NASCAR, Motorhomes, and A Trip Down Memory Lane
By Lazelle Jones
The first NASCAR race I ever attended was the Motor Trend 500, on February 1, 1969, at Riverside International Raceway, a road course located just east of Pomona, California, site of FMCA’s 79th International Convention. It was there that I first experienced the speed, sound, and excitement of stock car racing. It’s also where I realized the connection between NASCAR and motorhoming.
Back then, a race such as the one in Riverside would attract only 15,000 to 20,000 diehard fans, yet a whole host of early production motorhomes and home-built conversions could be seen lining the track’s fences. Today the number of fans who come to enjoy a Saturday night or Sunday Cup event can easily number 150,000-plus, and the infield and camping areas that surround the speedways routinely welcome thousands of RVs.
While fans of the sport realized the convenience of spending race weekends in a recreation vehicle, it took awhile for the drivers and teams to catch on. There’s been some debate as to which competitor first came up with the idea to bring a motorhome to the speedway. Some say it was Mark Martin, who began showing up at the track in a Holiday Rambler early in his career. Others point to Maurice Petty, Richard Petty’s brother and engine builder for Petty Enterprises. Maurice announced he would bring a motorhome to the track to avoid the traffic and growing crowds the team would encounter when going out to eat or while traveling back and forth to their motel. Richard Petty admitted that he first laughed at the idea, but within six months he began bringing his own coach to the speedway. Now, nearly every driver, crew chief, and owner has a motorhome at the track that they can relax in when not on the track.
Nearly 40 years have passed since my first NASCAR event. Reflecting back on the experience and how much I enjoy watching NASCAR today, I called up my friend Bob Murphy, who had dragged me kicking and screaming to that first race. We saw Richard Petty, who led 103 of 186 laps, win that event, with A.J. Foyt finishing second and David Pearson coming home in third. Reminiscing about this by telephone, Bob and I decided it was time to execute a trip down memory lane that we jokingly called our “Final Farewell Tour.” Since Riverside has been gone for years, replaced by residential and retail developments, we set our sights on the October 2007 Nextel Cup race at Atlanta Motor Speedway. And what an awesome experience it proved to be.
Looking back, we didn’t do much to prepare for our first race in 1969. We loaded a cooler with food and beverages, stuck it in the back of a 1966 Mustang, and left home at 4:00 a.m. so we could get to the track in time to see the green flag drop.
This time our experience was significantly different. We arrived in a 45-foot H3-45 Vantare’ coach conversion produced by Featherlite Luxury Coaches. With the help of Featherlite, the “official coach” of NASCAR, we were issued passes for the drivers’ motorhome compound at Atlanta Motor Speedway, giving us parking privileges just down the row from Tony Stewart, Jimmie Johnson, and Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Instead of peering through a chain-link fence surrounding the garage area, hoping to get a glimpse of the drivers as we had done at Riverside, we were right in the middle of it all. Jeff Burton, who is having a new quad-slideout Featherlite built for him, stopped by our coach to see the appointments, systems, and design features now available. We walked through the compound and talked with Ricky Rudd, one of the nicest individuals this sport will ever know. Rudd was competing in his final season, and the race on October 28 would be his last at Atlanta. We thanked him for all the memories.
We also chatted with Dale Jarrett and took some photos of him inside his Vantare’ following practice. Next year he will run a limited schedule while he transitions into his new career as a NASCAR TV broadcaster. And, of course, we had to talk to the sport’s all-time winningest driver and greatest ambassador, the “King,” Richard Petty. With the support of his wife, Linda, Petty has taken motorsports and NASCAR into another universe. Since he won the first race I ever saw in person, I wanted to close this nostalgic loop by saying thank-you.
We found Tony Stewart, known to his friends as “Smoke,” relaxing in his coach, watching a NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series race while enjoying the company of his two cats. That’s right. This spirited type A personality, who earns his living racing at speeds of up to 200 mph and backs down to no one, brings his two Siamese cats to the speedways in his coach. He even has a floor-to-ceiling cat tree so they have a place to climb.
The morning before the first practice, we watched as a parade of rental cars with blacked-out windows arrived in the compound carrying the Nextel Cup drivers. It was like a who’s who in motorsports. As is the case at most tracks, the drivers flew in by jet, landed at a nearby airfield, and were shuttled to the compound where their coaches awaited them. We watched Casey Mears, along with Jimmie Johnson and his wife, Chandra, arrive together and then quickly disappear into their private motor coaches. We saw Kasey Kahne busy signing autographs.
Watching the parade of transporters arrive is like seeing the circus come to town. These glistening tractor-trailers, with the drivers’ names and sponsor logos splashed in high-gloss paint across the sides, carry the race cars, extra parts, tools, and mobile machine shops to each race. According to Richard Petty, this is one of the big changes from the “early days” when he would load a race car onto a flatbed trailer and tow it to the track; drive in the race; and then haul everything back to North Carolina.
From the grandstand roof, high above the racing surface, the spotters watch their cars on the track and communicate by radio with their drivers. We wanted to see this, for there was no such thing at Riverside. These guys are the drivers’ eyes from on high and continually feed information to them. For example, after a wreck, when the track is clouded by smoke and dust, they can tell their driver where to go to avoid the trouble. We spotted icon Roger Penske, famed owner of both NASCAR and Indy Car teams, on the roof acting as the spotter for Kurt Busch and Ryan Newman. Many years ago he also had competed at the old Riverside International Raceway. It seemed that wherever we turned, the past and the present came together.
When asked what has made NASCAR the success it is today, most pundits and drivers agree that it is the fans. The enthusiasm for racing has been around since NASCAR was founded nearly 60 years ago. Take a walk through any speedway’s RV campgrounds and you’ll find families and groups of friends enjoying a weekend at the races. And among the thousands of RVs that converge on the tracks, you can still see the old school buses that at one time or another were converted specifically to bring fans to the races parked right alongside the nicest luxury coaches. Decked out with the numbers and names of their favorite drivers, the unfurled banners, flags, and pennants blowing in the wind are reminiscent of a guidon being presented by an infantry platoon. Fun and camaraderie are everywhere.
When and how this NASCAR phenomenon exploded and took on a life of its own is an interesting story. Many people point to the 1979 Daytona 500. That was the first-ever NASCAR race televised live, from beginning to end, on national TV. On that February day, a blizzard gripped much of the East Coast. Bad weather there and across other parts of the country kept people inside watching television, so many tuned to the broadcast.
On the final lap of the hotly contested race, the first- and second-place cars of Donnie Allison and Cale Yarborough collided while heading down the backstretch and into turn three, sending each into the wall and then back down to the grass apron around the bottom of the track. Richard Petty, who was running a distant third at the time of the accident, took the checkered flag. But during his victory lap, the cameras cut away from the winner to show Allison, who was joined by his brother, Bobby, and Yarborough embroiled in a fistfight. It is believed that at that moment NASCAR captured the imagination of the public. Since then, fans across North America have embraced the sport as their own.
Our weekend in Atlanta culminated with Jimmie Johnson winning the Pep Boys Auto 500, the second of four straight victories he posted during his end-of-the-season run to capture the 2007 NASCAR Nextel Cup Championship, his second title in as many years.
While the 2007 season was exciting, it is history now. The scoreboard has been wiped clean and the points have been reset to zero. The Daytona 500, slated for February 17, 2008, will be the start of a new season for each driver hoping to walk away with the championship title. And you can be sure I’ll be watching.
Start Your Engines
NASCAR’s premier racing series, which has been called the Strictly Stock Division (1949), the Grand National Series (1950-1971), the Winston Cup Series (1972-2003), and the Nextel Cup Series (2004-2007), will undergo another name change in 2008 as it becomes the Sprint Cup Series.
The Sprint Cup Series season includes 36 point-scoring races competed at racetracks throughout the United States. Drivers compete during the first 26 races to qualify for one of 12 positions in the Chase for the Sprint Cup. During the final 10 races, these top 12 drivers will battle for the Sprint Cup championship.
Favorites to win the 2008 title include two-time defending champion Jimmie Johnson; four-time winner Jeff Gordon; two-time champ Tony Stewart and his teammates Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin; past champions Kurt Busch (2004) and Matt Kenseth (2003); up-and-comers Carl Edwards, Martin Truex Jr., and Clint Bowyer; and Dale Earnhardt Jr., who will begin his first season driving the #88 car for Rick Hendrick Racing.
The 2008 schedule kicks off with the Daytona 500 on February 17, 2008, and culminates back in Florida at the Homestead-Miami Speedway on November 16, 2008. For a complete schedule and more information about NASCAR racing, visit www.nascar.com.
“” Doug Uhlenbrock, Associate Editor