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April 17, 2014

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A few observations from the infield at Phoenix

Anyone who thinks NASCAR has strayed too far from its roots by becoming overly fancy, upscale and polished should visit Phoenix International Raceway. The Phoenix track doesn’t have the bling that some of the other tracks on the circuit have, but it does have an old school charm that I find refreshing.

There isn’t a Wolfgang Puck’s restaurant or a concession-laden fan zone in the infield at Phoenix. Heck, there’s not much of an infield at all. Some of the teams have to work on their cars under tents they have brought since there aren’t enough garage stalls to accommodate everyone. And the garage itself is nothing more than an aluminum roof with legs.

One of my favorite characteristics of the track is the close proximity of the grandstands to the racing surface. I know that in past blogs I have suggested that some grandstands be moved back from the catch fences for safety reasons. But there’s nothing as exciting to me as feeling the rush of air as 43 cars race by. The ear-splitting sound and the smell of exhaust that wafts all the way up to the top of the seating area make the experience complete. A friend recently asked me if I wear a mask when I go to the races to avoid the exhaust fumes. “I just breathe in,” I said.

When I attend a race I’m allowed to sit in the press box. The press box is usually a suite of some sort that’s located over the main grandstands. But the press box at Phoenix is in a class by itself. It’s basically a three-story, doublewide trailer on stilts. And when there’s even a slight breeze you can feel the press box sway. The view is great and it’s one of the few press boxes that still have windows that open, allowing the sounds and smells of the race into room.

I’m always impressed by drivers and dignitaries affiliated with NASCAR who take the time to sign autographs. Rusty Wallace was always good at this. Mike Helton is good at it too. While wandering thought the garage area I noticed that Jeff Gordon, Kurt Busch, Richard Childress and Jack Roush were always ready with a pen to sign whatever was thrust in front of them. Elliott Sadler, on the other hand, wasn’t as accommodating. I saw him flat refuse to honor a woman’s request for his signature. At one time I saw Kasey Kahne walking though the infield in a baseball cap, sunglasses, old jeans and a T-shirt. No one recognized him.

On the left rear of each Cup car there is a small opening for the catch can. While the cars are in the garage, a plug is inserted into the opening with a ribbon attached that says: “Remove before race.” Here’s what I saw on Ryan Newman’s car:

We had those press box windows open during driver introductions and the reactions by the crowd were almost as deafening as the sound of the race cars. Jeff Gordon got an equal number of cheers and boos. Kurt Busch also had an equal number of cheers and boos, but overall the reaction to him wasn’t as loud as it was for Gordon. Mark Martin brought the house down with thunderous approval. Jimmie Johnson received mostly boos, which I considered ludicrous given his personality and tremendous level of success. If he were a basketball or football athlete, you could have heard the cheers all the way from the Grand Canyon. And, of course, Kyle Busch was hammered by a wave of boos.

Denny Hamlin is creative. A few times during the race he complained that he saw fluid coming out of the No. 48 car. Nice try, Denny.

Speaking of Denny Hamlin, the feud between him and Brad Keselowski continued at Phoenix. Keselowski was eventually called to the NASCAR trailer for a meet and greet with Mike Helton after the Nationwide race on Saturday. I like seeing a driver who’s fired up and ready to make aggressive moves to win. As a result, I’m looking forward to Keselowski’s 2010 season. Not just from an excitement standpoint, but also for the cartoon possibilities he will furnish. But if he’s racing in a way that results in DNFs for other drivers, then more visits to the NASCAR trailer will be warranted.

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