By Cheryl Petersen Contributing Writer
The Daily Star
---- — While some prefer to watch flowers grow, others prefer to watch cars go in circles.
An estimated 75 million people in fact are fans of drivers in the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing venture. The thrilling factor of speed reverberates through the Sprint Cup Series. Automobiles are juiced to reach speeds greater than 200 miles per hour. Drivers are challenged on courses across the nation. The diversity of courses is seen in the triangular Pocono Raceway and the complex shaped road at Watkins Glen International.
Asked why he’s a NASCAR fan, Thomas Gucwa of Delhi had one simple answer.
“I like the speed,” he said.
The Sprint Cup Series is the highest level racing series sanctioned by NASCAR. This weekend, 43 drivers and teams will fight to cross this finish line first at Pocono Raceway in Pennsylvania. They will travel the next weekend about 3½ hours to the northwest to do it again at Watkins Glen International in New York.
Gucwa, who said a friend got him interested in NASCAR about 15 years ago, has been to both raceways, and he has a clear favorite.
“I go to the Pocono Raceway every year,” said Gucwa. “I went to the Watkins Glen Raceway once and will never go back because it is a road course with nine turns in the track. I can’t see the cars all the time, so that race is much better to watch on TV.”
Gucwa’s appreciation of speed has led him to understand what goes on behind the scenes at a NASCAR event. Each driver has a team. The team helps with car maintenance, strategy, communication, etc. Teams have sponsors. A point system is in place based on finishing placement and laps led. Points are received at each race. They race 10 months out of the year. The points are added up to determine the championship winner.
The intricate sport gives attention to detail. Tires are changed regularly. Up to 12 sets of tires can be used by a team per race. A 98 octane racing gas charges the automobiles. And when the cars hit the track, all that power comes out in the form of decibels.
“The noise factor is horrendous in certain stadium seats,” Gucwa acknowledged.
While the excitement on the track is what draws many fans, there is a whole culture that surrounds the race as well where fans can immerse themselves in the NASCAR experience. For Les Streeter of Maryland, a day at the races is “festive, good family fun — but expensive,” he said.
Just as drivers have their strategies to succeed on the track, Gucwa uses his own strategy to enjoy fully the experience of a trip to the raceway.
“I arrive in the morning and set up a grill,” Gucwa said. “Cooking my own food is more affordable. I also have time to go shopping before the races start in the afternoon.”
As many race fans do, Gucwa travels to the race by bus, with a group of other fans.
“I go with a group from the Long Island Fire Department,” he said. “The group fills two commercial buses. The fire department brings the grill and does the cooking while we all go shopping.”
Drivers and teams have their own traveling stores where fans can come purchase the latest consumer goods, stamped with the drivers name or number. Sweatshirts, hats, collectibles, sunglasses, chairs, jewelry, watches, and more are available to buy and take home.
“They consistently come out with new designs and colors,” Gucwa said. And it doesn’t come cheap.
As fans are milling around, drivers will sometimes mix in and sign autographs
While most races are held on Sunday, there are many, including Bristol Motor Speedway in Tennessee, that fill the tracks Saturday nights. “I plan on going this September,” Gucwa said. “It will be the first time I attend a night race.”
For some fans, watching the races isn’t enough — they want to get behind the wheel, too.
When Les Streeter of Maryland was 16, his dad helped him race pro-stock.
“I also became a fan of NASCAR and would follow my favorite drivers,” Streeter said. “I’d watch the drivers work their way up to the big time.”
Gucwa said he recently took the opportunity to drive on a track. “It cost $500,” Gucwa said. “I took a 45-minute class on driving and then drove three times around the track, hitting 168 miles per hour.”
The experience gave him a new perspective on the strength and stamina required to handle a racecar. “My butt cheeks were tight,” Gucwa recalled.
Started by Bill France Sr. in 1947-48, NASCAR is family owned and operated. NASCAR sanctions the Sprint Cup Series, sponsored by Sprint. The series has previously been known as Strictly Stock, Grand National, Winston Cup and Nextel Cup.
Janet Guthrie, the first woman to drive in both the Daytona 500 and Indianapolis 500, made 33 starts in NASCAR’s top series, with a best finish of sixth at Bristol in 1977.
“I drove Watkins Glen many times, but not in NASCAR,” Guthrie said by email. “In 1964, I finished sixth overall and second in class in the Glen’s first-ever 500-mile SCCA National Championship race, in my Jaguar XK 140, with the first engine I ever built with my own hands.” Janet Guthrie also said, “I drove NASCAR Cup (Winston Cup as it was then) at Pocono; and finished 11th in 1977, my rookie year.”
Guthrie now serves on NASCAR’s Appeals Board and although she hasn’t attended a NASCAR race in person in quite some time, she said she tries to keep up with what the women are doing.
There are several female drivers in the lower NASCAR series, but Danica Patrick’s move to NASCAR from the IndyCar, has put women back into the spotlight. This year she became the first woman to earn a pole in NASCAR at the season-opening Daytona 500, and by leading, became the first women to lead a lap in both the Indianapolis 500 and the Daytona 500, two of the most storied races in American racing history.
Longtime NASCAR fan Streeter said he has noticed a change in the NASCAR dynamics over the decades.
“Racing is different today,” he observed. “The drivers don’t rise through the ranks. Sponsors find young kids and they become winners while in their 20s.”
Mel McCaulley of Afton started watching NASCAR in the early 1990s.
“I’d seen an actual race car on display in a shopping mall near Rochester,” said McCaulley. “The car was pretty cool. So, I watched a race with relatives and got hooked.”
McCaulley has been to Watkins Glen raceway a couple of times.
“It’s a big party, a lot of ribbing, but a fan-friendly place to be,” he said. “To see the racing in person makes it more relatable. But nowadays, I watch the racing on TV in between working on the lawn and doing other things with the family.”