May 15, 2012
By Guest Columnist Cathy Elliott
You know those people who are always happy to pontificate at great length on the subject of things they know very little about?
I confess that for more than a decade, I have been one of them.
During my years as the public relations director at Darlington Raceway, it was my job to persuade fans, AKA potential customers, to exchange their hard-earned money for race tickets. I had to come up with a million reasons why they should do this, using buzzwords and catchy phrases like “history and tradition,” “home of NASCAR’s closest finish,” and my personal favorite, “When you go, you get it.”
The only problem with that was that I had never gone. All of my race experiences had been of the privileged variety, with complete access to anywhere I wanted to go and anything I wanted to do. I wanted and needed fans to support Darlington Raceway for a variety of reasons, but I had never really taken the opportunity to support her myself. I had never stepped up and put my money where my mouth and heart were. I was too busy doing my job.
That changed on Mother’s Day weekend.
It started out just business as usual. With my track-issued media credentials, I spent most of Friday morning in the infield, doing a radio show and catching up with old friends in the garage and the media center before heading home to watch qualifying and the NASCAR Nationwide Series race on TV.
But something was nagging at me. After spending most of race day as well as a hefty chunk of the previous couple of weeks talking about Danica Patrick in various stories, interviews and personal conversations, I realized it wasn’t just lip service. Deep down in my heart of hearts I really did want her to make a good showing at the Lady in Black, which of course meant that I needed to go shopping. Roughly half of you will see the logic in this.
So with a willing friend in tow, it was back to the track to buy a hat.
When you are a speedway employee or a media member you tend to have responsibilities at odd times of the day, and waiting in a long line of cars to get where you’re going is seldom an issue. But when you show up shortly before an event is scheduled to start, there is traffic. Lots of it. We moved at a snail’s pace, but we were steadily moving.
Eventually we were welcomed into the vast fan parking area – which was free, by the way – by the most cheerful attendant I have ever encountered at a sporting event. We were directed to an available spot right away, gathered up our gear, and headed for the gates. It was a bit of a trudge, but I counted it as exercise and actually enjoyed the walk. To see Darlington Raceway coming closer with every step was an impressive sight.
Our first stop was souvenir row, where all the team haulers were lined up, doing a brisk business selling jackets, koozies and T-shirts in every color of the rainbow. I found the one I was looking for and exchanged $25 of my hard-earned money for a relatively conservative-looking GoDaddy.com hat, inwardly giving thanks that the parking was free. Then I got three compliments on it in five minutes, officially making it a worthwhile investment.
From there it was off to the display area, where everyone tries to give you free stuff. My big score of the day was a little stuffed Geiko gecko, which I got just by signing up for something, although I’m not sure what it was, along with a free bag to carry him around in. People who didn’t want to participate in the sign-up deal didn’t get a gecko, but they did get one of those cardboard fans-on-a-stick. I couldn’t help but smile as I got a mental image of ministers delivering their Mother’s Day messages in crowded churches all across the Southeast on Sunday morning, being waved at by a lizard.
I ate a hot dog. Then I ate another hot dog, roughly doubling my hot dog consumption for the past five years. They were delicious.
We climbed the steps to our seats – more exercise, which kind of justified the second hot dog, right? – where I beheld the fruits of the souvenir area’s trees. Fans of feuding drivers were sitting shoulder to shoulder, friendly as could be. A lot of the shirts and hats looked brand-new, so I fit right in. (Richard Childress’ grandson Austin Dillon, who drives the No. 3 Chevy in the NNS, is going to be REALLY popular, by the way. Fashion never lies.)
When the engines fire up prior to a NASCAR race, it is a physical sensation as well as an emotional one. The cars really do sparkle under the lights. The race was close and controversial, with a popular winner in Joey Logano and a 12th-place finish for Danica. The walk back to the parking lot and the drive home passed quickly, as we rehashed the events of the day.
I have enjoyed a long relationship with Darlington Raceway. She literally introduced me to NASCAR. She has taught me how to deal with many different types of people, and has made me many friends. She has inspired me to be more organized, but has also encouraged me to be creative, and to take risks when it matters. She has made it possible for me to have the opportunity to write about all the things I learned and the people I met under her tutelage.
But nearly 20 years after I laid eyes on her for the very first time, Darlington Raceway finally got tired of messing around and heaved me over the last hurdle.
She has made me a fan.
The thoughts and ideas expressed by this writer or any other writer on Insider Racing News, are not necessarily the views of the staff and/or management of IRN.