A friend and former colleague of mine now works for the Speed channel and when I started Project 29 to 30, he contacted me to congratulate me on such a lofty endeavor; he wished me much luck on the journey, and proposed that I come to a NASCAR race with him as one of the things I've never done before.
Several emails and trips down memory lane later, he and the organizers of the event said that they would leave me two tickets and pit passes for me for Sunday's race. I didn't know what all of that meant, but it sounded good, and I was excited.
Day 343, I was off to the races, making attending the Emory Healthcare 500, my first NASCAR race, the thing that I'd never done before.
I knew this event was going to be fun, and I couldn't wait to share it with a friend. But when it came time to choosing that friend, I didn't really have any one person in mind that I wanted to bring. Not one friend was standing out in my head as the perfect person to take. Perhaps that's why, in the weeks leading up to the race, I couldn't find anyone to come with me.
Most had good reasons why they couldn't make it - either they were out of town, or they had already made other plans. Some never returned my invitation message leading to me to believe that they were either not interested or weirded out by it, or possibly both.
And then one of my guy friends responded to the invitation with a text that said, "I don't know . . .I don't think so . . .that sounds like a bit of a commitment," it almost sent me into a tailspin.
I've certainly been on the receiving end of "Let me see if something better comes along before I commit to that," before, and I've been on the giving end as well, but this particular response hurt because it just made me feel like a loser. And crazy. Like what kind of vibe am I giving out if an invitation to a NASCAR race is somehow being misconstrued as a "commitment?"
Or worse, is NASCAR actually a commitment? Was I ready?
I almost responded with, "Hey man, not a marriage proposal. Just a NASCAR race. I swear." But I didn't. I did think long and hard about it though, and the whole thing just made me feel bad about myself.
This racing experience so far, paired with how I was already feeling about the 30th birthday party I had started planning that wasn't exactly panning out the way I had envisioned, was the perfect storm for my very own pity party.
Several friends, after the fact, pointed out, "Well you never asked me!" And they're right. Admittedly, I didn't ask every single person that I know, but after 10 "no's," (including one from my own dad), I just couldn't bear asking an 11th person who I was certain would give me the same response.
I almost called my Speed channel friend who had set aside the tickets to tell him that I couldn't go, too embarrassed to drive down to Atlanta Motor Speedway by myself. But then I thought about my friend's vibrant personality, his up-for-anything attitude and the fact that he had gone out of his way to get me these tickets and genuinely seemed excited to see me and be a part of my blog. And I just couldn't stomach making that phone call. Plus, I really wanted to go and see what NASCAR was all about.
So I went.
And I called my brother Jeff on the way there to ask him if going to NASCAR race alone could qualify as "rock bottom."
My Speed channel friend called me as I was making my way towards the race. I started to lie and say that the person that was supposed to come with me had to back out at the last minute, but I just didn't have the energy. And my friend, because he's awesome, interrupted me before I had to even go down that road and said, "No big deal! We're going to have a great day!"
He told me to let him know when I arrived. He had a few things to do before he could meet me but he told me to enjoy myself and he'd come and get me as soon as he was done.
I drove into Atlanta Motor Speedway and soaked up the atmosphere. Even stuck in traffic headed into the lot, there were plenty of things to look at: a lot of big trucks, a lot of denim, and a lot of tattoos, as expected. I wasn't surprised to see so many people there (and there were a lot). I knew that there is a huge subculture of people following this sport. I was surprised, right from the start, that the stereotypical race fan may exist, but there were plenty of non-stereotypical race fans as well. All ages, races and classes were represented. Everyone, it seemed, likes fast cars.
I parked my own non-fast car and got out to walk towards the track, never so aware that I was completely by myself. I wondered if the tailgaters wondered why anyone would come to a race by herself, and then I remembered from previous solo missions, that probably no one was really all that concerned. Still, I've done a lot of things on my own before, especially during my 29th year, but attending a sporting event solo was definitely new, and it actually felt quite sad.
As I approached the track, I could see a great deal of typical pre-sporting event fanfare. There were radio stations blasting music, merchandise tables with t-shirts donning pictures of the racers' faces on them for sale. I considered buying one, just because I find them to be hilariously tacky, and definitely good for a laugh, but I decided against it.
I saw quite a few race fans purchasing headsets that look like they belong in a recording studio. I assumed it was to block out the loud noise from the engines, but my friend later told me that the headsets allow spectators to listen to the pit crews communicating with the driver. My head just about exploded trying to figure out how that is technically possible, but I had to acknowledge it's pretty cool.
I stood watching dirt bike racers do flips off a ramp for quite a while, waiting for my friend to get in touch so that we could hang out. He said he managed to wrangle a golf cart away from his network and he was on his way to get me. When he showed up, driving like a crazy person with a big friendly smile on his face, I knew that in spite of it all, I was going to have fun.
Oh, and my friend? My super-awesome-would-give-you-the-shirt-off-his-back friend is Speed channel personality Rutledge Wood. And unbeknownst to me until that day, he's a celebrity in the race world.
In a matter of seconds, I went from being sad girl at a NASCAR race by herself to being the guest of the most popular guy at the race. Deciding to come alone was the best decision I ever made.
I hopped on the golf cart with Rutledge, who was going to take me to pick up my tickets and passes. As we took off towards our destination, I watched as tailgaters did double takes in our direction, trying to figure out if that actually was the goofball from the Speed channel, or if their eyes were playing tricks on them.
We tried to catch up on life, and I told him how it felt to be narrowing in on the end of the project and my 29th year. He told me about his wife Rachel, who he says is the love of his life and his daughter Elsie, who was soon going to become a big sister. He was so endearing talking about his family and I could tell that even though he loved what he was doing, the women in his life were his first loves.
Having a conversation under these circumstances was difficult. There was so much to see, plus people were shouting at Rutledge from the sidewalks.
"That's Rutledge Wood from TV. I love him!"
"OH MY GAWD! IT'S RUTLEDGE WOOD!!"
"Hey Rutledge come back here, I wanna tell you something!"
Many of them would run after the golf cart we were on with drinks in their hands, trying desperately not to spill whatever was in their cups. Rutledge managed to acknowledge all of them with a smile and a wave and still stay locked in our conversation. I, on the other hand, was having a hard time focusing.
All I could think to myself was, "Holy crap, Rutledge is a celebrity. My friend is a celebrity."
Half of me couldn't believe it. The other half of me could absolutely believe it. All of me was loving it.
Rutledge pointed out different areas of the track while explaining to me where we were headed. I was still trying to get over the fact that in the midst of our conversation, we stopped a handful of times while fans asked to take pictures. Everyone was so nice to him and to me; Rutledge was so nice and attentive back, listening to their stories and making them feel important. When it came time to take the picture, I usually offered to take it, but there were a few overly excited (or perhaps drunk) fans who demanded that I also get in the picture. I smile when I think about these people looking back on their photos years from now, wondering who the hell is this redhead?
We arrived at our destination to pick up my ticket and pit pass. Rutledge proved he was just as much of a hit here as is anywhere else. Men wanted to shake his hand, ladies wanted to give him a hug, everyone wanted to talk to him. When I was all squared away, we headed back out the same way we came, on the golf cart again, this time to the Speed stage in front of the track.
Just like ESPN's Gameday production, the Speed channel broadcasts from the site of the race each week. NASCAR live is an interactive show hosted by John Roberts and other reporters, and it caters to both the television audience at home while entertaining race fans before they go inside the track. Rutledge and I hung out backstage watching the show and were eventually joined by some of his college and high school friends who were all dressed to the NASCAR nines, complete with racing shirts and in at least one case, quite the pair of short shorts. They were all very nice guys who seemed as delighted, and somewhat taken aback, by Rutledge's success as I was.
But I don't think any of us were surprised that he had so many fans. I always knew Rutledge would do something cool with his life and I always knew he'd be successful. I don't think any of us could've imagined it would happen at this level. And Rutledge is just so nice. Goodness oozes out of him. He deserves this big life he's having and his success made me smile from ear to ear.
Rutledge's friends invited us to their tailgate happening in the parking lot, so we headed out there for a little while. They had really done this race in style, hiring a driver and a party bus (complete with a stripper pole, on which I may or may not have taken a turn) to bring them to and from the race. Everyone had come to party, and everyone was so nice to me, offering me food and beer. I happily indulged in one can of Budweiser (it felt like the right thing to do); that would be my first and only beer of the day.
At this tailgate I learned that at NASCAR races, or at this one anyway, coolers are acceptable and can be brought into the race. Certainly a recipe for disaster for those who had already been partaking in beverages all day, but overall another great reason to love NASCAR.
We had to return the golf cart to where Rutledge "borrowed" it from, so we left my new friends at the tailgate and headed next to the infield of the race. As we were driving away, a guy walking through the parking lot called out to Rutledge, "Hey! You! Rutledge! Bring yo ass on back here." He was brilliant, and with remarks like that, I hoped he had packed a cooler full of tall boys.
Rutledge made driving into the infield sound like it was no big deal, but getting to the infield is actually an experience all its own because it requires driving underneath the racetrack to get to the field in the center. The infield is full of hardcore race fans who camp out all weekend for the race. There are deluxe RVs and judging by the number of solo cups I saw on the ground and in people's hands, the party in the infield is like the biggest, rowdiest fraternity party of all time.
Once in the infield, I understood why Rutledge had advised me to wear closed-toe shoes and bring something to wear over my shoulders. With so much debris in the air and on the ground, covering as much skin as possible was definitely for the best. Later that evening when I got home and washed my face, I could actually see the dirt in my sink.
Rutledge had to do a short radio interview with Atlanta's Sports Station 680 The Fan, so we walked over to their broadcast tent. Rutledge sat down next to the host, and I stayed standing outside watching the interview. I'm not sure how, maybe because I was awkwardly staring at them, and taking pictures, but Rutledge mentioned to the host that I was his guest for the day, and that I was attempting to do 365 things that I'd never done before. The next thing I know the host of the show is motioning for me to pick up the headphones in front of me so that I could talk to them too.
Just a few hours into this day, and so far I'd realized that my old friend is a celebrity, taken pictures with people I don't know, and then appeared on the radio? I'd say it was all too much, but it wasn't. It was just right.
After our radio appearance, Rutledge and I walked to the winner's circle and around the pit, where all of the pre-race hoopla was in full swing. Engines were starting to rev in the distance, and there was a parade of sorts bringing all of the drivers into the track. We walked up and down the pit and watched the pit crews preparing themselves for the big event.
I was thankful I had earplugs. I don't think anyone can fully comprehend how loud a race is until you're standing there at the track. One of the many very nice people we'd met along the way had given me some and Rutledge had plenty more if I needed them. One of the few things that I did know about NASCAR was that the races are insanely loud; my dad always tells this story about him taking my mom to a race back when they first got together (I know, he's such a romantic). Someone told them that if they didn't have ear plugs, they could break the ends off cigarettes and just use the filters.
When it was time for the national anthem, we rushed over to the stage, which faced away from the infield, towards the grandstand. I, now luckiest person at the race, watched the national anthem standing on the track. When I looked down and saw the black and white checkered line painted on the ground, I looked at Rutledge.
"The finish line," Rutledge said, answering the question I never asked.
Right. So let me then clarify exactly where I was. I was standing on the track, on the finish line to watch the national anthem at Atlanta Motor Speedway. And then fighter jets did a fly-over. My heart was racing. In the best way.
They moved us off the track pretty quickly after that, not wanting to take any chances for stragglers as the race was starting.
"Gentleman, start your engines," the announcer said, prompting everyone to get on their feet. I chuckled as if I didn't think they actually said that. They do.
All at once, the drivers rev their engines and the entire grandstand erupts in shouting and applause and there is a feeling of unexplainable excitement. Even if you could care less about racing and about NASCAR, I challenge anyone to stand where I was standing that day and not feel excited.
When the cars took off, the track got even louder and though because I was still standing in the pit and couldn't completely see the cars well, I could feel it every time a group of them whizzed by. I confess I was also still soaking up the atmosphere and not completely paying attention to the race. Rutledge and I also went in search of billionaire Warren Buffett who we heard was sitting with one of the pit crews. I still don't know if it was actually him, but it sure looked like him.
Watching a pit stop in person was quite possibly one of the most impressive things I've ever seen. Crew members refuel, change the tires and send the car on its way in a matter of seconds. Speed is crucial, but so is accuracy and there is very little room for error. The drivers get all of the money and the glory, but without an intelligent, effective pit crew, they could never be successful. And one bad crew member could spoil the entire process.
I thought about the driver/pit crew relationship as a metaphor for my life and any of the successes that I've had. I credit myself, sure, for maximizing opportunities as they've been presented, but only up to a certain point. I've also been lucky, showing up at the right place at the right time and most importantly, I've surrounded myself with some pretty outstanding people. My pit crew is encouraging, smart, funny, supportive, challenging and looking back on all of the pictures I've taken this year, pretty damn good looking too. I have them to thank for my seemingly charmed life. Recent birthday party and race day disappointments excluded, I am so very fortunate. Just like a pit crew can have an off day, maybe that's all that was happening here, and with my crew's help, I'd be back on track before long.
We stayed in the pit for a while before heading up to the fancy sky box at Atlanta Motor Speedway (are you lost yet? We covered a lot of ground that day.) Since he's a personality for Speed channel, Rutledge is often asked to show up at events and mingle with racing fans and Speed viewers. I had to laugh, though, that while his employer may ask him to do it, something tells me he would do it anyway. He really is friendly, he really is funny, and he really does enjoy meeting his fans. I know being on the road and away from his family is tough some times, but I can't think of a more perfect job for him.
The clientele in the sky box proved, once again, that racing is not a sport just for lowbrow rednecks. There are plenty of those, but there were some pretty fancy people in this box who seemed to enjoy racing just as much as the rest of us. And from up high, I could really see the race and more fully grasp how fast these cars were actually going and watch the pit crews in action.
I also saw several caution laps, which I loved. A pace car enters the track during a caution period (after a wreck or when debris falls on the track) and forces all of the drivers, who are obviously amped up and ready to go super fast, to table their speed for a bit. Once the pace car exits the track, the race cars increase their speed to more appropriate racing levels, an action that had all the excitement of the start of the race. It brought a whole new meaning to one of my favorite phrases, "Going zero to 60 in seconds." They really did.
We stayed in the box for an hour or so, meeting guests and eating ice cream. At some point it had occurred to me that I hadn't eaten all day, so ice cream sounded like the right thing to do. Some more photo ops, handshakes and hugs later and we headed back to the pit.
There, Rutledge introduced me to one of the crew members who looked all of about 17-years old. There were so many things that I wanted to ask him, but I refrained, knowing that he was probably very busy. While standing over a racing tire, he explained to me that one of his jobs was to check how the traction on the tires was wearing down and adjust A super important job for someone who, to me, looked so young.
Before the race was over, Rutledge told me he was going to dip out a little early; he hadn't seen his wife or daughter in several days and was anxious to get home. He encouraged me to stay if I wanted to, and even offered to call his friends that I had met earlier in the day so that I could sit with them.
I considered staying, and shockingly by then, the idea didn't bum me out nearly as much as it had just hours before. But I decided to leave when Rutledge did. After such a gloriously full day I was ready to go. Also I think a part of me didn't want to test my luck.
I know, I know. "Quit while you're ahead," is certainly not a slogan to race by and it's not one that I live my life by either. But I got what I came for and a whole lot more. So by those calculations, I didn't really need to see much else. Plus the only thing that anyone told me about Atlanta Motor Speedway was that traffic is a bitch, and I'm no fool.
Tony Stewart went on to win the Atlanta Motor Speedway Labor Day Classic (I listened to it on the radio leaving the track), but it was I who really felt like a winner that day. Thanks to one particularly awesome member of my very own pit crew, who just so happens to be famous.