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Kickin The Tires

What it’s like to cover 12 NASCAR races from your car

(Photo by Zach Catanzareti/Kickin The Tires)

By: Zach Catanzareti, Staff Writer

I covered 12 NASCAR races through four weeks across five different tracks… and never saw a single racecar.

I call it the Lockdown Era. This fascinating time in NASCAR’s history where we’re all forced to enjoy the sport we love from the outside. Some in more literal ways than others.

I was there March 13 at Atlanta Motor Speedway when NASCAR officially scraped the weekend and closed down shop for the near future due to the coronavirus outbreak. It was an environment I surely would never come close to feeling again.

I packed up, left without seeing a race and hit a Waffle House down the road. My race travel — and restaurant visits — were a thing of the past for who knows how long.

But finally, after a couple months and a good seven NASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series races, the sport finally set out a schedule to race for real and truly make America fast again. Ah yes, the return plan.

The teams started rolling out the Goodyear tires and I was waiting feverishly to see what the media access would be like at Darlington Raceway, the track picked to kick off the Lockdown Era.

Though only four reporters would be appointed by NASCAR and the NMPA (National Motorsports Press Association) in the press box, there was one more small detail at the bottom of the release: An on-site media staging area. Bingo!

Now, less than a month later, I covered 12 of the first 13 races NASCAR has run under lockdown across five tracks for Kickin’ The Tires. Here’s what it’s been like:

Lonely

Yeah, this one is kind of obvious, but it’s something that would prove to be dominant at every race.

During the first race at Darlington, ESPN and others came out to to the track’s media staging area to cover the inaugural event. NASCAR’s first race back. Pretty much expected.

However, since then, with local TV on-site doing their reports, I’ve been the only NASCAR reporter in the staging area. Which often leads me to ask myself what the hell is wrong with me.

But once I get through the short screening process for temperature, I pull into the area, park my car and that’s my spot for the day/night. A good couple hundred feet from the track itself.

Outside the occasional security check-ins, not much happens from the outside. At Darlington, people were tailgating across the street from their properties and the famous Raceway Grill was holding a viewing party outside Turn 2.

I remember at Bristol for the Cup race May 31, cars stopped on the side of the road just to listen to the cars start the race. And at one point, a cop car had to chase a deer out of the media area. Everybody was excited that NASCAR was back. Tennessee… I tell ya’.

At all these tracks, I ended up turning my car into a mini media center. I have my laptop in the passenger seat, playing MRN or PRN audio. And on my phone, I have the Fox Sports 1 app live streaming the race. I open up my folding chair outside the driver’s side and set up my tripod for some video. You can imagine how nice it feels to not be in a car for once at the track.

Once the race starts, nothing really happens by me. You don’t see the cars, you can barely make out the smell of the race fuel. All you have is the track’s grandstands and the sounds of the cars. It’s like starving to death and then someone places a hot steak in front of you. You smell the juices, feel the heat. Your left foot starts tapping, your mouth starts salivating… yeah, you’ve somehow become even hungrier.

This is when it sinks in about what this era is like. When you strip away the fans and all the build-up from the event, it’s no longer an event. It’s a race. The sport is a different thing, the track is a different place.

Missing Senses

At all these tracks — Darlington, Charlotte Motor Speedway, Bristol, Atlanta and Martinsville Speedway — I had prior experience working inside for a handful of years. However, every time I park outside the track, there are no tailgaters, no traffic, no music. No people walking around, no merchandise haulers, no flags, families with kids, BBQ smell. It’s all gone.

When the race ends and the winner completes his burnouts, there is no noise. The thrills, chills, cheers and tears are all non-present. The race just ends.

That’s the atmosphere I miss the most. There’s nothing like that packed-house feeling you get when you get to cover a NASCAR race. When everybody stands up after the pace car makes the hard left turn to pit road. The live concerts on the frontstretch every prerace, the old guys with the trucker hats asking crew members engine questions.

And as a reporter, you miss interviewing drivers. I miss doing my Speed Down Memory Lane series, laughing and reminiscing with drivers. Then catching up with colleagues in the media center, walking through the pit lane or garage at 8 a.m. As a photographer, I’ve been freakin’  dreaming about feeling my rib cage rattle when the cars go green about five feet from my right arm.

With all this now gone for the time being, I expected it to be weird when I showed up for the first time, sure. But you just can’t prepare yourself for the bluntness of it all.

Martinsville is always packed, the stands, the grass parking lots, the hot dog stands. At Darlington, there is an energy in the air. Throwback Weekend! Old school paint schemes, classic cars, Hall of Famers and vintage shirts.

At Charlotte, it’s the hometown sense. The Coke 600, Memorial Day Weekend, American flags and a bunch of crazy people gathering in a pile to watch cars drive fast. And Atlanta, it’s one of the ultimate classic tracks. Fans coming back for their 20th or 50th straight year and a media center than has more food options than the QuikTrip up the street.

For now, I must smile. I’m at the track. A bag of Cheez-Its and folding chair will have to do.

Begs Creativity

When there’s nothing going on around you and you never see a single racecar, it begs creativity in terms of visual content. It’s how I spend most of my time during the race nowadays.

It’s been a moving target in adapting to capturing the environment. Lots and lots of empty parking lots and a few speedway signs. How can you make this look anything else but lame and spooky?

Well, that’s where the challenge comes in. And it’s a nice one to have. It gives you a little more to focus on during the three-hour race. I’ve tried to think outside the box, working more with music due to the lack of natural racetrack sounds.

Capturing the changes weather conditions — especially through the Tropical Storm Bertha that rolled through the Carolinas in late May — the transitions from day to night, the absurdity of being the only car in some media areas. Whatever has that combination of weird and cool.

Humbling

To close this out, to cover 12 of the opening 13 races of NASCAR’s historic return was an incredible honor. A lot of fun, challenging and cleansing, too. It was also fascinating. To see what the sport is like without many of its charming qualities helps me further understand what has made the sport such a hit with fans since its inception.

I’m proud of the sport for, instead of waiting for the situation to end, to find a way to compete within the situation itself in a safe and inclusive manner. But it’s not getting any easier to sit behind the grandstands to cover the races from my car. As of this writing, I have not seen a NASCAR racecar since watching Ryan Newman’s crash at the Daytona 500 from pit road in February. That was also the last picture I took of a racecar.

For this weekend at Homestead-Miami Speedway, the sixth track of the Lockdown Era, it’ll be the first I sit out. I look forward to watching it on TV, but I’ll be itching to get back at it at Talladega Superspeedway come June 20. Because even when you’re stuck in your car alone in the parking lot, this sport is still an incredible thing.

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