Standing just inside the pit wall of Turn 4 at the Atlanta Motor Speedway during a NASCAR event has a way of changing your perspective on things. Although the sport may be an easy target for late-show jesters and naysayers, those who let off the gas a little will find NASCAR to be a complex competition that combines human ability and mechanical engineering. Seriously.
Oh, you've heard the jokes. You know you're at a NASCAR fan's funeral when only the first 43 cars are allowed in the procession and no coolers over 14 inches are allowed in the cemetery. They're easy, too easy in fact. Pick on the anonymous Bubba with a #3 beer coozie and discredit an entire sport, right?
A few years ago, I couldn't have cared less about racing. I didn't even care enough to dislike it. Then something changed: I went to a race.
There's a disclaimer here. I didn't just go to the race, I got to crawl up underneath it as a member of the media and take a good look at what really makes everything crank. Seeing it all up close with virgin eyes was quite an experience, now that I look back on it.
Although I was there for hours, I really had no idea what was going on and didn't have too much figured out by the time the race was over. I was arm's length from well-known drivers, and I didn't really know who most of them were. The crowd booed Jeff Gordon when he was introduced and I couldn't figure out why. So naive.
Several years of races went by, and I picked up a decent understanding of the thing. Last year I found myself watching some races on TV towards the end of the season. Now there are drivers I like and others I don't. I know what it means when someone says "He can turn right for all I care." How did this happen?
During the fall race last year, when a Chase contender got into trouble and had to pit or leave the track to go into the garage, I effortlessly made my way there to photograph the crew ripping their engine apart to avoid a dreaded DNF. (Do you know what DNF means? I do.) The amazing part is that I knew who the top 10 drivers were. No cheat sheet, no radio prompting. I already knew them!
This NASCAR knowledge has actually helped me out in my personal life, because there are some race fans in my fiancee's family, and when I visit them I can now manage to talk a little shop.
She also has a crush on Jimmie Johnson, which is a conflict for me, because I like him, so I'm still working on how I feel about that.
If you can't stomach NASCAR but you haven't been to a race in person, you're not giving it a fair chance. TV and radio don't really do it justice, and without any firsthand material to draw on, hearing a description of the action or watching it replayed in slow-motion doesn't mean as much.
Just between you and me, there's a race this weekend, but I won't tell anyone you went if you don't want me to.
Rob Felt is the photographer for the Daily Herald. He can be reached at (770) 957-9161 or firstname.lastname@example.org .