Auto racing's fan base just keeps on growing

By Staff
Austin Bishop / EMG regional sports director
March 10, 2002
Thinking about how crazy this college basketball season has been, while fighting the traffic just outside Hampton, Ga. …
I have a sense of pride, misdirected as it may be, in being something first. Or at least before most everybody else.
I was at Atlanta Braves fan a good 20 years before it became a popular thing to be.
When you talk about the early years of the Braves most folks these days think you are discussing the early 90s and such Atlanta players as Sid Bream, Mark Lemke, Steve Avery and Terry Pendleton.
They wouldn't even know who Sonny Jackson, Earl Williams, Cecil Upshaw, Marty Perez and Bob Didier were. Nope, the Braves of the 60s and 70s unless they have names like Hank Aaron and perhaps Phil Niekro don't ring a bell at all.
I became a Carolina Panthers fan before they ever ran a play, kicked a ball or caught a pass.
This past year wasn't much to brag about, but I'm probably one of the few folks in Mississippi who can tell you who tossed the first regular season touchdown pass in Carolina's NFL history.
It was Buffalo Bills cast-off Frank Reich.
While I'm no longer an Atlanta Hawks fan, I can remember in my listening to the radio as a kid as such stars as Sweet' Lou Hudson and Pete Maravich played for what was then my favorite NBA team.
So, people who jump on the bandwagon late don't do a whole lot for me.
But I guess when it comes to NASCAR, I am one of those guys.
But don't blame me, until a couple of years ago I just didn't get it.
I was then, like a lot of people are now. I just didn't understand what people got out of watching cars run around in a circle for three hours. (Yes, I do realize it is an oval, but the unlearned still refer to it as a circle. You've heard the arguments, haven't you?)
A couple of years ago I was like those folks.
Sure, being in the business I'm in I had a certain amount of knowledge. I knew who Bill Elliott and Jeff Gordon were. I knew a little about Dale Earnhardt, even though I had no idea how massively popular he was.
Then a guy named Jason Dyess entered my life. Or actually entered the life of my two boys.
Bradley, my family's Dale Earnhardt and Junior fan, and Ryan, perhaps the biggest Steve Park fan in these parts, were turned on to auto racing through Jason, who went to church with us at the time.
My boys began going over to the home of Jason and his wife Dawn and watching the races on television.
Before you knew it, Ryan and Bradley began to show an interest in going to see a race live. Thus, began the talk of going to Talladega.
I was working at the Clarke County Tribune at the time, where I became friends with Janet Andrews, a longtime NASCAR fan. She kept telling me that If I ever went to a race I would be hooked.
I said Yeah, yeah, yeah, we'll just have to see about that.'"
So, I began to make plans to go.
Two years ago the boys and I went to the fall race at Talladega. I don't know what I expected, but it wasn't what I got.
We had tickets on the back stretch and when those 43 cars bunched together like bees on a hive came roaring off turn 2 and past the grandstands, I was in awe.
And in love.
I've been to all kinds of sporting events, but until I went to a Winston Cup event I had never covered or watched a sport that you actually paid that kind of money for a seat and then stood up for over three hours to watch.
It was truly awesome.
To top things off, that was the race in which Dale Earnhardt made his big push from way back to win the race at the end.
It turned out to be Earnhardt's last win ever, as it was tragically killed in the first race of the next season.
The following summer by Aunt invited the family to go to the July race in Daytona with here. It was the first race there following the death of Earnhardt.
We took her up on it, and as most folks now, Dale Jr. won that race. The aftermath was thrilling as Dale Jr. celebrated and a fireworks display went off, forming the shape of a big 3 in the sky.
Man, it was wild.
And then there was Talladega last year where Dale Jr. survived a big crash on the last lap to win the race his father had won the year before.
And now, that brings us to today, where I am somewhere south of Atlanta about to cast my eyes upon the Atlanta Motor Speedway for the first time.
In a few hours the MBNA 500 will begin and me and the boys will among those standing at our seats on the backstretch waiting for those thundering cars to come roaring off turn 2 for the first lap.
Two years ago I never thought I would be doing something like that.
But then again, two years ago, I was uninformed.
My dream used to be to watch baseball games in places like Tiger Stadium, Dodger Stadium and Candlestick Park.
Now my dream consists of watching races at places like Bristol, Darlington and Rockingham.
Yes, I am a latecomer when it comes to the world of auto racing. But like they say, it's better late then never.
Enjoy today's race, I know I will.

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