The Accidental NASCAR Fan

May 2, 2010

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When I moved back to my home state of Iowa in 2002, I began work in an office full of complete strangers – always an awkward feeling.

I quickly became aware of the fact that NASCAR fever ran deep through the office. Some were more afflicted than others, but many paid at least some interest to the sport.

I personally had never paid much attention. I’d watch a handful of laps of the Daytona 500 and a few laps from other races during the season, but I was hardly a fan. I would have been hard pressed to name ten NASCAR drivers. I had a favorite driver – Tony Stewart – and knew a handful of other names. Heck, I didn’t even know what a “restrictor plate” was.

Things quickly changed. Before long, I was corralled into a NASCAR contest that several co-workers participated in. I enjoying competing with people – the fact that it was a sport that I knew virtually nothing about wasn’t particularly relevant. It also seemed like a good way to fit in.

Within months, my knowledge of NASCAR increased exponentially. I learned that a restrictor plate is a plate that restricts the flow of air into the carburetor to keep horsepower (and thus speed) down – and that this was done mainly to keep cars from becoming airborne at the super speedways in Talladega and Daytona.  The plate has holes to allow air to flow through – the smaller the holes, the less horsepower the engine will generate.

I also learned that although most NASCAR races involve just left turns, there are actually two road course – at Watkins Glen and Sonoma. Tony Stewart happens to be very good on road courses, so these races have quickly become favorite of mine. Not only do the courses contain left AND right turns, but drivers can get themselves into serious trouble by going off the course.

Even when it comes to the tracks that contain just left turns, there are substantial differences. Daytona and Talladega are 2.5 mile tracks where speeds can reach 200 mph. The track at Bristol, on the other hand, is just .533 miles. At Daytona and Talladega, it’s common to see drivers “draft” by forming a single file line with each car just inches from the one in from of them in order to reduce drag. Several cars lined up in formation can reduce drag enough to go zooming by a lead car that is running alone. At Bristol, it’s common to see the winning driver’s car with several dents in it – races at Bristol always feature lots of bumping and banging. There’s even a triangular course at Pocono (officially, it’s a “tri-oval”).

I also learned that there are different “grooves” in a track. Logically, it made sense to me that everyone would try to run as low on the track as possible, since this is the shortest distance. However, some drivers prefer to run high and others prefer to run low. Sometimes the way a car is handling will force a driver to run a particular line.

There’s also a lot of strategy in a race. Teams need to decide when to make pit stop and whether to change four tires, two tires, or just add fuel. When a caution flag comes out, teams need to decide whether to make a pit stop to improve the car’s performance (and/or add fuel) or stay on the track and improve their position.

The time of my conversion to a serious fan was also marked by a substantial change to how the champion is crowned. Until recently, the champion was simply the driver who accumulated the most points over the course of the season. Now, drivers need to be among the top 12 drivers with 10 races remaining in order to qualify for the Chase. Points of the top 10 drivers and reset before the Chase begins, with relatively small differentials. The drive who is in 12th can win the title if the put together a strong Chase.

I never intended to become a big fan of NASCAR, but I watch quite a few races now – especially when they don’t interfere with baseball. I even know what a “catch-can” is!

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