speedway in Sonoma, cruising at 75mph down Hwy 37 East, jason commented that his wife seemed a little off with her dire predictions about race-day traffic (it had been smooth sailing to that point). roughly 2.5 miles from Infineon Speedway, we entered a transient, newly formed parking lot on said Highway, and both cursed the fact that jason had said anything (there was no wood to knock on, unfortunately).

we spent the next 2.5 hours traveling the remaining three miles. we had left san francisco at 9am, thinking we would get to the track at roughly 11-11:30 (plenty of time for a 12 noon race start). unfortunately, the race started without us, as we sat in our car staring towards distant parking lots on rolling grass hills (at least they were kind enough to have a B2 bomber and the Blue Angels do a fly-by to signal the start of the race – the sonic boom was nice even inside the car).

we finally parked the car at 12:30pm. we had been traveling for a little over three hours.

we have shuttles

parking at Infineon Speedway consists of poorly defined dirt and grass areas where you can leave your vehicle. shuttles are available to ferry people to the nearby track, or so we were told. the race track was not even visible from our parking space (a bad sign, given that we were on the top of the largest hill in the vicinity). undeterred, we walked down the hill to catch what was surely a high-speed shuttle to the track; we’d take the shuttle, stroll straight past the pits to our fabulous start-finish-line seats, following clear and useful signage along the way to avoid getting lost.

we spotted the nearest shuttle stop, boarded one of five waiting shuttles, and started down the single-track dirt road to the raceway. shortly after we started our not-so-high-(actually-it-was-pretty-slow)-speed trip, the absent-minded shuttle driver turned around and asked the passengers if any of us knew where she was supposed to turn and where she was taking us.

(a long pause ensued, during which passengers looked at each other, giggling in a vaguely uncomfortable way, not sure whether the driver was joking or not…she was not.)

as a matter of fact, none of us on the bus knew where we were going (aside from the obvious answer – the racetrack). clearly, we were delinquent in our responsibilities as patrons of this particular raceway operation. at first we felt sheepish for dereliction of duty, but then reality kicked back into gear. at this critical shuttle moment, our confidence in the degree of organization at Infineon Speedway began to decline rapidly (after all, they should have told us that we needed to be able to give directions to our shuttle driver).

we stayed on the bus, and eventually the speedway came into sight. our hearts leapt!! (of course, in a masculine we’re-at-the-racetrack-with-big-powerful-machines sort of way) finally we could see and hear the sleek multicolored vehicles (still in the distance, mind you), roaring around the curves of the track, gripping the road with sticky rubber gloves. the level of anticipation in the shuttle rose – we were going to make it – it seemed certain.
but then a huge gaggle of unruly pedestrians got in the way of the shuttle and the driver became flustered. ‘where am i taking you? oh lady, get out of the road! hey!!’ (at this point, the driver hit a female pedestrian, and even though the bus was moving very slowly and no one was hurt, consternation ensued from the hittee’s nascar comrades-in-arms). after a moment’s discussion, we decided we might have better luck (and greater speed) making our way on foot. our shuttle adventure had lost its charm.

where are our seats?

we could see our goal (the start-finish line) off in the distance, and there appeared to be a good number of obstacles between us and it, the most important of which was the racetrack itself. we could see no clear path leading us to the holy grail. of course, in retrospect, the shuttle would have driven right past it, although we couldn’t have known. anyway, hunger and thirst were clouding our judgement, so we decided to get some food, ask directions, and make our way down (or over, or across – whatever).

we milled for a few minutes, wandering past what appeared to be stands selling racing paraphernalia, and then our noses led us to a food alley of sorts. all the food options that presented themselves were of the outdoor-sporting-event variety (overpriced, usually grilled or fried, uniformly bad for you). after surveying a few equally unappealing options, we settled on steak gyros with the works (why this seemed the most appealing, i’m not entirely sure).
gyros in hand and mouth (and partially on pavement, pants and shoes), we made our way towards the track. we asked a security guard the best way to the start-finish line, and he smiled and said we had ‘a ways to go.’ we sensed he was speaking euphemistically, or at least very kindly, and appreciated the sentiment. he said if we followed the path we were currently on, we’d get there eventually.

so we tried to make our way and eat our gyros at the same time (continuing to dribble gyro juice all over ourselves, i might add). the nice clear signage that we had expected was mysteriously absent, and the only maps we could find seemed to lack the all-important ‘you are here’ symbol, which left us with very imprecise notions of exactly how far we had to go. meanwhile, huge crowds of rabid, often drunken, nascar fans of all varieties milled around us, which both distracted and confused.

starting to doubt our progress, we asked another security guard directions. she patiently assured us that we were on the right track, and to just follow the food-and-gift road until we hit the magic tunnel – our goal was just on the other side…well, we found the tunnel, and once we came to the light on the other side, we realized that we were on some sort of island in the middle of the track – the bleacher holding our seats was right in front of us, but the track was unfortunately in our way. huge blowup foster farms chickens, resting on the top of a nearby foster farms food truck, sneered down at us, laughing at our incompetence.

we wandered aimlessly for a few more minutes in search of the second previously-unheard-of tunnel, and eventually found it (although not through the help of any signs – there were none). we broke on through to the other side, weaved around a bit looking for section J, took the stairs, proudly showed our tickets (we passed the seat-location test!), and took our seats.

at this point, it was 1:30pm. 42 laps of the 110 lap race had been completed, and we were just sitting down. we felt like losers. also, at this point, we speculated that if we wanted to get out before the post-race parking-lot hysteria, we should leave at lap 80 or 90.

finally – nascar racing

as advertised on our tickets, we were seated directly above the start-finish line. to our left, we could see in the distance the exit from the S-turns, followed by the chute leading to the hairpin before the front straight. the hairpin itself was invisible, and the S-turns were too far away and up the hill to get a view, which meant we could not see any of the passing action. not ideal, since watching racing on straightaways is like watching paint dry quickly. as a consolation, the pits were right below us, affording us a view of the action: tune-ups in 15.6 seconds flat. we were also seated in the blessed shade…

underneath the bleachers, the sound was deafening – without earplugs, we would have been deaf in minutes. fortunately, jason always carries earplugs (garnered on numerous united airlines business flights). he assured me that the crumpled package did not indicate use. i didn’t care – i just wanted to be able to hear the race without wincing in pain.

there were a few yellow flags, requisite leadership changes due to pit stops, and the occasional crash or spinout, but in the end, the race was uninspiring. maybe all the effort to get there created unrealistic expectations. demons riding turbocharged chariots from the pits of hell, doing pyrotechnic battle for the souls of the innocent, might have done it, but regular old nascar racing kind of left me flat.

the thing i found most interesting was the sponsorship of all the drivers. when i was a kid, it was basically booze, cigarrettes, and motor parts that kept racers moving around the track. today, it’s M&Ms, viagra, and america online that fill the coffers. for some reason, this seems to violate my sensibilities about race-car driving, especially something as ostensibly macho as nascar. i mean, what nascar driver wants to be driving the viagra-mobile? (not that there’s anything wrong with that, but…)

journey – part II

we decided to leave at lap 94, since it looked like car number 44 had it locked up (nadeau, 6-second lead, no more pit stops necessary – he lost due to mechanical failure on lap 108, oddly enough). we had only been in our seats for a little over an hour.

we made our way out, headed for the pack of shuttles, and got in line.

it just couldn’t have been that easy. none of the shuttles seemed to know where they were going, but they all assured us that they were not going where our car was parked. we walked around, asked about five different security people for directions (since they were the only official-looking people available), and got a different answer every time. we eventually gave up and just started walking up the hill, sure that we would find a shuttle stop.

a shuttle stop presented itself soon, and we got in line. as we stood there, chaos seemed to grow and grow and grow around us, until it reached a fever pitch. bikers were hauling off with their girlfriends, kids were complaining about being hot, trucks and bikes and cars were filling the roads, and tempers started to flare as people realized the system was breaking down completely (what little system there was). no shuttles came – we eventually decided to walk two miles through the dust and heat to the car.

hindsight

once we got a little ways up the road, we realized that the whole shuttle thing was a joke. there was absolutely no way any shuttle could get up the road to the parking lots. the roads were all full of cars trying to leave, but everyone was just sitting there, glassy-eyed, stuck in traffic.

teeth coated with dust, sweat flowing freely, and big smiles on our faces, we got to the car at 4pm. we hopped into the expected traffic jam, made our way out of the speedway (faster than we would have thought), and fled west on our beloved Hwy 37. no traffic stood before us – just open road, beckoning that we put the pedal to the metal. and we did, right up until we hit the traffic jam on 101, backed up for 5 miles from the san rafael bridge interchange.
some days…you just have to smile. ;-)

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