Wednesday, December 24, 2014


I've spent recent columns reminiscing about my favorite aimless getaways of 2014. True Midwesterners know that even the most docile of backroads can lead to a world of adventure if you've got a full tank of gas, some good tunes blasting, and no agenda whatsoever. But I failed to mention my favorite getaway of 2014 thus far, because it wasn't aimless. It had a purpose. A loud purpose.

There's no sense in hiding it, so let's get the ugly truth out of the way: I'm a NASCAR fan. Yes, I realize it's essentially a character flaw. Certain aspects of NASCAR Nation go against nearly everything I stand for. I'm a blue-state liberal who aspires to be a card-carrying member of the counter-culture, but strangely there's nothing I love more on a Sunday afternoon than watching cars turn left for hours on end.

I have vague memories of watching races on TV as a kid, but it didn't become a passion until I started my side gig as a DJ. On most Saturday nights, you can find me in the wee hours at some club trying desperately to hang onto my youth with every beat. Ergo, most Sundays you can find me feeling like my real age with my brain running at half speed. And what's better for a half-speed brain than watching cars drive around in circles?

If only my zeal stuck to Sundays. When I started visiting NASCAR websites, I knew I might be more than just a passing fan. When I started listening to NASCAR Radio, I knew I was hooked. But when I started calling in to argue with a guy named "Chocolate" on a show called "Tradin' Paint"? Heaven help me, I just might be a mega-fan.

But there's one thing this mega-fan's never done: attended a Sprint Cup race in person. I've been to a handful of Nationwide races, but never the big leagues. And every year when the Sprint Cup makes it's annual stop at the Chicagoland Speedway, I look to the east with longing and start bugging all of my friends to see if anyone might fancy a sensory assault of burning rubber, jet dryers, and the body odor of countless strangers.

But this year, I just happened to call home first. And I just happened to mention the upcoming race to my mom. And that's when I heard my dad in the background saying, "Heck, I'll go with him if he wants."

WHY did I never think of this before? I'm a lousy son.

I lucked out to get a friend for a father. It's good to know I've got someone in my camp who will ALWAYS have my back, and I couldn't imagine a better dad anywhere on Earth. No foolin'. That said, he and I are fairly different people. I like books, computers, music, and air conditioning. My dad prefers a toolbox, 2x4's, and all that gross nature stuff. But we make a good team: Dad knows how to fix stuff, and I know how to call my dad when I need stuff fixed.

I'm proud to be his son, and I know he's proud of the man I am. But sometimes I feel bad that he didn't get a kid who shared more of his interests. Well, it may have taken him 43 years, but the old man finally ended up with a son he could take to a sports event.

Except it was vice-versa. How weird was it that I drove? I don't think that's happened since driving lessons 25 years ago. We left the Quad Cities on Sunday morning at about the usual time I go to bed on most Saturday nights, and it's a good thing we got an early start. We might live in a blue state, but it turns out the Land of Lincoln has a fair share of NASCAR fanatics. We barely made it to the greater Joliet area when the traffic backed up. For the next two hours, it was bumper-to-bumper, stop-and-go to the track. We were about to see cars take the straightaway at over 200 mph, but for a while there, I would have been happy to see one go 20.

It was a quarter mile walk from the parking lot to... another line, where a sea of humanity was routed through one tiny gate and some seriously over-worked friskers. Then we were in, and it was just a matter of finding our seats.

Unlike most sports events, the best seats in NASCAR aren't up front, unless you fancy getting covered in black ick and having your eardrums sucked inside out. Instead, you want to be as high up in the grandstands as possible, so you can see all the action. That's where our seats were, which was awesome. Except that we had to GET to them. I didn't really factor in the four flights of stairs to get to the BOTTOM of the bleachers and then the infinite hike up to our seats. By the time we reached the oxygen-deprived heights of row 61, I was a sweaty and wheezing mess of ick. Dad, on the other hand -- a man with so many pins and plates that I'm pretty sure we could legally declare him a robot -- was all smiles and sunshine.

I was so exhausted I could barely consume my bacon-covered cheese dog.

But was it ever worth it. An awesome race made even awesome-ier as a first-hand witness, it was a brilliant way to kick off the Chase for the Sprint Cup -- and I couldn't have picked a better co-pilot. Dad ate it up with glee, even elbowing me once or twice when he spotted a good duel before I could.

I think I've now made my dad a NASCAR fan. My mom dutifully taped the race (because she was just SURE she'd see us in the stands,) and when my dad got home, he watched it all over again and called me excitedly when he spotted our car in the parking lot. The next week, he called me again to get my take on the New Hampshire race after it ended. I think he might have even found a favorite driver in rookie Kyle Larson.

There's a secret spot in the corner of my brain where I keep my favorite NASCAR memories. Trevor Bayne winning the Daytona 500... Watching Tony Stewart pass a dozen cars in less than a dozen laps for the win... standing with my friend Dianna in the rain for hours to meet Brian Vickers... but nothing will ever beat seeing my first Sprint Cup race sitting next to the best guy I know.

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