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.

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