I'd seen NASCAR before, mostly as I spent Sundays watching the gridiron gladiators of my youth.
I watched Emmitt Smith wince with every collision or Brett Favre beam in youthful exuberance with every sling that made it into the endzone. But those drivers that filled commercial time were trapped in their cars and faceless to me. I couldn't share in their anxiety or confidence; that remained hidden behind windshields and helmets.
So I relished the chance to cover the Sprint Cup Pep Boys Auto 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway on Sunday, to see if maybe my preconceptions about NASCAR could be shattered, or at least altered.
And before the race started, before the 43 introductions for each driver, the ceremony for the 20th anniversary of Bill Elliot's 1988 Winston Cup championship, the national anthem sung by former American Idol contestant Michael Johns, the 325 laps filled with over half a dozen cautions - before any of that, I'd already seen enough.
I saw one mullet - just one! - and a well-groomed one.
I saw one cowboy hat - just one! - in jet black.
I saw ESPN NASCAR reporter Marty Smith all day. When a frat boy got behind him as he broadcasted live and waved to the camera. When Smith fell asleep in the middle of the race in the media room.
I saw a reporter wearing a hot-pink polo shirt during the pre-race press conference, doing his best to stand out in the NASCAR crowd.
I saw the team tour guides, ushering small groups through the garages and pits like a college tour guide.
I saw Terry Pendleton talking baseball.
I saw Joe Gibbs rushing through pit row. Another inch over and he would've knocked me over.
I saw girls blush and giggle as they accosted Kasey Kahne for autographs.
I saw Confederate and American flags waving above trailors.
I saw McCain-Palin campaign signs next to 'NObama' signs.
I saw the juxtaposition of NASCAR's blue collar fan base and its corporate sponsors, the faded jeans and driver jackets passing oxford shirts and stiletto heels. The Sony and Sharp flatscreen televisions at pit stations. The UPS team watched Austin Powers. DeWalt chose ESPN's NFL Countdown.
I saw the grit and labor it takes to make this sport
The security guards that cautioned unassuming fans wandering in the way of cars making their way from garage to inspection station to garage to pit row, yelling, "Car coming out! Coming up the hill!" and blowing their whistles incessantly.
The Jeff Gordon crew member, that burly man with his bald head and braided goatee who followed his routine with every pit stop: helmet on, sunglasses on, tire in his left hand that was wrapped in tape like an offensive lineman and a step up on the cement barrier. The 10 seconds it took him to change
Gordon's two front tires, and then the hour of waiting until Gordon needed 10 more seconds from him.
I saw the humanity in celebrities. When Juan Pablo Montoya and David Reutimann played with their daughters just before the race.
I saw the green flag wave, signaling drivers to hit the gas and fill our afternoon with speeds not felt by the rest of us.
And then I saw a grandstand of fans rise from their seats, cheering those beneath the windshields and helmets, staying until the very end to share their driver's cheer or disappointment.
In the end - finally - I saw this sport called NASCAR.
Brian Paglia is a sports writer for the Clayton News Daily and Henry Daily Herald. He can be reached at 770-478-5753 ext. 280, and firstname.lastname@example.org