Well, I never really used to. I used to just make fun of the entire enterprise, teasing fans of NASCAR that turning left for 3 hours couldn't possibly be considered a real sport, and furthermore, only golf could be more boring to watch.
Well, lately, I've been taking my dad to the races. He's a huge fan of NASCAR (dating all the way back to when he lived in Florida and used to watch stock cars race up the beach in Daytona). It's never been something I gave a crap about, but he likes it, and I figure there's worse ways to spend a day with your father. So, I go, and for the most part I text people and browse the internet on my phone as much as I can without appearing obviously bored.
But today, I really took the time to pay attention to what's going on - both on the track and off. And I was completely blown away at all the realizations I made:
1) NASCAR actually IS a sport.
The drivers are athletes - make no mistake. They sit for 4 hours in a cramped compartment controlling a machine with no power steering at 188 miles an hour, mere inches away from a guy who'd love to put their opponent into a wall. I mean, most of us freak out in bumper-to-bumper traffic at 40 miles an hour - can you imagine six inches of separation between you and a guy who hates you at 188 miles an hour? For 4 hours straight?
2) NASCAR fans are decent people.
Yes, there are HUGE amounts of beer and cigarettes. Yes, the vast majority of the fanbase speak with a graduated southern accent and probably can't spell ninety-six, much less count to it. But they're great people. They sit right next to people wearing shirts and hats adorned with an enemy driver's number, and somehow, they find a way to pat each other on the back. There are no fights in the stands - when one starts up, the crowd around the area self-police it and it calms down quickly. They all sing the national anthem when its played and they cross their heart during its rendition.
They're good, fine people. Rednecks, yes. But great people.
3) NASCAR is INCREDIBLY well put-together.
This show of 48 drivers travels from city to city each and every week, and somehow, they manage to unload a car, get it tuned up, get it tested, get it tweaked, get it tested even more, and then race. Then they pack it all up and do it again the next week - all without any slip-ups in safety or performance (for the most part).
4) NASCAR has the most loyal fanbase of any sport.
Just walking down Souviner Row (where all the merchandise trailers set up in the parking lot and people go spend a ton of money), I took note of some prices. $149 for a driver jacket. $30 for a t-shirt. $20 for a hat. $100 - $200 for race radio headsets. And a VAST majority of the people in the stands had all of those things on. More than that, in the 3 races I've attended, I've spoken with no less than 20 people who travel to more than 10 races a year. There were more than 300 motor homes and campers at the race, and according to one of the vendors I spoke with at the NEXTEL seminar thingy I went to, they estimate that more than 30% of each race is attended by people who attend more than 10 races a year. I even saw a guy with Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s new number, 88, shaved into his back hair.
Holy. Crap. Now that's dedication.
5) NASCAR has the most accessible athletes of any sport.
When I took my dad to Daytona in 2006, we had Pit Passes. These passes allow normal, everyday citizens like you and I into the pits and garages of the racers on race day.
This blew my mind.
Here you have a car worth over a million dollars, and well over one hundred thousand dollars worth of tools and equipment just laying out around a bunch of drunk rednecks who are trused to be on their best behavior around all of it. More than that, most of the drivers were in the pits, signing autographs and saying hi to kids.
Now these are HUGE stars - Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart... Names I actually know, and I know jack about NASCAR. And they're just standing there answering questions and signing autographs for kids and adults alike just a few hours before they have to go race.
Now, I figured that it might just be because it's Daytona, and I guess Daytona is a special place for racing. But no - today, the pits were COVERED with fans who were all on their best behavior, and the drivers were signing stuff and shaking hands and saying hi. To EVERYONE.
You tell me what other sport would allow a fan into the locker room to browse through the lockers and touch the bats / pads / sticks of the players, and the players would gladly meet them and talk to them?
Now, I can't really say that I'm a fan of NASCAR. But I will say that I have a whole new respect for it, and I will probably pay much more attention to the next race I go to with my dad. But don't expect me to shave "88" into my back.