RICHMOND, Va.—Earlier this year, I took a long-overdue look at NASCAR. That deep dive into the technology busted stereotypes and preconceptions, but it really was only part of the NASCAR puzzle. In fact, I'd go so far as to say I ignored perhaps the most important aspect of the nation's most popular motorsport. This only really sank in a few weeks ago after I, at long last, went to Richmond Raceway to witness my first NASCAR race. Because the key to understanding NASCAR—at least to this observer—is simple: it's all about the spectacle.
This Sunday is the title-decider at Homestead-Miami Speedway in Florida. After 267 laps—400.5 miles if you're reading this in America, 644.5 km if you aren't—the 2018 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series (to give it its full name) will have a winner. The championship is now a four-way fight among Kyle Busch (Joe Gibbs Racing), Kevin Harvick (Stewart-Haas Racing), Joey Logano (Team Penske), and Martin Truex Jr. (Furniture Row Racing). NASCAR has moved to a playoff structure of late to ensure the championship goes down to the wire. So each of the four drivers enters the weekend with an equal shot: whoever finishes highest in the running order will be crowned champion. (What happens in the event of crashes and so on is explored by Alanis King here in much better depth than I could hope to provide.)
Focusing just on the technology was an omission, but it was no error. I purposefully chose my off-season visit to North Carolina at the beginning of this year as my introduction to NASCAR. Ars is about technology, after all; visiting the sport at home, when things are quiet, meant we could focus on the technology without everything else that comes with being at a race weekend. Less danger of cultural tourism, too.
But an omission it was, one that left our introduction to NASCAR incomplete. A race car at rest, silent, is stripped of its purpose. I'll happily spend all day looking at static race cars—be they gleaming on a green, shining in a museum, or gathering dust in the back of a workshop. But that pleasure is cerebral and can't really convey the essence of the thing you're looking at. And visiting the sport at home, when things are quiet, is a bit like looking at a skeleton of a T-Rex in a museum compared to being chased by one at Jurassic Park.
Race cars at work are rarely cerebral pleasures. When running, they're violent things that assault your senses. They smell of hot oil, hot rubber, and hot nomex-wrapped human. Loud, too, inside and out. Anything that muffles sound without other benefit is superfluous in racing unless required by the rule book.
And the physicality. If you're lucky enough to get strapped into a race car and sent out on track, you take a pummeling as different parts of your body meet different parts of the seat under varying loads and directions of gravity. But even as a spectator, you can appreciate the energy involved when the breeze picks up in the wake of a high-speed pass.
Three legs to the racing stool
If seeing a race car move is necessary to really understand it, multiply that need by whatever power for the sport of NASCAR as a whole. At the risk of sounding monotonous, every discipline of motorsport involves a balance of three competing aspects: being a sport, being a platform for technology development, and being good entertainment. The relative balance among those three aspects is different for everyone.
Technology is front and center for Formula 1, Formula E, and the hybrids and GTs of Le Mans. When the rules enforce a high degree of parity, the sport is often what comes to the fore; I'm thinking of IndyCar and IMSA's prototypes, plus the LMP2s they evolved from; I'm thinking of production-based categories like GT3. I'm not arguing for a moment that NASCAR ignores any of this, with 4,000 words on record in my defense. Or that those other races don't entertain—I spend too much free time watching them for that to be the case. But NASCAR's attention to detail when it comes to the show is second to none, and that really only struck home once I saw the sport in action.
I picked the Richmond race mainly for convenience; it's a relatively short drive from DC, and I've spent too many hours this year sitting in airplanes. Fortuitously, it also meant visiting the most recently refreshed venue on the calendar. I'd been to the Richmond track once before, for one of those driving experiences where you get a few laps of the oval behind the wheel of a retired race car. The track hasn't moved, but as I walked through the brand-new tunnel and into the infield, it was obvious a lot had changed.
"We were still putting some signage up yesterday when practice was going on," confessed Dennis Bickmeier, Richmond Raceway's president. Jokes about immutable deadlines aside, the revamped infield at Richmond illustrates something the sport has been doing a lot of: taking care of its infrastructure because doing so means a better fan experience.
Its all about the fans
Bickmeier had this to say:
One of the things we wanted to do was really immerse the fans in the heart of the sport; we're a smaller track, and we don't have the real estate that some of the other tracks have to work with. But when you look at what we had… basically these little pole barns where the cars barely fit. And it wasn't the best working space for the competitors. They've got amazing space now to work with [referring to a brand-new single-story garage building that ran most of the length of the infield]. But with that, the trade off, too, is the fan-access piece. That was really the focal point: immersion, immersion, immersion. Getting the fans that close to the sport. And our sport's very accessible anyways—I think this just takes it to another level.
Seeing a Formula 1 team working on its car up close is a privilege. Access to that paddock usually requires at least two different lanyards and some kind of inside connection. IndyCar and IMSA are more open when it comes to fan access, and the latter even offers it as part of general admission. But their crowds can be an order of magnitude smaller, and those garages are usually set up under awnings between transporters, separated from the public by retractable nylon stanchions.
Like IndyCar, access to the NASCAR infield comes with a small additional fee on top of the ticket. When I visited Richmond, the 40-odd cars and their crews worked just the other side of a raised walkway—a civilized experience and one well-sheltered from the elements. More surprising—to me at least—was how that access extended to the pit lane, even during the race. As long as you and your fellow spectators don't get in the way, it's quite possible to watch the crews from just a few feet away, preparing wheels, tires, and fuel, then servicing their cars at regular intervals during the race. Try doing that at a Grand Prix as a mere mortal!
Of course, many more people will watch each race on TV than at the track, and my trip to Richmond provided a glimpse of how that broadcast gets put together. In this way, NASCAR shares much with Formula 1, although the accents might have been mostly American, not British. NBC Sports was on duty during my visit, and the production studio spanned several air-conditioned trailers rather than a single temporary structure. And the remote-controlled cameras, employed for spots too tricky for a human operator, were particularly cool.