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Watkins Glen International: Why NASCAR fans have the most fun

Impossibly fast.

With a revolving mixture of amusement and awe, those two words became a chorus in my head, going off like clockwork as each lap unraveled and 43 of the world’s best NASCAR drivers roared past the finish line and screamed into turn 1.

I was leaning against the railing of Zippo’s viewer-friendly suite in Watkins Glen, New York, for the annual NASCAR event that consistently draws tens of thousands of gung-ho fans. Aside from checking out Zippo’s current endeavors (which are stellar) and cataloguing the races themselves, an additional chunk of my focus at the Glen was to find out exactly what it is about NASCAR that has propelled it to remain an absolute juggernaut in the world of spectator sports.

Is the hype justified? Do the legions of diehard fans, movies and media coverage actually represent a sport deserving of such a pedestal? Many would scoff and issue a flippant dismissal, rebutting that NASCAR is simply a redneck obsession that has nonsensically acquired its popularity.

Having avoided any groundless perspectives, I was an unbiased sponge before my arrival; ready to soak in the scene and hammer out some concrete conclusions. To make a long story short: the naysayers have it wrong – very wrong.

“The Glen”

Watkins Glen International is by all means in the country, which for us meant a rolling and scenic cruise from the Buffalo Airport.

Fate had bestowed our driver with two notable characteristics: an encyclopedia-deep knowledge of upstate New York, including the Glen, and a superhuman ability to maintain unbelievably casual conversation despite vigorously tailgating any car that deviated below the assigned speed.

Given our empty stomachs and the familiar anticipation that any traveler feels before arrival, I wholeheartedly appreciated his quirks.

You begin to sense the immensity of the Glen even before you enter the gates. Signs that designate parking and directions slowly start to pepper the side of the road, tirelessly providing a first wave of guidance and defense to the most assured calamity that was already coalescing.

Gate 2, our drop-off point, was bustling with the quintessential festival entrance proceedings, complete with walkie-talkie clad workers, stop-and-go traffic and lots of chatter. Above us, in the distance, mammoth grandstands loomed.

After bidding farewell to our driver, our Zippo rep, Hunter, arrived moments later and we transitioned ourselves into his Jeep for the final voyage to camp, or as I like to call it, Ground Zero.

It didn’t take long to realize Hunter was friendly, down to earth and adept – a great ambassador for what was to be a hearty weekend.

Upon entering camp, which was at non-event dates a sprawling grassy area, crisscrossed by dirt roads and encompassed completely by the road course, I realized several things almost immediately. For one, my North Face and loafers, indiscernible at SFO, were now about as out of place and impractical as Hannah Anderson’s pajamas bottoms amidst the Montana forest. Too soon?

Also, I had widely underestimated the degree of revelry and madness, which reared its head wildly as we slowly rolled towards our spot. I found myself rubbernecking, hastily trying to take it all in.

Belly of the Beast

Home for the next three nights was a shiny, black and grey RV which Hunter had set up to parallel the one he was staying in, leaving about a 15-foot grassy gap, which showcased a fire pit, chairs and table with hibachi, food and drink. Camp was solidly laid out and highly effective due in a large part to the useful Zippo products that were at hand.

Sure, I figured Hunter would have Zippo gear for us to check out, given his affiliation, yet seeing that they played a key role in the setup of our camp brought a smile to my face – usefulness is next to godliness.

For instance, rather than laying the BBQ utensils and condiments haphazardly next to the grill or on a table top, they all had a place on the Zippo Utensil Tree, which had hooks to hang and an eight inch tray to rest. I think if you benefit from using something numerous times a day, it is safe to say it’s a worthwhile addition.

It was at this point I became acquainted with the last member of our crew, Roger. A writer for Knife World and an overall interesting dude, Roger would eventually regale us in many an exciting campfire story from his early days in New York, but that comes later.

Evening Rolls In

Hunter was rigorous in his hospitality, immediately cooking up some hot dogs while delegating cold beverages. Before long, we were all enjoying the food and drink as darkness descended on the Glen.

The fire we sat around was pleasant and constant, yet fires within our camp were a specialty, cranked out within moments and maintained with help again from Zippo.

We have all been that guy: one arm out like a forklift while the other piles logs or kindling precariously on until the weight becomes too much. Eventually, you hobble back with the splintering load as bugs and dirt cling to your clothes and skin, then dump it at the foot of the fire where you attempt to light it with the matches that seem like they were made by comedians.

Sure, that isn’t the most horrible thing to befall mankind, but a system with convenience is always a plus. The Zippo Campfire Carrier has ballistic nylon and not only saves your skin, but provides an awkward-free way to lug wood to your site, and keep it dry and off the ground once there.

More ease of use when lighting with the classic Zippo Windproof Lighter and Campfire Starter Cedar Puck, which is compressed cedar sawdust that breaks apart and lights brilliantly under most any condition. After the weekend, I decided to have many of these pucks on hand; I really dug them.

Take a Walk? Take a Walk.

As the general familiarity between our crew increased to a suitable level, my girlfriend and I stood up and decided to have an evening walk to gauge our surroundings. Of all the nights we stayed, this was perhaps the most raucous.

Shouts, booming laughter, firework explosions, country music, crackling campfires. All of these sounds filled the camp air, inexorably forcing you to accept the good time happening in your midst and entice you to join.

Each campsite seemed to have a unique spin to it – from the makeshift Budweiser bars and tables packed with hibachis, to the flashing lights of club-themed tents; all available to any passerby who wanted to join in.

Personally, I was in heaven, muttering to myself, “NASCAR enthusiasm? I get it now.”

A bit farther down, one of the main dirt roads was the Red Cat Summer Stage, where Zac Brown Tribute Band, Cameron Brothers and Tim Dugger all played that night to a feverish crowd.

I could go on at length about the festivities taking place, but the bottom line is that if you have the chance to visit the Glen for this race, by all means camp – it will take your overall experience to that next level which separates the okay trips from the unforgettable ones.

Race Day 1: Zippo’s Time to Shine

Zippo has sponsored the 200 race at the Glen since 2005, and they retain a rich, impressive presence there; one you can see and feel when milling about the track.

There were a few streets that led away from the camping area and over to the finishing straight of the track; a couple were designated for companies to showcase their products through fun and attractive ways, in the hopes that people would sign up for various deals, contests, or simply walk away with a greater knowledge of their current dealings. Either way, it was a bustling stretch of sales pitches, funny announcers, festival food and circus-style games.

Zippo had a sprawling corner section that was one of the more popular spots. A towering DJ booth, cranking out tunes, jutted above the lower deck of the Zippo-fied tow away. On the bottom deck, there was a hip interior with a few massive glass cases that showed countless Zippo lighters with memorable and famous illustrations.

A bit to the left was an illuminated desk where anyone could come in and design their own Zippo lighter artwork. Very cool, I thought.

Zippo has recently branched out into apparel, creating some surprisingly appealing clothes, hats and other gear. I don’t say surprising in a negative way to them, but more so because I was pleasantly shocked that a company built on lighters could create something that rivals stuff you see in any Pac Sun, Tilly’s or skate-style mall shop.

Other happenings at the site included cornhole (prizes for winning tosses), a line for swag bags, a suped-up Jeep, and of course, the official Zippo car, which boasts two massive lighters built onto the roof.

At first sight, the car appears strictly a show vehicle – too flashy for any other purpose – yet legend has it the original was a ’47 Chrysler Saratoga that the founder, George Blaisdell, modified and took to the streets to sell product after the conclusion of WWII.

After hearing about some of Blaisdell’s exploits from Hunter, the dude sounded like a superhero; in all actuality, I was really impressed by his philanthropist nature and exploits – everything you typically want in a company’s founder. Although Blaisdell’s actual model was lost without a trace, it was cool to see the company had revitalized the idea and were making it a point to showcase.

Qualifying – Saturday 8/12

Beer-filled shenanigans, one hell of a campground, fun crowds, BBQ – so far so good.

The only thing missing up to this point was live NASCAR action, and that approached our itinerary quickly. Although I had been to some lower level car races over the years, it was grossly apparent how significantly the experiences differed.

With the passes Zippo provided, we had access to the pits and garage, giving us a wide spectrum of sights to take in when not observing the race.

Qualifying for both the Nationwide and Sprint Cup Series was taking place that day, so there was pressure on every racer to perform. Undoubtedly, some additional pressure was on the pit crews as they witnessed whether or not the vehicles were able to withstand full-bore racing.

Unlike the Sprint Cup, which would be the lone event on Sunday, the Zippo 200 was kicking off only a few hours after the Nationwide qualifying finished up, which made for a jam-packed day of racing.

After watching both Series lock down their best times, it really hit me how crucial it is to have a fast time. The leveraged position that is gained from a good qualifying time is incredibly lucrative, from the ideal pit real estate, to the more forward position in the actual starting formation.

For the Nationwide series, Sam Hornish Jr. of Penske had driven the top time of 71.538 seconds, at a 123.291MPH average.

As for the Sprint Cup qualifiers, Marcos Ambrose, two-time defending champ at the Glen, showed he was in a class of his own with a best time of 68.777 seconds; an average speed of 128.241 MPH.

Each competitor had now driven to the best of his/her ability, the results were up, the order was decreed, and now it came time for the Nationwide series to race the Zippo 200.

Zippo 200

Qualifying was exciting because you got to see lap times being dished out at record speeds; it is profound because there is the factual basis that, given the level of competition, you were watching the absolute maximum speed these cars could travel the track without losing control. It also allowed for solid one-on-one viewing time of your favorite driver.

That being said, nothing can compare to the sound, display and energy that surrounds a mass start; as exemplified by the beginning of the Zippo 200. As indicated by the name, the race was to be 200.9 miles, or 82 laps, and kicked off at 2:15 PM.

Watching the cars line up side by side created an overwhelming sense of anticipation. I found myself incredibly excited for the start, which commenced amid the deafening cacophony of powering engines.

Brad Keselowski, who I stood near as he conducted an interview prior to racing, eventually tore into the lead, sitting first through half of the entire race while pressuring the other cars to overtake him.

In the end, no one could meet the challenge, and Keselowski crossed the line in first: an expert performance.

After ceremoniously doing donuts around the cheering crowds, the 22 car eventually pulled into victory lane, where we now stood amongst the Zippo affiliates.

Keselowski spoke some words, took pictures, and then was given a solid gold lighter from the Zippo CFO, who had earlier announced to the crowd that Zippo was to sponsor the race for another three years, prompting a rush of cheers.

The energy within Victory Lane was something great to witness because the entire Penske crew was smiling, drinking Miller and thanking their sponsors.

Another Worthy Night at Ground Zero

With the race over and crowds now dispersing from the grandstands, our crew shared in the exodus and made our way from the Zippo suite and back onto the beaten path, camp bound.

As we meandered through the hordes, it was clear that another storm was brewing, and that was the Sprint Cup’s Cheez-It 355.

I had naively thought that the Zippo 200 was tantamount to driver performance, yet Roger informed us back at camp that the Sprint Cup was the big leagues; much of what we just watched was amateur.

Jesus, could there really be room for any more vicious accelerations, turns and wrecks?

Only time would tell, and for now we set about building another Zippo-certified fire with a hearty helping of BBQ on the side. Bacon-wrapped steaks? You’re damn right there was.

Fire Talk

As the conversation petered out, my girlfriend and Roger were soon making their exits and turning in for some well deserved rest.

Still excited from the day’s activity, Hunter and I remained seated around the fire, hypnotized by its flickering disposition. We sat there for a couple more hours, steadily drinking and discussing things that meant something to us.
Hunter let me check out some of the Case knives, which was a Zippo-owned company from the same town of Bradford, PA. The knives were beautifully crafted from American stainless, even using animal bone for the handle. Although I surely can’t offer a synopsis like Roger, it was clear that the knives were not only practical, but appealing to the collector as well.

Every few minutes, a light would float eerily above the trailers and tents, continuing to rise slowly into the distant, dark sky. These were small flames with bags encircling them, much like a hot air balloon, and the heat would cause the entire apparatus to lift and take off into the night.

I felt like these sorts of lanterns were typical of a full moon party on coastal Thailand, and I sporadically wondered what happened to the ignited bits as they eventually set down on land, or crashed out early.

Regardless, another night at the Glen was proving to be a great one.

Pit Tour

Zippo had hooked us up with credentials that led to all sorts of behind-the-scenes action. Before the Cheez-It 355, we took a tour of the garages that were teeming with team personnel, vehicles and other fans.

The preparation and clearing of each car to race was done so in a sort of assembly line fashion, allowing for the cars to be measured, weighed and tested so that they all correctly fit the criteria. Once they had done so, the vehicles were rolled out onto the track.

Pace Car Madness

Perhaps the most eye-opening fun we had the entire weekend was the pace car ride, which took off after the garage tour ended. Prior to this experience, I had only watched from afar as the racers knocked out laps, and that leads to a lot of mystery regarding what it’s actually like to be on the pavement.

Our driver wasted no time in accelerating down the finishing straight and into the first turn, maintaining a speed I honestly thought was going to result in a huge power slide and collision with the nearest guardrail. It sounds so ridiculous, but I truly was in a state of shock at just how intense it was to drive the track, being that it is considerably more technical than the classic oval courses.

It was also a shock to see that we were making our way at a third of the rate the NASCAR drivers were doing, and we sure as hell didn’t have 40 other cars bearing down on us!

Newfound respect: acquired.

The Cheez-It 355

Okay, game time, the Big One.

Jeff Gordon, Carl Edwards, Kyle Busch, Jimmie Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Danica Patrick, just to name a few.
Each racer was introduced over the loud speakers as they walked out on the temporary stage set at the finish line.

Once that was over, American and Canadian national anthems were sung as fireworks exploded above the stands. Hell, they even had guys parachuting onto the course with huge flags flapping behind them!
I swear to god, NASCAR knows how to get a crowd riled up and ready.

A line of Toyota trucks took each one of the drivers on a lap around the course, waving to the crowds in true Caesar fashion. All the big names were now revving their engines and poised to tear into the 90 lap, 220 mile race.

Palpable intensity.

I was back at the Zippo suite with our crew, enjoying drinks and tasty eats, everyone assembled into their own space for optimal viewing.

With the classic command of, “Gentlemen, start your engines!” the drivers commenced battle.

The competition was ruthless, fast and exciting. Crashes riddled the field, leaving many cars leaking fuel, missing parts or unfixable. These cautions strung out the duration of the race, especially a 22-minute delay at lap 40 due to an oil spill.

Even the heavy hitters couldn’t avoid some of the Glen’s technical dangers. Earnhardt Jr. and Gordon were soon racing with their front ends torn off and cast aside, doing anything it took to finish the race.

Ambrose was lighting it up in the early part of the race, yet as the laps counted down, he fell back riskily and eventually suffered a race-ending slide that resulted in a collision. Max Papis and Brian Vickers were also involved.

I was sad to see it over for Ambrose; he clearly was the dominant force during qualifying and you could tell he really wanted it. He looked furious as his car came to a halt, throwing his helmet inside the car and walking off.

As the race wound down, Kyle Busch was making up for his poor fate and crash at the Zippo 200 by leading at a blinding pace.

Keselowski, who at one point had slid and done a full 360 rotation, had admirably surged to the front once again and was now hot on his tail, making it clear that the winning car was going to be one of these two.

Last Lap

The last lap was something we hadn’t seen yesterday, given that we were at Victory Lane, so I focused in heavily on the action. Keselowski was desperately seeking to make a pass, marking Busch through every turn.

Busch wasn’t having any of it, and did well to cover any holes that would allow Keselowski to do outgun him at the line.

Sure enough, his efforts were successful, and Busch and Keselowski crossed the line, 1 and 2. It was to be Busch’s third NASCAR Sprint Cup Series win of the season, and by the way he jumped out and grabbed the checkered flag, waving it proudly, you could tell it meant a lot to him.

Goodbyes

Racing had culminated in brilliant fashion, but now the time for departure was at hand for a majority of the Zippo crew.

Our camp was staying for a final night at Ground Zero, so we said our goodbyes to those that had made the weekend great; most notably, Brent, who my girlfriend remarked as having a voice consistent with that of Vince Vaughn. Him and his wife had been very gracious hosts, and had made sure we got to see and do everything that was available.
Early the following morning, Hunter drove us to our driver and we bid each other farewell, now Buffalo bound.

The Last Word

So what had this weekend shown me; had I answered my own questions regarding NASCAR culture?

I don’t know if it was the fact that fans walked around the course with coolers of their own, non-$8-a-pint beer, unbothered by overbearing security, or that every single person I came across was smiling and enjoying themselves, but somewhere in between the raw energy of cars racing and warm good times throughout camp, it just all felt so damn American.

And that was perfect.

  

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