By Jason A. Smith
A sea of RVs and tents were on the grounds at Atlanta Motor Speedway (AMS) Wednesday, giving further evidence of the large crowd of fans anticipated this weekend in Hampton.
Campers have begun to descend on AMS for Sunday's Pep Boys Auto 500 race.
Ken Clark arrived at the speedway Tuesday from Lincoln, Neb., to cheer on his favorite racer, Dale Earnhardt Jr. He says he has attended five previous races at AMS, but added this year marks his first time as a camper at the location. He is planning to stay until Monday morning.
"It's better than staying in a hotel or motel," said visitor Clark.
Clark has seen races at a number of NASCAR tracks over the years, but says he always enjoys the events at AMS. "It's one of the fastest race tracks around. That's one of the best things about it. Plus, they don't have nearly as many crashes here as they do at some of the short tracks."
The Nebraska native says this year most likely will be his last as a regular AMS race patron. He says he hopes to be back, provided his preferred performer's career continues to go well.
"My son is getting ready to move back to Kansas, so we'll probably go to the Kansas Raceway after this year," added Clark. "The determining factor for whether I come back will be how Dale Jr., does in the [Nextel] Cup race."
Billy Phillips of Monticello is the president and site coordinator of Mambi Bambiville, a collection of race fans from multiple states who come to AMS for every race at the track. He arrived at AMS last week to reserve several spots adjacent to the track. His group has grown in recent years because of their shared passion for speed.
"We started out about eight years ago, with four camp sites," Phillips said. "This year, we've got 30 sites and probably about 60-70 people. Most of us are retired from the military, and we come here twice a year."
Matthew Simmons is AMS's marketing and promotion coordinator. He expects a "good turnout" for Sunday's race.
"Sunday we were getting ready, but there was nobody here yet. I came in Monday, and it was a whole different world - so many RVs and things like that. It's starting to take a life of its own, but I think [today] will be the big day when more people start showing up. That should be when things really start cooking around here," says Simmons.
Several hundred camp sites have been sold to race fans in preparation for Sunday's event. According to Simmons, ticket sales and camp site reservations at AMS have increased because of drop in gas prices.
Still, he says many people who pitch a tent, or reserve an RV space prior to a race, will do so regardless of the obstacles in their way.
"NASCAR has great fans who are willing to go almost anywhere to see their favorite drivers," added Simmons. "There are definitely a lot of fans who travel around the [racing] circuit, to go to as many races as possible. We have the most diehard fans in all of sports."
Bobby Clements Jr. came from nearby Griffin Saturday to camp at the speedway and root for racer Jimmie Johnson. He says he looks at this week as an opportunity for a "vacation" from his job as a truck driver. "I relax better here than I do at the beach," he says. "It's quiet and comfortable, and I get to see everyone come in and get set up."
Clements says he has forged friendships with a wide variety of people, through camping at the speedway. "I've even met people here who came all the way from Egypt, just to see a race."