Roaring engines, a coliseum rising out of the South Carolina countryside, pencil-thin mustaches and vintage color schemes and fans everywhere — my first race as the Charlotte Observer’s NASCAR writer, and my head was on a swivel.
This weekend, when the Cup Series returns to Darlington Raceway for the annual Southern 500, it’ll mark my one-year anniversary with the Observer. In the past year, I’ve been fortunate enough to witness incredible finishes and incredible moments, incredible upsets and incredible sadness. But for as many of those experiences as I’ve had, none still stick with me like that first race.
And boy, looking back on it, was I ever waaaay out of my league.
Walking through the infield that day, I had no clue what to expect. Fans mingling with drivers, directly next to them, was so drastically different than anything else I’d ever covered. Even having been to a Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway before, there was nothing — nothing — that could have prepared me for parachuting into a weekend like that.
In addition to all the actual, you know, reporting I was supposed to be doing, I was just trying to take in all the scenes. But as anyone attending their first or even second NASCAR race knows, that’s like trying to squeeze a watermelon through a funnel. Just ain’t happening.
So I did my best, soaking it all in: the interactions with drivers and fans, the monumental crowd surrounding and supporting Dale Earnhardt Jr., the vintage paint schemes I didn’t fully understand. Even the drivers, whom I’d researched and watched and listened to, were foreign.
As the race got underway, that’s when I remember feeling most lost. Pit strategy, crew chiefs, stage racing, cautions ... again, like a foreign language. Total blur. Hall of Famer Bill Elliott, whom I interviewed for a story about his son Chase, I think could sense all that.
By the end of our quick interview, he asked me, “That it, son? Anything else (and here, he really meant it) I can help you with? You all right?”
Thanks for asking, Bill, but there was absolutely nothing he or anyone else could have done to simplify things for me.
But you know what? They all tried. The people who work for NASCAR, other reporters, public-relations managers, even fans — all were willing to put up with my simple, stupid questions. I mean, here was Bill Elliott, one of the best drivers in NASCAR history, asking me if there was anything he could explain.
You just don’t find that sort of compassion or outreach everywhere.
In the past year, I have been truly lucky to travel the country and dig deeper into NASCAR and its rich history. I have covered Earnhardt’s retirement and his family’s lasting legacy; watched one of the more emotional Cup Series championships in history; sat down and eaten meals, and learned about life, from some of this generation’s greatest stars.
At times, it can be easy to fall into the monotony of a sports season, to stop appreciating where you are. But then, it’s memories like Darlington — of good, passionate, fun-loving people helping one another — that cut through the noise and remind you why it’s all worth it.
So to all of you who have read my writing the past year — the good and the bad, the kind and the critical — I want you to know how much I appreciate it. Like the fine people involved in NASCAR, you’ve given me tips and made me a smarter, more deliberate writer and reporter. I have learned so much, about pit stops and banking, but also about people.
Now, it’s time to put all that to use. See you in Darlington; this time, it won’t be too tough for me to tame.
This week’s NASCAR race: Southern 500 at Darlington: What you need to know.
Race: Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Bojangles’ Southern 500.
Distance: 367 laps, or 501.322 miles.
Where: Darlington Raceway, a 1.366-mile asphalt oval in Darlington County, South Carolina.
When: 6 p.m. Sunday.
Last year’s winner: Denny Hamlin.
Also this week: Sport Clips Haircuts VFW 200, Xfinity Series, Darlington Raceway, 3:30 p.m., Saturday, NBC.
Worth mentioning: Since 2015, the Southern 500 has been NASCAR’s throwback weekend, when drivers sport vintage paint schemes from retired stars and dress in old-fashioned garb.