Posted: Friday June 16, 2006 9:13AM; Updated: Friday June 16, 2006 3:12PM
By Richard O'Brien, SI.com
NASCAR can be the ultimate family bonding experience. Here driver Joe Nemechek chats with his youngest teammate, son John.
Then, three years ago, I became the NASCAR editor at SI. The girls kidded me with a few good-ol'-boy jokes, but that was about it. To them, it was just another beat. But I was intrigued. It was also the middle of the season and I was determined to get up to speed as fast as I could. I remember we were on a family vacation, spending a week in a cabin on Squam Lake in central New Hampshire. It was quiet, woodsy, idyllic; this was the very lake, after all, on which they'd filmed On Golden Pond. Even the loons were quiet. But, by coincidence, that very week NASCAR was racing at Loudon, N.H., just 40 miles down the interstate. That Sunday I got up early, drove to the race, watched Jimmie Johnson and Kevin Harvick duke it out fender-to-fender around Loudon's flat one-mile track and then drove back to the lake with my ears still ringing from the roar of the engines and my heart still pounding with, well, a new kind of excitement. I had discovered the first great truth of NASCAR: whatever you think of it on TV, when you see it -- when you really take it all in -- in person, it's going to grab you.
And that's what has happened with Daisy and Valentina, especially with Valentina. It started slowly, though. During the rest of that vacation I got the girls to quiz me on drivers' names and car numbers. ("Omigod, Dad. Tony Stewart is the 20 car. Jeff Gordon is the 24!") It was fun and it helped me learn. And then sometime later that season Valentina started to watch some races on TV. I don't think she was that into the cars -- she's no gearhead -- but she responded right away to the personalities, to NASCAR's week-in/week-out drama (OK, sometimes soap opera). I still remember the day she declared, "I don't like that Kurt Busch!" She'd seen him pull off a particularly aggressive bump-and-run at Bristol and, by gosh, she was outraged. She was also determined to see what he tried to get away with the next week.
The following season I took her to her first race, at Dover, which we have come to think of as our home track. Thanks to Gary Camp, Dover's redoubtable head of media relations, we were lucky enough to watch the race from a seat in the Monster Bridge, which spans the track at the end of the backstretch, so that the cars roar past beneath you and your feet and butt shake like an earthquake. The crowds were huge, the traffic was atrocious, but Valentina came home as revved up as I'd ever seen her.
I took both girls to the next race at Dover. This time we sat in the grandstands, where we fried in the sun and nearly went deaf because we'd forgotten our earplugs, and we cut out early, dehydrated and hungry, to beat the traffic. But Daisy, too, had gotten a taste of the real thing, turning to me and shouting over the roar of the first green-flag lap, "This is the coolest thing I've ever seen!"
As exciting as the races are in person, you can't go to them all, and there is a special pleasure, too, in watching them on TV. Valentina, in particular, has made a study of this. A media-savvy kid (aren't they all, these days?), she takes great delight in the commercials that accompany each race broadcast. Virtually every NASCAR commercial, it seems -- certainly a far higher percentage than in any other sport -- features one of the sport's stars. And, in a wonderfully literal sort of alternate reality, no matter what the driver is doing in the commercial -- buying gas, ordering a pizza, repairing his patio, shaving -- he's wearing his firesuit. We've started keeping a list.
In general, though, the commercials are actually pretty witty and sophisticated, no matter how much they play on NASCAR's down-home ethos. And they certainly showcase the drivers to great effect. No sport does a better job of humanizing its heros. These are guys, after all, who in competition wear full helmets and are sealed inside steel boxes that roar past the crowd at 200 mph. Yet fans really feel they know them. And, indeed, Valentina and I can spend as much time discussing, say, Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s acting in a Budweiser commercial as we can his handling of the car during a given race.