NASCAR fans have checkered lifestyles

By Justin Boron

During race week, a glass elevatordescends the nine floors at the Atlanta Motor Speedway Tara Place Condos from grandeur to grit.

The windows atop the building illuminate the cushy million dollar penthouses with a panorama of the bustling campers and vendors who converge on the track twice a year.

Things like plumbing and electricity, mostly novelties to the outlying scene, are mainstays in the rooms all the way down to the lobby floor, which is where the chic accommodations end and the elevator door opens to reveal zealous race fans digging in with little concern for inclement weather or conventional amenities.

The campers will be there for as many as five days of overeating, drinking, and campfire circles that mix to produce enough riveting tales to last until the next race.

But outhouse to penthouse, no matter where race fans stay, a fever consumes them that is untainted by the elevation of their accommodations or quality of their wine, said Mike Bennett, 43, of Griffin.

Nevertheless, the contrasting degrees of lodging at the biannual race in Hampton illustrate the expanding breadth of NASCAR's reach, which race staff and aficionados say in the past had been relegated to a subculture predominantly in the Southeast.

So ingrained was the perception of the sport that the idea of high-end condominiums at race tracks was scoffed at by many investors, said Beverly Currie, a broker who initially marketed and sold the 46 units at the speedway.

Having the roughly 2,000 square foot penthouses more than double in value since they were first put on the market in 1991 has pacified the dissenting voices, she said.

NASCAR's success also is evident in its television viewership that reaches into the 30 million range for its major race in Daytona, Fla.

The sport now brings owners of tents, campers, motor homes, and condominiums from all economic backgrounds and parts of the country, who mix together in the bleachers or in the fields, said Chris Tuggle, 43, who lives permanently with his fiancee D.J. Ray in the speedway condominiums.

Ray and Tuggle, insurance agents for Aflac, have been on either side of the race day spectrum, watching from rigid steel bleachers to lounging on plush couches in his home on the seventh floor.

"They both have their downfalls," Tuggle said.

A race fan camping, or in the bleachers, faces weather and long lines for food and the bathroom, he said.

But in the condo, he said a fan can begins to feel nostalgic about the race day incense of fresh burnt rubber, sweat, and alcohol.

Veteran fans, the ones who decades earlier dug into the dirt with their tents, have watched the transformation as luxury motor homes began squeezing into the camp sites.

Still resigned to a tent camper, Rusty Daniels, 41, who has attended races in Hampton since 1982, said he used to be able to show up and just grab a spot to camp. Increases in attendance and the influx of larger motor homes has made space around the 870-acre property a hotter commodity.

Reservations for the infield have to be made months in advance and can cost up to $140, said Angela Revell the director of marketing and promotion at the speedway.

The sport's growth hasn't been without strain for many of the race going veterans, Daniels said.

"It's gotten to be really hard on the common man," he said.

No matter how high prices go, however, Daniels said they were unlikely to deter him and his crew of friends from abandoning their home towns and heading down on U.S. Highway 19/41 for the grit and grime of race track camping.

He also said he certainly won't ever give in to the luxury of a hotel or condo.

"This is real camping," he and his friends say.