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July 28, 2014

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A few observations from the NASCAR Awards Banquet

I’m not much of a fan of suits and shiny shoes. Frankly, I’ve never been a person who paid much attention to what I wear. When my wife and I got married, she immediately observed that my wardrobe looked like it came from a gas station. Actually, she was partially correct. Several items in my closet came from my previous career at National Car Rental.

But two weeks ago, when I received an invitation to attend the NASCAR Awards Banquet, I didn’t hesitate to hit the yellow pages in search of a rental tuxedo.

So, wearing a rented tux (one that was a little large so I could be comfortable for six hours) and my own pair of shoes that I dug out from the bottom of the closet, I headed to the Wynn casino with my invitation in hand.

I shared an elevator ride from the parking garage with a NASCAR fan who looked like she had just left the grandstands after a race. She was covered in Dale Jr. regalia and her son wore a bright orange hoodie with Tony Stewart’s name emblazoned across the front. We talked about NASCAR as I walked toward the banquet hall and she explained to me that she had been on a signature quest that week at the events leading up to the banquet. She had had some success and was hoping to score a few more valuable signatures as the drivers walked from their rooms to the awards ceremony. We did get a few strange looks as people probably wondered why a guy in a tux was walking through the casino with a woman dressed in a bright white and green Dale Jr. jacket.

The banquet ran without a hitch. But that’s what anyone would expect from an outfit like NASCAR that’s responsible for organizing the equivalent of a Super Bowl every week. Events of this type are hard to produce. Several years ago, I had to organize a convention for the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists. Although it was much smaller than a NASCAR banquet, it was still a logistical nightmare. We didn’t have Jimmie Johnson or Jeff Gordon, but I did manage to have Wayne Newton introduce the former prime minister of Israel, Shimon Peres. So I can appreciate how difficult organizing these events can be.

One theme that seemed to run throughout the night was how happy the drivers and crew members were to be in Las Vegas. “It’s a much more relaxed environment than New York,” one driver said. Doesn’t it make sense to actually have the banquet in a town where there’s a track that hosts a Sprint Cup race?

Comedian Frank Caliendo was a pleasant surprise. I had come to the event with a preconceived notion that Caliendo wouldn’t be good for more than a few chuckles. I couldn’t have been more wrong as his routines left me grasping for breath between stints of laughter. Caliendo gave his impersonations a NASCAR twist, displaying his knowledge of the sport and making the jokes all the more relevant. But his genius is in his ability to seamlessly play his impersonations off of one another as if all these characters are all having a conversation with each other.

After the drivers finished their thank-you speeches, which seemed shorter this year, we all headed to The Venetian for the after party. Loud music, dark rooms and alcohol are the standard fare at nightclubs. But the statuesque women in checkerboard, zipper-covered jumpsuits gyrating in every corner aren’t what you might see at a typical watering hole in Charlotte, N.C. A few people even said to me: “You actually live here?”

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It was a polite crowd. As the evening went later into the night, more security guards seemed to materialize, but they weren’t necessary. As Vegas standards go, this was a pretty tame party. I’ve attended other events in Vegas where an alleged mobster’s girlfriend stood on a table and began to strip, and I once saw two politicians tussle in the middle of a party while a hotel security guard fired a few shots from his sidearm into the ceiling to subdue the crowd.

All in all it was a great night. And it was great to see some fans included in the crowd at this year’s banquet. There has been some suggestion over the years that the awards banquet should switch locations each year. Sorry, but I’ll choose Vegas over Dover, Del., anytime.

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