A weekend in Atlanta

by Eric Gilmore

While most of my peers were soaking up the sun in a tropical paradise, I partook in a little Spring Break culture. Taking in two NASCAR races over the weekend at Atlanta Motor Speedway, it opened my eyes to a way of life you can't possibly fathom from your 27-inch screen TV.

The real beauty of the sport is the underbelly that is rarely revealed. It's not 43 cars zipping around a 1.54 mile track for 3 hours at 200 miles per hour on Sunday. It's the fans and the carnival atmosphere that presides over the venue for an entire weekend.

It's not watching the competition of the race. It's the experience. Just like at an ECU football game, it's not just the wins and losses which make it fun. Lately, especially, the majority of the fun comes from the tailgating and socializing with friends. The actual game is just the common place for all to meet. It's the same in NASCAR. The race just gives the meeting ground for the fans to live the Southern culture.

It's a shame that NASCAR is expanding as much as it is. While North Carolina still is the NASCAR capitol, races are routinely being taken away from the South. Rockingham and Darlington both lost races this year because bigger tracks are being built such as California. It's understandable, but how many people in California are going to have the true NASCAR experience like in these Southern states?

What makes NASCAR fun are the differences from the other major sports. There is no Event One staff probing your coolers for sharp objects. Beer is plentiful and preferred. There is a prayer before each race. It's the blue collar attitude that you just don't see at the political correctness of professional sports.    

Even so, on Saturday night, after listening to a John Michael Montgomery concert with what ear drums I had left, our party of four walked around a camping area outside turn four. Woodstock 1969, or at least the Southern version. There were barrels full of fire, pick-ups aplenty, flags on every gravel street corner and tents for miles. The less fortunate ones roughed it as only NASCAR fans can do. They just slept in the back of their trucks or vans.

NASCAR fans just don't care. Or is it how much they really do care? It's both, but in different ways. It's devotion. It's the almost undying loyalty to the sponsors, drivers, and the Southern culture that defined the sport for umpteen years.

They put the sport above themselves, which most professional fans simply can't say. In this world of coaches getting hired and fired and free-agency letting players switch teams at the drop of a hat, NASCAR fans still have faith if their driver or team is not doing well.

Kyle Petty hasn't won a race since his dad gave him the Petty Enterprises reign. It doesn't matter to these NASCAR fans. There is still a large contingent of Petty paraphernalia in this here tailgating field. Sorry, it's rubbing off. Point is that Kyle Petty is the Vanderbilt of the SEC and hasn't had success in a decade. These fans still love him.

Just imagine if Ricky Stokes goes 5-25 next season in a revamped Conference USA. Which side of the picket fence would you be on? Would you still give your money to ECU? I'm not calling ECU fans fickle by any means, but it makes you wonder what would happen if we took a new approach. I know it's different, but what if everyone was as devoted to ECU as these people are to their drivers and teams?

You know what would happen. I do. We would Git-R-Dun.

Eric Gilmore