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STOVALL: Feeling like family

Gabriel Stovall covers sports for the Clayton News Daily and Henry Daily Herald newspapers.

Gabriel Stovall covers sports for the Clayton News Daily and Henry Daily Herald newspapers.

Well, Thursday Thunder, you’ve done it again.

You’ve made a racing fan out of another sports writer. And not just for all of the typical reasons either.

First of all, I must confess that I’ve never been much of a racing aficionado. Atlanta Motor Speedway is the first race track I’ve ever seen. My first Thursday Thunder soiree was also my first time ever watching a full motorsports race of any kind.

Prior to the Thunder Ring, my racing experience consisted of a lifetime grand total of watching maybe one hour of NASCAR events on ESPN as I channel surfed. I had only a cursory knowledge of the sport’s legends, although I do remember where I was when I heard that Dale Earnhardt, Sr. died — at home watching SportsCenter.

I saw the tears and hurt on the faces of racing fans young and old.

I appreciated the passion, but I didn’t understand it — until now.

For the last seven weeks, I’ve stood behind the AMS quarter mile wall being baptized into racing’s appeal.

For seven weeks I’ve heard the crescendo of high-octane engines revving up and accelerating after the pace car exits the scene. And with it, I’ve felt the adrenaline rush well up in my chest as I watched drivers immediately begin jostling for position.

I am now acquainted with the smell of a race track after a few races, and to my wife’s amusement, I now know what each flag signifies throughout the course of a race.

And then there are the many faces of competition I’ve seen.

The look of determination on the face of multi-race winner Taylor Jorgensen as she scurries around to get her white and blue No. 3 car ready for another attempt at victory. The gaze of wide-eyed hope in Payton Ryan’s face as he passionately talks of how his entire family picked up and moved clear across the south to help him scratch his itch for racing.

Then there’s that unmistakable pride that wells up on the countenance of Masters driver Terry Mathis as he celebrates his grandson Will Fagan’s first checkered flag.

I’ve also seen a young driver like McDonough’s Alex Coffey wipe away the mixture of frustration and sweat from his face with the sleeve of his fire suit as he climbed into the passenger side of the tow truck that would haul away his wrecked Legends car.

And thanks to Shane’s Rib Shack, I’ve even had the privilege of tasting shredded chicken nachos for the first time.

But of all of the ways Thursday Thunder has managed to tug on my senses, my heart is the place that will sport racing’s deepest and most lasting imprint.

Allow me to get sappy for a moment, and I’ll tell you that this sportswriter loves a good family story. And I don’t remember ever being around a sport where the entire field of competition treats each other as if they all share the same last name.

Sure, everybody wants to win. At the end of the 10-week season, nobody will just be happy to be there. The points chase in this grassroots division of racing provides competition that runs as deep as any other sport.

But just as deep are the relationships.

On Thursday, a dark cloud hovered over AMS and the skies opened, pouring out in liquid form the only obstacle that could keep Jorgensen from trying to win her sixth straight race, or Garrett Smithley from getting over the hump for a checkered flag after a series of close finishes. Or Madeline Crane from attempting to best her third place finish from the previous night.

But the cloud cover and rain that blocked the sunlight outside of the garages brought me further illumination on the inside about what makes racing such a uniquely addicting sport.

Families were clustered around the cars of their respective sons, daughters, nephews and nieces. And those clusters of families spilled over into other clusters, turning the scene into something resembling a family reunion.

You’d think there would be a heated rivalry out here somewhere, right?

“Oh no,” Crane said. “We’re really out here just pushing each other to get better like we’re all in this together.”

I’ve always heard people talk about how the hundreds of thousands of racing fans across the world really just make up one big family. Now I’ve seen it for myself.

And this family man is hooked.

Gabriel Stovall covers sports for the Clayton News Daily and Henry Daily Herald newspapers. He can be reached at gstovall@news-daily.com. On Twitter? Follow him @gabrielstovall1