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Speed Reading: NASCAR's top five races
In my world I am surrounded by racing people.
Drivers, crew chiefs, tire changers, newspaper writers, TV producers... all working in and around the world of NASCAR 24-7-365.
And most of my correspondence with the outside world is with NASCAR fans. At the track, via e-mail, even at church and in the express lane at grocery store.
When I do have the occasion to chat with the auto-uninitiated, the one question they always ask is the same, "What's the big deal about watching cars go around in circles?"
As much as I believe that we in the television industry yes, that's my other job do the best job possible to bring the live NASCAR experience into your homes each week, I have to be honest about something. There's no substitute for actually being there.
So my answer to that question about cars and their circular habit is always the same.
"If I could get you to one race, you would understand."
Track newbies are always blown away by three things once they finally make it to a Cup race.
Which leads me to the second question I always get from the folks that have never been to a race.
"If I could only go to one race, which one would you suggest I hit?"
Well, people, now you can officially stop asking me! Because the top five races that all race fans must attend and why is directly ahead.
5. Nextel All-Star Challenge, May, Lowe's Motor Speedway
As for those novice race fans, the short burst segments are perfect for folks that probably aren't ready for four hours of racing. And the small fields make it easy to follow the action.
4. Dodge Charger 500, May, Darlington Raceway
Arrive at Darlington one day early, and make sure you visit the Joe Weatherly Stock Car Hall of Fame and Museum. Until NASCAR gets its new facility up and running, this is the true NASCAR Hall of Fame. Each year, the greats of the sport come to this little spot near the North Carolina-South Carolina border and honor the newest inductees.
And when the green flag drops on Saturday night, you can truly see how today's stars stack up to the greats of yesteryear. Seeing the Young Guns struggle to keep their cars off the Lady in Black's infamous walls is enough to make the hair on the back of your neck stand up.
Imagine how the guy inside the car the must feel.
3. Allstate 400 at The Brickyard, August, Indianapolis Motor Speedway
There is no more impressive vision in all of motorsports than looking down the frontstretch and watching the track taper off into the distance framed by a double-decker grandstand that sandwiches both sides of the racing surface. The crowds are so massive that they have been known the give drivers an eerie sense of tunnel vision as they barrel over the start-finish line.
If hearing "Back Home Again in Indiana" echo around the Brickyard doesn't give you chill bumps during the pre-race festivities, then go ahead and take your place with the rest of the cast of "Six Feet Under" because you have no pulse.
2. Daytona 500, February, Daytona International Speedway
A race week leading into the 500 typically contains all three. Dozens of couples are wed in Victory Lane each year. Until their recent slowdown, it was an annual event to see a Shuttle either streaking overhead into space or gliding over the 2.5-mile track on its way home.
As for the 500 itself, the Super Bowl can only hope to be as overwhelming as the Daytona 500. Two hundred thousand fans, millions of dollars on the line, dozens of celebrities strolling through the garage on race morning, hundreds of corporations wining and dining clients in the cavernous hospitality tents... and then there is the scene above the track.
"TV choppers, blimps, planes pulling banners, corporate jets coming in, traffic choppers," ace Lear Jet pilot Rusty Wallace counts them off. "I don't know how they keep it all straight up there."
Or how fans can keep it all straight on the ground.
1. Sharpie 500, August, Bristol Motor Speedway
Never before has so much speed, noise, sheet metal, guts and humanity been jammed into such a small space. And don't mistake that word "humanity" for the gracious, careful concern for another human being. Because none of that is taking place on the world's fastest short track.
I mean humanity as in people stacked up on top of people stacked on top of people. Two hundred thousand fans filling grandstands that take root in a tiny little East Tennessee valley and then climb faster than Sir Edmund Hillary straight into the sky. It is as breath-taking empty as it is full.
And when all 43 engines roar to life, those aluminum bleachers shake, rattle and roll for the next 500 laps. Under the lights, gear shifts send flames belching from header pipes, and a bouncing car will send sparks flying into the windshield within brake-checking distance of its back bumper.
No aero, no hype, no B.S. Just good old-fashioned racing, the kind that would only take one lap to convince any NASCAR newbie to never ask that silly question again, "What's the big deal about cars going around in circles?"
Honorable Mention: Talladega, October (Big and bigger). Richmond, September (The Chase cut-off). Las Vegas, March (The Strip, baby). Martinsville, April (Ah, azaleas!).
Ryan McGee is the managing editor at NASCAR Images. He can be reached at his e-mail address: firstname.lastname@example.org.