Let's go racing!


Waaaaaay back in January or February of this year, one of my coworkers (and friends), Marty, suggested that a small group of us take a vacation to Bristol, TN, so that we could watch one of the NASCAR circuit's most infamous night races - the Bristol 500.

At the time, it sounded like a great idea. I mean, the weather was likely bordering between awful and unbearable, so the thought of spending a balmy August weekend deep in the heart of Tennessee sounded heavenly.

Think about it - 43 cars racing 500 laps on a half-mile track, at night, surrounded by 160,000 fans (many of whom were likely kin to this family):


I couldn't sign-up fast enough. I was in. Our group was assembled, and ultimately consisted of Marty (head organizer, PMP, HOF (Hall Of Famer)), Brian (another coworker and friend, also a PMP), and Jamie (Marty and Brian's friend, who also quickly became my friend).

Marty did a masterful job of handling the logistics for the trip. From securing the campsite, to acquiring excellent tickets, to purchasing rations, to facilitating our project vacation meetings - he was on top of it. Some might argue it's the hardest he's worked in quite some time, but I'm not here to pass judgement.

Thursday, August 22, 2013
Agenda: load-up and drive to Knoxville, TN

Before we knew it, August was upon us, and we were ready to drive down to Bristol, TN. The four of us met at precisely 5:45am at Brian's house; he had the van (which we lovingly referred to as "Butane Blue" or "Ole Blue") packed and set to go.


Here's the crew, just seconds before we were "AIS" (@ss in seat) at 5:57am. Marty's schedule had us departing from Madison by no later than 6:00am. So far, so good.

Pictured from left to right: Steve, Brian, Marty, Jamie

We hit the road and immediately encountered our first glitch. 'Ole Blue's air conditioning had given up the ghost a few weeks prior. Despite attempts by Brian to revive the A/C, it just wasn't meant to be. Oh well, it's not like it was 100F outside... no sir, it was only 95F.

Marty's plans called for us to drive approximately 10 hours to Knoxville, Tennessee, where we would spend the night at a Holiday Inn Express, rest comfortably, and shower prior to the weekend's events. It was a call of sheer genius. The ride was uneventful, but after 10 hours spent marinading in the van, the offer of a good shower and comfy bed was quite pleasing.

Thank's to Jamie's good fortune and generosity (he recently sold an old motorcycle), he offered to cover our hotel and gas expenses. Huge thanks to him for the offer and for the pleasant surprise. It really cut down on our total trip expense!

Upon arrival to the Holiday Inn, we partook in the first of what would be many adult beverages. Marty and Brian have a thing for "nostalgic" beers... I'd prefer a good micro brew, but when in Rome...


After a quick clean-up, we ventured into town in search of dinner. We eventually made our way to an area of town known as "Gay Street," which traverses the center of town and was originally established in the 1790s. It's surrounded by huge office buildings, boutique shops, and really nice restaurants.

Here's the crew standing in the middle of the street; you can see the Tennessee sign in the background if you look closely.


We eventually found a brew pub that served primarily Mexican food; we enjoyed a solid dinner and some decent micro brews. It felt good to sit in the A/C while conversing and imbibing with my friends. After dinner, we made our way back to the hotel, but not before (literally) stumbling on this vintage Mini Cooper.


The thing was pristine, but oh so tiny. Those wheels couldn't have been much bigger than lawnmower wheels... and with a 10" rim, they probably weren't. We would later see it driving around downtown - the steering wheel was even on the wrong (right) side of the car!

Having seen our fair share of Knoxville, we headed back to the hotel where we took the opportunity to enjoy a few more vintage brews while sitting on an outdoor picnic table near the pool. We also took advantage of the hotel's ice machine; we filled our 5-foot long cooler full of free ice... Unfortunately, the cooler was a bit burried in the van, so here's a photo of Brian doing his part to "Tetris" all of our goods back into the van.


We called it a night, and I slept like the dead. Holy cats... I think my eyes were shut before my head hit the pillow. The next morning came, and Marty's schedule called for us to assemble in the lobby at 7:00am for breakfast, followed by AIS for Bristol by 8:00am.

Friday, August 23, 2013: Knoxville, TN to Bristol, TN
Agenda: drive to campsite, set-up, watch practice, watch the Nationwide 250 race

Not only is Marty a fan of vintage brews, he's also quite fond of powered eggs, instant gravy, and freezer biscuits. :-) He insisted we try the complimentary breakfast.


In all honesty, the breakfast wasn't bad, even if we did witness an employee adding water to the eggs and microwaving everything before setting it out in the case. Marty paid our hotel tab and before we knew it, we were on the way to Bristol, baby!

After a few short hours in 'ole Blue, we started to catch hints that we were nearing the race. Ok... so, maybe they weren't hints - the route to the track was well-marked.


Prior to reaching the campsite, we decided to make one last pit-stop at a local gas station. While there, Brian and I made small-talk with the attendant, who asked if we were heading to the race, to which we responded, "Indeed!"

As we were chatting, Brian spied a mini-poster of his favorite driver, Dale Earnhardt, Jr and asked if he could take one. The attendant said, "Sure can! Oh, and if you like that one, we've got some over here that are exactly the same, except different."

Brian and I looked at each other, puzzled by the "exactly the same, but different" comment and then followed her over to find these:


(For you non-racing fans, Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr fans aren't really anywhere near "the same" - in fact, they're not really even compatible with one another...)

Here's Brian sporting his prized "Junior" poster (and creepy mustache):


Posters in hand, fuel in the tank, and a few last minute sodas/Gatorades later, we were back on the road, heading for our campsite. Marty had superb directions - we had no trouble finding "the promised land" (or as it's more commonly known as, Mickey Baker's Hilltop Campsite).


The check-in process was interesting to say the least. I'll spare you the gory details, but we were eventually told to pick any spot we liked. After some careful consideration, we opted for the only spot that had shade trees. While our chosen spot wasn't exactly level, we felt the shade would be more beneficial than a level camping site.

Brian fired-up 'ole Blue and made his way over to our site.


With our site picked-out and the van in place, it was time for our first official Bristol beverage. Vintage brews would once again be the course du jour.

From left to right: Steve, Brian, Marty, Jamie

With cold ones cracked, it was time to go about setting-up the site. Brian and Jamie brought tents; I only had to bring my own personal items. Here's Brian setting-up his monster tent (it had two rooms!); you can see Marty and Jamie setting-up their meager tent in the background:


It didn't take too long for us to get the site set-up, and once ready, it was quite palatial. Mickey didn't really care how much space people consumed, so we took full advantage. Here's a view of our completed site, as seen from lower in the campground.


We had a little bit of time to kill, so we sat around the camp site and pondered the weekend's events. One of our camp neighbors came over and introduced himself as Joe. Joe was a long-haul trucker who made his home in Indianapolis. He also told us not to worry if we found him passed-out and lying in his truck bed - apparently it was normal, and we shouldn't be alarmed. I guess when you walk around 24/7 with a 32oz glass of pure rum in hand, odd things are bound to happen (rum was Joe's drink of choice).


Joe was actually a super friendly guy, and it was nice chatting with him and his family. They made us feel welcomed and comfortable; in fact, the entire campground was filled with genuine and wonderful people. Random folks would regularly swing by, usually on golf carts, to say hi and to make small talk with us. If the NASCAR community is anything, they're definitely friendly and personable. Here's a crew on their golf carts as they stopped-by to chat.


One of the guys who made very frequent stops to our site was known as "The Mayor" - apparently he owned part of the campgrounds (along with Mickey Baker). He was obviously a retired gentleman; he'd stop by and say, "Just checking in, you boys need anything?" and then wouldn't say much else. We tried to make conversation with him, but he usually didn't answer, or when he did, he'd just give us a one-word reply. Odd fellow, but hey, these were his grounds, so I guess he can do whatever he'd like to do.


We decided to take a stroll over to the track so that we could get an idea/feel for the lay of the land, as well as to pick-up our headsets (we rented headsets so that we could listen-in to the pit-to-driver chatter as well as the track officials and the radio broadcast).

The Sprint Cup drivers were nearing the end of their practice; not many people were watching, but these photos should give you an idea for the size of the facility. Keep in mind the track is only a half-mile in circumference... that's the same size as the local Madison International Speedway track. Only this track seats 160,000 people.






Look at how steep the seating is; the seats are nearly vertical in alignment.


Practice ended, and we set about roaming the track grounds. There were tons of vendors set-up; everyone from Jack Daniel's to local Moonshine companies (some of which had some wickedly awesome show cars set-up) to team sponsors to food carts to general vendors - you name it, they probably had it there.

The Jack Daniel's booth was impressive, because it had a huge music stage, tons of merchandising, a full bar, and a custom barrel shop, where you could purchase your very own barrel of JD and have it branded accordingly.


As we continued to stroll the grounds, we spied an Ingersoll Rand booth that offered a pit crew challenge. They had the front-half of a race car set-up and the challenge required you to use one of their pneumatic impact wrenches to remove and install 5 lug nuts as fast as possible (essentially simulating a tire change during a pit stop).

Having been a real-life pit crew member for my friend Dan, and having worked as a mechanic for a number of years, I just had to give this a try.


I completed the challenge in 2.81 seconds. The record was 2.65 seconds. Not bad, but definitely not good enough for me to quit my job as a project manager and tour the NASCAR circuit.

Before heading back to camp, we stopped to grab a bite to eat. Healthy options were far and few between... here are a few of the options we considered:



After consulting with our cardiologists, Marty, Brian, and I opted for pork sandwiches:


Jamie, who's arteries are in much better condition than ours, went with "butt fries" - french fries, covered in shredded pork, nacho cheese, scallions, bacon, and sour cream. He looks happy with his decision:


We made our way back to camp to rest and relax for a bit before the Nationwide 250. The Nationwide series is the "junior" league to the Sprint Cup. It's composed primarily of the same drivers, however the cars a bit less powerful and a bit more restricted in terms of what they can and can't do to them. It's still good racing; it's just not as "big" as the Sprint Cup series is.

I had brought along my hammock and decided to take a quick break, while enjoying the views of the campground.


As I sat in my hammock, the rest of the group enjoyed their camp chairs and our site. I'm telling you, we had the best set-up of any of the tent campers there. We were definitely "a big deal."


Before we knew it, it was time to load-up and make our way to the Nationwide race. Perhaps the most baffling part of this entire NASCAR business model is that they allow you to carry-in anything you'd like for food and drink, provided it fits into a cooler that meets certain size requirements. Can you imagine an NFL event allowing you to carry-in beer, wine, and food? It's crazy.

Here I am, loaded up and ready to hit the track. Can you believe I didn't get my butt kicked at this event? Not really sure I "looked the part" of a true fan.


I mentioned we were about a mile from the track; the facility is absolutely huge despite the small size of the actual track. Here are Jamie and Marty looking at the facility; Marty is wearing his infamous "Creepy Darryl (Waltrip)" t-shirt to commemorate the evening.


We had our headsets, our cooler, and some premium seats - Marty scored us a great spot, near the start/finish line, in the "Allison Terrace" with seats that included seat backs. It was really quite nice to have the reserved seats, seat backs, and cup holders. Here's our vantage point; you can tell there weren't nearly as many people at the Nationwide race. Look at all of those haulers, perfectly lined-up and serving as garages for each of the teams.


The actual race was quite uneventful. I believe there was one crash near the end of the race. Kyle Busch lead most of the race and won it quite handily, much to the displeasure of nearly all of the fans (he's not very well liked). With the race over, we made our way back to the campground, where we discovered Mickey had hired someone do produce karaoke for the campers.

Karaoke stage in the foreground; the track is lit-up in the background and would stay lit-up all night.

We were more-or-less settled-in to our campsite; we had a nice fire going and were comfy in our chairs, as seen here:


However, we couldn't help but notice one particular character who seemed to be having a really good time... he had this ridiculous Dr. Seuss-style hat, LED glasses, a flashing drink cup, and a crazy t-shirt, and he kept singing fun karaoke songs... so, we made our way down to the crowd. Here's the guy up on stage (to the right), singing "Can't Touch This" by MC Hammer.


For reasons that remain a mystery to me, Brian and Jamie started chatting with the aforementioned character, only to discover that he and his wife were from Pine Bluff, Wisconsin, and they were there with their friends who were from Verona, WI. What a small world!

We wound-up talking and drinking with them for a bit; they invited us to their campsite, which they had configured as a mini compound... all of them had camp trailers, which were aligned in a circle to form their own little community. Before we knew it, we were friends with everyone, and we were getting so friendly that one couple (from Pawlick, Kentucky) broke out their homemade moonshine and offered us all a sip.

Here's Brian (on the right) with Ben (on the left), and Ben's moonshine (in genuine Mason jar). This was just after a sip of that 'shine.


We had a good time with those folks, but had to call it an early night. I believe they were still going strong well after 2:00am... we made our way back to the camp site, tucked ourselves in, and semi-slept until sunrise.

Saturday, August 24, 2013
Agenda: eat, shower, venture, watch the Sprint Cup race

Morning arrived far too early; everything was covered in dew. We peeled ourselves out of our sleeping bags and set about making some breakfast. First up was a quick check on Joe (he wasn't sleeping in his truck bed, but was otherwise OK), followed by making some coffee... I had brought along my camp stove and portable French press. Marty previously poked fun at me for bringing a French press, but after a hot cup of fresh coffee, all ribbing stopped.

With coffees in hand, I fired-up some breakfast - thick cut bacon, scrambled eggs, and potatoes O'Brien.


With our bellies full, it was time for a quick shower. Marty had purchased four showers on our behalf; the campground had a shower trailer, which was quite possibly the most ingenious thing I've ever seen.

Picture a portable semi-trailer, with two doors on either side (one for men, one for women). Each "side" of the trailer had five full-sized (just like you'd use at home) showers, with plenty of hot water and really good water pressure. Here's the outside of the shower trailer:


The showers were so awesome; it was nice to rinse away the film of sweat, racing fuel fumes, tire dust, and camp fire smoke. Definitely worth the $5 cost of admission, and in hindsight, I should've sprung for a few extras. I'll make note for next year.

Brian, Jamie and I decided to venture back down to the track area to browse the various vendors. Marty opted to stay at the campsite. Upon our return, we learned that he had made good friends with another camp neighbor, but more on that in a bit.

The vendor area was huge, diverse, and entertaining. We could've purchased any number of things... here's a brief photo overview of a few of the things we encountered along the way:





I bought a sleeveless t-shirt from a Moonshine vendor. I figured it wouldn't be right to leave Tennessee without at least one sleeveless t-shirt in my possession. I also couldn't pass-up an opportunity to take a picture with the vendor - I mean, she was only slightly cute. :-) And as cute as he is, I'm baffled as to how Brian eeked his way into my photo...


Brian and I sampled the caramel moonshine; while extremely strong, it wasn't bad. Not sure that I'd seek it out in the future, but it was worth a free taste.

Semi-sunburned and slightly weary, we made our way back to the campsite, where Jamie fired-up his gas-powered blender and fixed us some margaritas. Jamie made the blender from an old weed whacker.


As previously mentioned, while we were out on our adventures, Marty was becoming fast-friends with one of our neighbors. While we never did catch his real name, we did discover that he was a huge fan of NASCAR driver Kevin Harvick. So, we referred to him simply as "Harvick."

Harvick hailed from Virginia and was a died-in-the-wool NASCAR fan. He chain-smoked Marlboro reds, while drinking a never-ending supply of Budweiser. He earned his living installing septic and residential sewer systems. He was extremely nice, a bit quirky, and definitely "set in his beliefs" about the current presidential administration, gun ownership rights, patriotism, and NASCAR. Here's Harvick with our group.


Shocker #1: yep, I've got me some tattoos. Long story.
Shocker #2: yep, that's a can of Bud in Harvick's hand.

In honor of the race, Marty broke out his finest pair of jorts, along with his best Jeff Gordon AARP t-shirt (Marty is nearing that age). Here he is, modeling the outfit while pointing out the excellent fray on near his knee.


We headed out for the race a bit early; Harvick, along with his friend and his "old lady" were making a fine dinner that consisted of a can of Beanie Weenies and ring bologna. Quite honestly, it looked and smelled rather fantastic. Our crew had some beer brats, for comparison.

As we neared the track, it became more evident that the crowd for this race would be much larger than it was for the Nationwide race. Here's one of the parking lots as we approached:


We made our way to our seats and watched the pre-race ceremonies, which included a flyover with about 10 P-51 fighter planes, as well as a couple of parachuters who flew in with flags attached to them. It was super cool to watch.



We had our same seats from the previous race, so our vantage point was perfect. Here's the group, headsets in place, about to watch the race.


Those radios were worth their weight in gold. We could scan all of the driver's frequencies and listen to whichever team we wanted to. We could also listen to the NASCAR officials or the radio broadcast of the race. I feel bad for anyone who attends one of these races and doesn't rent a headset - it really adds to the experience.

The race was largely uneventful; there weren't too many wrecks. Only one team really struggled, and it was entertaining to listen to the crew chief yell at his team to get their act together. We could see the team's pit stall quite clearly from our seats, so we had a front-row view of all of the goings on.

We also got to see a bit of a confrontation in the pits. Two drivers had collided, and one of them decided to pay a visit to the other's pit stall during the race. Here are the two teams engaging in what certainly had to be some spirited conversation.


Matt Kenseth (from Cambridge, Wisconsin) managed to hold off a very hard-charging Kasey Kahne and win the race, which made me quite happy, as I had picked him to win. I pocketed $60 from Jamie, Brian, and Marty thanks to Mr. Kenseth's efforts.

Picture courtesy of Twitter

As soon as the race ended, there were fireworks on display - the track lit-off fireworks for a few minutes, and we watched them while allowing the crowd to clear out. The fireworks weren't particularly impressive, but it was a nice finishing touch.


Here's the sea of people as we left the track:


On our way back to the camp site, we returned our headsets to the Racing Electronics trailer; we also purchased a $10 Papa Johns pizza from a roadside vendor. That pizza hit the spot after a full evening of racing excitement.

Once back at the campsite, we attempted to sleep... however, a rogue group of campers had decided to conduct their own karaoke performance - only this one was terrible and continued well past 3:00am. We didn't get much sleep that night... thankfully, we'd be leaving the next morning.

Sunday, August 25, 2013
Agenda: pack-up camp, drive to home

We woke-up quite early and began tearing down our beloved camp site. Tear down went very smoothly.


Jamie and Marty donated the gas powered blender to one of our fellow campers. We figured they could make better use of it than we would. As they carried away the blender, we encountered our only snag of the weekend - 'ole Blue wouldn't start. He had a dead battery, despite our starting him and charging the battery at various times throughout the weekend.

Marty and Jamie set out on foot to find someone with jumper cables and a vehicle; what better place to find those things than at a NASCAR campground, right? Well, apparently Marty spotted a gentleman stirring about at one of the campsites, and parked in close proximity was a large Dodge truck. Marty approached and asked, "Hey buddy - can you give us a hand? Our van has a dead battery and we're hoping you might have some jumper cables?"

The guy turned around and said, "Sure thing, friend! Just a second," and that's when Marty's jaw dropped. The guy only had one arm. Marty later said that he bit his tongue and didn't say, "Whoops, saw you already did."

The guy was super helpful; he was over to our site in a matter of minutes, and I set about getting the jumper cables connected.


With 'Ole Blue up and running, we hit the road for our return trip. Thanks to a hot tip from one of our seat mates at the Sprint Cup race, we took a shortcut through Kentucky. The shortcut would shave more than an hour from our return trip. It also provided an endless source of entertainment and bewilderment. Along the way, we quite honestly saw the following things:

- An impromptu, roadside sale for fighting roosters (several vehicles parked alongside the highway, with roosters in cages, and signs indicating they were for sale)

- Freshly fabricated and painted Sambo statues being offered for sale. Sad, but true story.

- A place called "Sammy's Implement and Farm Equipment Sales & Service" that had a vinyl banner hanging from the awning that read, "Now renting bridal gowns and tuxedos"

Oh, Kentucky... you never disappoint.

We made the return trip of 800-miles in just a tad over 12-hours. We marinaded in the non-air conditioned van the entire way. ;-)

Our entire weekend netted us 1,641 miles of seat time, as evidenced by the trip meter on 'Ole Blue:


With the crew safely back in Madison, we unpacked the van, posed for a final photo, and bid each other farewell for the weekend. It was definitely an excellent trip - one that I'll never forget, one that I'll fondly remember, and one that I'll look forward to repeating in the future.

Special thanks to Marty for coordinating and planning, to Brian for supplying the vehicle, and to Jamie for donating the hotel rooms and fuel. You guys are great!

A little weary from the road, but none the worse for wear.

For the full photo album (no captions), click here.

Additional thanks to Brian and Jamie for sharing their photos with me, many of which you see in this post and in the album.

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This page contains a single entry by Steve published on September 10, 2013 12:27 PM.

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