Imagine having total access to go behind the scenes for a weekend at a NASCAR race.
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What would you want to do?
Perhaps see your favorite driver up close and personal? Watch the crew chiefs strategize with teammates or the crew work on cars? See the inside of a transporter? Attend the prerace drivers’ meeting? Or even take a pace car ride with Brett Bodine while the driver-turned-NASCAR official describes the intricacies of the track and pit road?
I have enjoyed more than a decade of amazing access in and around the garage, and these were some of the activities/opportunities that might be taken for granted in the course of doing my job.
In some ways, it’s close to the sensation of Christmas morning. When you’re a child, there’s something very magical about the process. There’s the anticipation, followed by the reward. As you age, the greater pleasure of the holiday comes from watching the experience through your children’s eyes.
That’s what I was hoping to see after agreeing to let Randy Kirby shadow me this past weekend at Texas Motor Speedway.
Kirby, 49, has been a race fan since 1967. His father was a hobby racer in Louisiana. Kirby grew up admiring David Pearson and Richard Petty, but his all-time favorite is Bobby Allison. The family moved to Texas in 1979 — the same year the Daytona 500 was first televised in its entirety.
Kirby said that while he enjoyed the “Reader’s Digest” version of NASCAR on “Wide World of Sports” in those early years, he “couldn’t wait” for complete flag-to-flag coverage to come to television.
Although Kirby never made it to a race at Texas World Speedway, which closed for major racing in 1981, he has attended every race at Texas Motor Speedway since the racetrack opened in 1997 — until last November. Kirby was looking for a change of scenery and took a six-month stint working on a Hawaiian cruise ship. That’s where we met.
“We sloshed through the mud at Texas that first year,” Kirby said. “But it didn’t matter. I’ve camped out overnight and stood in rain to get tickets at Texas. When I sent an email to (track president) Eddie Gossage asking him to sign my 10th anniversary book, he replied personally and invited me up to his office. That’s when he convinced me to be a season-ticket holder.”
In addition to Texas, Kirby has attended races at Las Vegas, Bristol, Charlotte and Richmond. He really likes the Texas track “because something interesting always happens here.”
Now Kirby was about to see a side of Texas Motor Speedway that few fans ever have the opportunity to witness. With a credential around his neck, he could experience the garage and pit road firsthand.
Before his adventure began, I wanted to know what made him a fan?
His answer was simple.
“I like the personalities of the drivers,” Kirby said.
“That’s why I liked Bobby and Rusty (Wallace) and now Tony (Stewart). He doesn’t mind sharing his personality. I liked the fight last year between Jeff Gordon and Jeff Burton. It showed they had personalities. I don‘t want to hear a driver say, ‘That was just one of those racing deals,’ because that‘s when I‘ll call B.S.”
Kirby will sit through every practice and qualifying with his trusty scanner and headphones because “you hear things on the radio that you can’t hear anywhere else.” As a gear head, he enjoys listening to the crew chiefs, engineers and drivers debate certain setups over the air waves. He can identify crew chiefs and knows their former gigs.
He remembers watching Michael McDowell flip at Texas in 2008.
“That was right in front of us,” Kirby says, animated at just the thought. Kirby likes contract rumors because he wants to know “what’s going on.”
With the new schedule at Texas, driver interviews started on Thursday before first practice. Kirby must follow one rule that’s difficult for any sports fan: With a FOXSports.com credential, he’s not allowed to ask for an autograph throughout his visit.
Kirby watched journalists interview Kevin Harvick in the media center and then took a quick tour of the garage before Mark Martin’s media availability. Once practice began, Kirby put on his headphones and listened to the team exchanges while comparing progress through video screens and timing and scoring monitors. Then came additional driver interviews, including one with his favorite, Stewart.
On Day 2, Kirby was asked to keep a list of his five favorite things during the experience, but the experiences kept changing during the next 48 hours. Friday’s schedule was similar, with practice and more interviews. NASCAR’s Melanie Velisek assisted Kirby with a pass that allowed him to move more freely around the track when the garage area is hot during practice and qualifying.
Kirby witnessed an interesting exchange with resident smart aleck Ryan Newman when I asked the driver about the simplicity of traction control. A press conference for the March of Dimes and Denny Hamlin followed. Kirby then saw the mob that surrounds the No. 88 hauler when it’s Dale Earnhardt Jr. time — and realized how difficult it is to hear drivers from just 6 feet away when the crews are tuning the engines.
We stopped when Michael Waltrip appeared, so KMOX’s Greg Damon could interview the Daytona 500 winner about his autobiography. That was Kirby’s first time inside a NASCAR hauler. While we spoke to Waltrip, David Reutimann popped out from the lounge area of the Aaron’s truck to give his owner a tough time.
While I wrote, Damon took Kirby back out to the garage for Jeff Gordon’s availability. Not long after they returned, Carl Edwards came in for his first of three turns with the press. Edwards asked why we were laughing. He busted us watching the exploits of Kimi Raikkonen on YouTube.
The tables quickly turned as Edwards described his new gig as a sharecropper in Missouri, how he had purchased a fuchsia plane and earned the name “Downwind” from a fan who witnessed the driver land the wrong direction on an airstrip in Texas. Kirby finds this particularly amusing.
While teams move into position for Sprint Cup qualifying, we take a walk down pit road.
At the same time, Nationwide teams were setting up pit stalls for Friday night’s race.
There’s a lot of hurrying up to wait, but the energy builds as drivers start reeling off laps.
We return to the end of pit road where postqualifying interviews are being conducted. Kirby captures moments with his camera such as team owner Joe Gibbs and Kyle Busch’s crew chief, Dave Rogers, discussing Busch’s run after he’s out of the car. AJ Allmendinger’s crew chief Mike Shiplett passes by with an “I told you so” after the No. 43 temporarily takes a provisional pole.
Once the “go-or-go-homers” start qualifying, we head back to the garage on a mission to find birthday boy Eddie Wood. Polesitting crew chief Drew Blickensderfer asks about the Cardinals as he scurries to his stall. The Southern Illinois native is a lifelong fan and is concerned about pitching.
We reach the No. 21 transporter, and I walk inside. The crew is kind enough to offer Kirby a drink while I head up front. Wood and crew chief Donnie Wingo are hanging out, so I call Kirby to the lounge. As a longtime fan, Kirby is taken aback by the opportunity to meet Wood and share his favorite memories of watching Pearson and Cale Yarborough behind the wheel of the No. 21 Ford. Wood is more than gracious and hands Kirby a commemorative Wood Brothers coin.
Kirby can’t stop talking about meeting Wood for the next 20 minutes. This exchange will be the highlight of his trip.
After the top three qualifiers — David Ragan, Clint Bowyer and Edwards — finish their media duties, Kirby heads out with his friend to watch the Nationwide race. I make sure he knows to meet me at 11:30 on race-day morning.
Although we’re running a bit behind on Day 3, Velisek, our NASCAR coordinator, promises she’ll keep an eye on Kirby. Miraculously, we arrive on time and Kirby is waiting in the media center. I tell him, “This is Christmas morning.” Little does Kirby know, but he’s up for a pace-car ride with Brett Bodine.
Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here” is playing in the media center as we leave for pit road. It’s fitting with the electricity of a racetrack on race-day morning. You really have to be at the track to feel the excitement.
It’s only the beginning. After a lap with Bodine, where he offers a detailed description of the track while reaching a speed of 130 mph, we walk across the front-stretch grass where 3 Doors Down is performing a sound check. Kirby, whose father was in the Air Force, sees a general and hears him tell the band that he has just returned from Afghanistan.
“This is cool,” Kirby said.
The day is just beginning, and the next stop is the Sirius NASCAR radio booth, where Jim Noble and Monte Dutton are entertaining listeners. After a couple of segments, it’s another trip around the garage before a media lunch with track president Gossage and his special guests, Speedway Motorsports chairman O. Bruton Smith and Charlotte Motor Speedway president Marcus Smith.
During the lunch, Kirby hangs back with Damon and takes a couple more laps around the garage. At 4, it’s back to the broadcast building for an hour of radio on KMOX with Damon as the host. While we’re on the air, Kirby attends the drivers’ meeting. He quickly realizes that the best part of that show is watching the entourages gain access.
After the meeting, we take a break and slip backstage for 3 Doors Down. Kirby is more of a country fan, but he’s digging our locale, next to the stage where NASCAR safety official Jamie DiPietro has found her regular concert spot.
Kirby met DiPietro earlier in the weekend as she inspected cars following qualifying. She is also in charge of crash reports following on track incidents. Before the set ends, it’s time to gather our gear and head up to the press box.
As we leave, Kirby notices the drivers entering the area for introductions. But with 45 minutes until the race, it’s time to scramble upstairs.
We circle the track to the press box parking and ride the elevator to our perch over the front stretch. It’s a bit of a different view from Kirby’s season tickets in section 134 closer to Turn 1.
Kirby notices the Performance Radio Network’s booth to the right of our seats. They’re well into their prerace show as we settle in. There are plenty of monitors for a live TV feed, the broadcast feed and timing and scoring.
Throughout the evening, Kirby scans team frequencies. He watches track personnel deliver updates and Texas Motor Speedway’s communication king Mike Zizzo offer caution details, along with the most famous or favorite words in the press box, “The nacho bar is open.”
With the laps winding down, Kirby watches the fury that occurs as Matt Kenseth wins and the data arrives at rapid pace, followed by multiple interviews and more paper. Despite being given the opportunity to head down to Victory Lane, he watches the show from upstairs.
In some ways, he misses the outdoor experience. Kirby has turned down suite passes because, “You can’t hear it, smell it or be with your peeps.”
When the night is over, I ask him if there was anything he missed. Kirby said he would have liked to have been downstairs for the driver introductions, but considering all the other activities, it wasn’t that great of a loss.
His biggest surprises?
Watching how features unfold compared to news stories, as was the case with the Denny Hamlin March of Dimes story. Kirby witnessed a softer side to Hamlin that is sometimes hard to portray with any athlete. He found it interesting that despite the difficulties Hamlin experienced on the track that he was humbled by the story of the two March of Dimes children.
From the media side, Kirby thought it was amazing “how seamlessly” stories are crafted and how most of the writers have “a passion for other sports.”
Finally, Kirby says he was “a little surprised in some fans’ behavior in the garage.” After watching how some drivers were “swarmed” by fans, it gave him a better understanding of “how there is a time and place for everything.”
“I enter all these: ‘Be an honorary pit crew member’ or ‘Win a trip to the races,’ but I got to live it firsthand this weekend,” Kirby said. “This really was the experience of a lifetime.”
Here are Kirby’s top five experiences:
Still No. 1? Meeting Wood in his team’s hauler on Woods’ birthday. Second is taking a pace-car ride with Bodine. Third is walking the grid before Cup qualifying and then seeing the smiles on the faces of Ragan and Blickensderfer after they won the pole. Fourth, meeting all the other personalities associated with NASCAR and fifth, the media room and garage access.