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View from cheap seats provides clearer picture of NASCAR’s popularity


MARTINSVILLE, Va. – I never realized there are no elevators – only steps, so many steps – in the grandstand at a NASCAR race.

There are no unlimited buffets, air-conditioned restrooms, assigned work spaces, power outlets, cushioned seats or speedy internet. Nobody can smoke, yell or pass out drunk in the press box.

I learned last weekend at the Martinsville Speedway there’s a different world on the other side of the tinted glass of my typical viewing spot. And I loved it.

The walk from the media parking lot to the media suite is only 100 yards. The walk to the grandstands seemed more like a cross-country hike. The property is very hilly, and it always seemed you were going uphill. By Sunday, my thigh and calf muscles were twanging with each step like banjo strings. Where’s an escalator when you need one?

I went with two of my buddies, Skylar and Dalton. They’d only been to the Daytona International Speedway and Talladega Superspeedways. Both of those tracks are 2.5 miles or longer. Martinsville is just .526 miles and shaped like a paperclip. Go really fast, make a U-turn and go really fast again. Repeat 800 times. And no matter where you sit, you’re on top of the action.

For the first time, I was more fascinated by watching the fans. Speeding cars are nothing new to me. I’ve always believed NASCAR isn’t about cars. It’s about people, and it was time I got to know the people who pay the bills – fans.

Drivers and teams are engrossed in winning the famed grandfather clock. Much like the Lombardi Trophy for the NFL, the World Cup trophy, the blanket of roses at the Kentucky Derby and the green jacket at The Masters, since 1964 the Martinsville grandfather clock has been considered one of the most iconic awards on the planet.

Fans, however, are fascinated with a bright red sausage in a steamed pillowy bun of chili, slaw, onions and mustard.

If you don’t believe me about the Famous Martinsville Hot Dog, take a moment to look it up on Google. Type in “Famous Martinsville Hot Dog,” and don’t forget the word “Famous.”

Was I right?

The hot dog itself is unique. It’s bright red. A company called Jesse Jones makes the hot dog, and what makes them so bright red is an additive called Red-40. I try not to think about it. I just eat them – by the bags full.

They’re popular because they are delicious. And at $2 a piece – or four for $7 or six for $11 – they’re easily the best value in sports.

Dale Earnhardt used to eat two before qualifying because he said they gave him more “octane.”

As soon as the engines fire to start the race, the crowd comes alive. They work off their hot dog stupor by cheering wildly for their favorite drivers. Their reaction to the drivers they loathe is just as enthusiastic. The language and hand gestures are enough to make a longshoreman blush.

I couldn’t help but wonder if many of those fans dial their mothers with that same finger.

Thomas Hatcher, a Middleburg High graduate who changes the front tires for Erik Jones’ No. 43 Chevrolet, said he’s worked for drivers fans love and others who fans hate.

“I’ve been cheered,” Hatcher said, “and I’ve been booed. It’s way more fun to get booed.”

Does that remind you of any other “entertainment” sport?

Last weekend, I was one of those fans. So was Winston Kelly, the Executive Director of the NASCAR Hall of Fame. He sat two rows down and 15 seats over from us. We both wanted to observe from the other side of the catch fence. What better way to understand your audience than being the audience?

You quickly learn the metal bleacher seats aren’t soft. The thick glass of the press suite doesn’t protect your ears. You also can’t escape the smell of smoldering brake pads and vape cartridges.

But eat another hot dog, and all is good in the world.

Skylar and Dalton couldn’t wait to see short-track racing and eat hot dogs. They weren’t disappointed. Dalton ate 16 hot dogs at the track in three days and took 12 home. Skylar ate 12 hot dogs and took six home. I was the lightweight – seriously – with only seven hot dogs and four to-go (and I gave two of them away).

Surprisingly, we barely made a dent in the 70,000 dogs sold last weekend. But we tried.

And I can’t wait to join my fellow fans for another afternoon of gluttony and debauchery. After that, we’ll watch the race.


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