I think this is the hardest UCAP I've ever had to write. Dale Earnhardt was my favorite NASCAR driver, and his passing has changed NASCAR for me. Don't get me wrong -- I'm still a fan, and will continue to watch and attend races as always. But it will never be quite the same. At every corner there is a reminder of what was and what might have been. While watching a race, I will catch a glimpse of a black car out of the corner of my eye, and my first thought is, "Earnhardt!", and then I'm brought back to reality by the realization that he is gone and the car I saw is someone else. I've basically had the wind knocked out of me, and so I approach this UCAP with a lesser enthusiasm than I have in the past. As a result, I don't have nearly as many great photos as in previous years, and for that I apologize. That said ...
I don't know how things work in other NASCAR markets, but in the four preceding years, there was always this dramatic influx of NASCAR related events just a few weeks before the race. Radio promotions, show cars, driver appearances, you name it -- there was always something going on somewhere. Maybe the new has worn off, I don't know, but it just doesn't seem like there were as many opportunities this year. Yes, there were a few driver appearances at Malibu Speed Zone and a few other places, but they didn't seem to be as well promoted, and the radio and TV stations didn't seem nearly as gung-ho as they had been before.
We were broke when the tickets went onsale last November, and by the time we has a few extra $$$, both the track and Ticket Master claimed to be sold out (except for back stretch seats). After last year, we swore that we would never watch the race from the infield again (unless we were on top of a motorhome, of course). We have friends who've sat on the back stretch, and they had nothing good too say about it, so we knew we didn't want to sit there. That started a frantic search for seats, and we wound up buying them through a ticket agent (I think scalper would be a better word) at $160 a pop for $95 seats. On the up-side, they appeared to be in a great spot from which to watch the race. Judging by the charts, we thought we would have both a decent view straight down pit road and could see the entire track. Of course, about two weeks after we bought the tickets, the track wound up with a few more at the original $95 price tag, but we were determined not to miss the race because we waited too long and couldn't get tickets. Lesson learned: Start saving now for next year's tickets!
Earlier this year, TNN announced that they would be closing their chain of NASCAR Thunder stores. This was a real bummer for us, because it's a regular on the list of places to visit when Mom comes to town. We stopped by the store about three weeks before the race, and there was almost nothing left. Just a few Bobby Labonte items (I'm sure they had tons in stock since he was last year's champ). They were even selling the FIXTURES! TNN claims that they were selling the stores because they were in conflict with the network's new POP image. Mom and I wondered if they even tried to sell the stores -- surely someone would be interested in buying them. I'd think it would be a great investment. There's nothing else like it except the gift shop at the track, and the store was always busy (it probably would have done even better business if it had been located in a more central location instead of a distant mall at the outer fringe of suburbia.
Mom came to town Wednesday night, and we spent Thursday running errands with only a brief stop at the track to pick up our infield passes. The lines at the counter were long, and we were dismayed to find that instead of a paper ticket we could put in our nifty credentials holders, the track issued neon green wrist bands. I gotta get my gripe in here. I hate these things. Not only are they ugly and irritating, but you can't take them off without destroying them (forget about looking nice when you go out to that fancy restaurant for dinner!), they leave a stupid little tan line, and now I don't even have a ticket to put in the scrapbook for this year.
I swear, one of these years I will get to the track in time to get pictures of the haulers going in! I don't know why, but we plan this every year, and every year something happens that keeps me from going. This year was no different. Our original plan called for us to head out at about 5:00 AM, get some pictures of the haulers, get some pictures of the crews waiting for the garage to open, and then hang around in the infield until practice and qualifying. Unfortunately, Mark had an early morning meeting and I had to hang around and take our son to school. Also, the law says I must have license tags on all my motor vehicles, and they were about to expire. Not willing to pay the extra $5 late fee, and unable to get someone else to take the boy to school, I sent Mom out to the track without me.
Mom didn't take any still photos of the haulers, just video. She came back to get me a few hours later, and we went back to the track. We headed for our usual parking space near the helicopter pads, but found that once again, it was full of campers. This year, nearly a third of the parking at the northwest end of the track was reserved for "Employee Camping". The only lots open to cars were the west parking lots (front stretch), half of which is paved and reserved for VIPs. Most of the gates to these parking lots were locked, and cars were forced through a single open gate. In addition, all the traffic was being funneled into a single lane in each direction. At the same time, people who were camping were getting in their cars and driving to the parking lots. I swear, I can't imagine any track having worse traffic conditions than Texas. If there are four traffic lanes around the track and uncounted acres of parking, why in the world do they close it all off?
We parked in the mud (nothing new there!) and spent some time walking up and down Vendor Alley. Mom spotted a Rusty Wallace Miller Lite jacket (Chase Authentic) at one of Rusty's trailers for just $50! Even though she already had one Rusty Wallace jacket, she couldn't pass up a deal like that. All I wanted to know was why the things I want to buy never come cheap like that?!
I don't think I've ever seen that many people at Texas qualifying. There were something like 70,000 people there on Friday. We got decent seats a few sections left of the start finish line, grabbed some Domino's pizza, and sat back to enjoy the show. Unfortunately, we were downwind from the worst smelling cigar I've ever known. Don't get me wrong, smoke doesn't bother me. I smoked for many years, hubby smokes an occasional cigar, and I've even smoked a few myself, but this thing STANK. Lordy it was BAD! And it was BIG so it lasted all day long (or at least it seemed that way, lol).
About the biggest point of interest in practice and qualifying was Dale Earnhardt, Jr. Most of the other drivers would get an occasional "yeah!" when they came out onto pit road, but the mere sight of Junior's car had the stands in an uproar. I don't think I've heard them cheer for any other driver quite as loud (except maybe Dale Earnhardt, and you know a good half of that was boos). I think the next runner up was Kevin Harvick. And I don't think I've EVER seen as many Dale Earnhardt, Dale Jr., and Kevin Harvick hats, t-shirts, etc. Seemed like a good 75% of the fans were wearing SOMETHING that had to do with Dale Earnhardt. Then, when Junior took the pole, the crowd was so deafening that I thought the grandstands might fall down!
We had partly cloudy weather all day. I tried to compensate with a medium speed film, but the extremes between sun and shade were so bad that few of my photos were usable at all. The only one from qualifying that turned out at all was this one of Rusty (which ain't great).
Mom was taking pictures, too, but we didn't find out until later that something was wrong with her camera, and not one of her pictures turned out. She had something like four blank rolls of film (what is it with the camera problems?!). I swear, I'm going to toss all my cameras and go buy a digital. I swore I would never give up my SLR, but I've had problems with it at every single race for the last five years (it works fine the rest of the time!).
One of the highlights for me was signing Dale Earnhardt's merchandise trailer. You can't imagine what it's like to stand before those trailers and see all the writing on them. I know it looks neat on TV and in pictures, but it really is awe-inspiring to see in person. Any way, I signed my little John Hancock on the left side near the rear, kind of low (right near the back wheel and the rear lights).
Here's a photo of the back end of the one I signed. There aren't many sigs on the back of this one, but the sides of the trailer are almost completely solid.
As we were leaving the track, we noticed that traffic was already backing up far worse than it had in previous years. So we decided to time ourselves. It took us 54 minutes from the moment we pulled out of our parking space until we pulled out onto I-35W on the other side of the track. Of course, I'm sure most of the slow down was the direct result of the police directing traffic in a single (sometimes double) lane of traffic all the way around the track to the opposite side. Nearly an hour, and this was just Pole Day!
Oh, and for anyone who's curious about Harmmonson Road (on the north end of the track), forget it. We followed a long line of cars down it, thinking it would come out on F.M. 1171 near the Interstate. Not so. It jigs, it jags, turns to dirt, and a branch of it deadends at some industrial plant not far from where we wanted to go. However, if you have a 4x4 and know how to drive in the mud, one of the jigs will eventually let you out on F. M. 407 north of the track (that is, if you can convince the traffic cops to let you go that way).
Saturday was a truly bizarre day. Our original plan called for Mom and me to rise early and head to the track. We wanted to walk around the infield for a while, watch a little of Winston Cup Happy Hour, and then go stand in line for Rusty's autograph. Unfortunately, during one of Mom's forays out to the car to rearrange the trunk, she accidentally locked her keys in the trunk. The spare door key she had stashed away didn't work (we later figured out that it belonged to one of their other vehicles!). We wound up getting my gracious neighbor (an Earnhardt fan!) to come over and bail us out. After what seemed like hours, he managed to get a coat hanger through the crack in the door and trip the door lock. I promised him a steak dinner for his efforts.
Since we got off to such a late start, we hit traffic coming in for the Busch race, and missed the last Winston Cup practice. We decided to find the vendor trailer where Rusty would be signing autographs and wait our turn. It didn't take us long to find the long line that already extended behind the row of trailers, up the hill to the fence around the track, and along it for some length. Mom got in line while I wandered up and down looking for a port-o-john. After walking half way around the track, I discovered that they were all located in the parking area, about half way to the outer ring road. When I got back to Mom, it was lunch time and Rusty was still not at the trailer signing autographs.
I grabbed some hamburgers from a vendor down the way, and we ate them as we stood in line. We were expecting Rusty to have some post cards to sign, which is what we usually get. I like those because I can frame them and they hand all over my walls. When we got around to the front of the trailer, we saw that he didn't, so I quickly whipped off my Auto Zone hat (given to me by my good, dear friends Steven and Wally) and mom took off her denim over-shirt. The line moved along so fast, and we were trying to figure out what to get him to sign, so I didn't get many pictures until we were done. Here's a few of them.
After we'd taken a lot of pictures, we walked around to the back of the trailer, where a few other people were waiting. There were several small boys with their parents, and I was very pleased to see that someone inside the trailer came and got the kids, one at a time, and took them into the trailer to meet Rusty. I thought that was very nice. When it was time for Rusty to leave, they backed a golf cart up to the door and he climbed in. So many people were shoving things at Rusty to have them autographed that it took a while for him to get out. While he sat there, I managed this shot.
Definitely not the best pics I've ever taken, and seeing the results has strengthened my resolve to own a digital camera by next year.
After getting Rusty's autograph, there wasn't much that we really wanted to see, and we wanted to beat the Busch fans out of the parking lot, so we headed back to the car. On the way back, we stumbled upon one of those vendors who sells used tires. These tires are supposed to be authentic, and they give you a form to request the certificate which proves it. I wanted one last year, but $50 was a little more than I wanted to spend on a Dale Earnhardt tire. I decided to wait (an now I'm kicking myself). This year, the tires were just $25, so mom and I each bought one of Rusty's tires. Seemed like a good deal, and I've always wanted to make a table out of one.
Big tip for anyone who gets a tire at the track -- DON'T ROLL IT! Yes, it seems like the easy way to get it back to the car, but you'll regret it! Not taking into consideration that the tires are SOFT, we rolled them most of the way back to the car (we did carry them part of the way), and it scrubbed a lot of the soft rubber (marbles) off as well as some of the markings where they checked the tires. Don't get me wrong, they're still in good shape, still have a lot of soft rubber stuck to them, and you can still read the markings, but they just don't look as good. And since we rolled them across caliche at least part of the way, some of the rock and dirt embedded itself into the soft rubber. I washed mine with gently running water (no rubbing), but Mom let her's be.
I set the tire up in a very conspicuous spot in the living room to see how long it would take Mark and the kids to notice it. Christen (the teenager) noticed it right away. Steven (8), noticed it too, but he didn't say anything. He would just walk by it over and over again and look at it. But Mark passed by it I don't know how many times before our friend Manny finally asked where it came from. I said it was mine, I got it at the track. First words out of Mark's mouth were, "How much did you pay for that?" Don't know why he assumed I bought it. Oh, and I had always wondered whether the tire would make the den stink. I've heard that they treat some of them (the ones sold as tables on the internet) with something that keeps them from smelling. Mark had kept warning me that I didn't want one because the house would smell like the Goodyear store, but it really doesn't. Every once in a while, if you stand close to it, you can smell it, but that's all.