Hooked for Life: A NASCAR Fan's First Short Track Experience
by Kim Hale
Forty-five minutes in my car driving I-75 North from Naples, I found myself in Punta Gorda. About ½ mile off the highway, I pulled down a dirt road where I got my first glimpse of Charlotte County Speedway. Lawn chairs lined the top of a grassy hill off turn 4 and the parking lot was filled with the cars that brought dedicated race fans to watch some good old fashion Saturday night racing.
I pulled into my parking spot and headed over to the pit window to grab my pass for the evening. This was my first visit to Charlotte County Speedway, let alone I had never been to a short track. I gave the lady my name and she put a band around my wrist that said VIP. By this time, my adrenaline had begun to run, and I was getting extremely excited. I asked her where does this get me, she looked at me and said anywhere you would like to go. I could not believe what was happening. I was not sure of where to start walking, so I headed over to the grandstands. I gave the girl at the entrance a dollar for a raspberry lemonade lollipop that she was selling. She was too cute not to buy one.
As I walked in, I finally saw the asphalt track. To the left was the grassy hill I saw from the parking lot, and the grandstands made of boards and iron bars holding it together, were to the right. I stood near the fence for a second to catch my breath and see all the beauty in front of my eyes. There were only a few cars on the track practicing. When I finally got a glance of one of the cars, it looked a little funny. The cars had no fenders on them and were not your typical NASCAR stock cars that I was expecting. Later that evening I found out that they were the Open-Wheel Modified cars.
I found a seat in the stands and took in another deep breath. Calmness raced through my body, I knew I was home. I looked over to the right and saw the oranges and pinks of one of the most gorgeous sunsets I had ever seen in Florida. Over by turn 2 the cars were behind the track wall waiting their time to roar around the asphalt oval. Cars were traveling up and down I-75 in the background not knowing what magic was happening at Charlotte County Speedway. The infield had a huge asphalt X in the middle. What was that for I wondered? There were also a few battered old cars also in the infield. Are they are going to race those? I knew then that I was going to watch some racing, as I had never seen before.
Since I had this VIP band around my wrist, I went for a walk, exploring the track. My feet took me to pit row. Cars were lined up with crew members putting final touch-ups on set-ups for their cars, some drivers where talking with family and friends. Walking onwards, I saw many different types of cars. If I thought the Open-Wheel cars looked strange, then what were these small, souped-up, go-cart looking things called?
This was going to be a learning experience. The TQ Midgets were definitely my favorite looking cars of the night. Those things just looked fast. I could not wait to see what they would do on the track. Along my walk, I also saw the 4-cylinder, Road Warrior, stock and super stock, and the Thunder Truck cars. It was amazing. All these cars gathered to accomplish one goal, which was to win the checkered flag.
"Kim Hale please come to the timing tower," was heard over the loud system. I was hoping that maybe they found my ID I had lost during my walk. I headed over to the tower; Jack and Rebecca greeted me. It was nice to finally meet them and know that my questions where going to be answered. I got a quick run down of what was going on for that evening. There was going to be a lot of racing. Seven featured events were on the schedule, plus a figure 8 Road Warriors race and a fan participation flag pole race.
I followed Rebecca back to the pits. She told me some safety rules to follow while in the pits and the infield. She gave me a small tour and told me about the cars I was going to watch that night. We headed back to the stands for the opening ceremonies. I took my seat once again in the stands.
A school bus with tiger stripes on it was waiting at the start/finish line. The announcer asked if there were any children that would like to ride the bus. Kids came running out of the stands. Parents accompanied a few. Fans rose to honor our country in the playing of the National Anthem.
A young girl beautifully sang The Star Spangled Banner. I looked around and saw the stands full of fans, young and old, on their feet, their hats over their hearts. The bus lead the parade, followed by a blue truck waving our flag, and than the safety crew for the night. As the anthem ended, the bus began to do figure 8's for the kids. The kids were having the time of their life out there on that track. What a time to be an adult I thought. When the bus stopped, the announcer told parents to collect their kids. It was racing time.
It was time for the first featured event of the night, 12 laps of 4-cylinder car racing. There were a few kids driving. A parent must accompany any child driving who was under the age of 16. For only 5 cars on the track, it was a exciting race, especially for my first one at the speedway.
Cody Benoit, driver of the #39 took the lead after #33 driven by Chris Loney, crashed into the wall in turn 4. After that, it was smooth sailing for Cody. He took the checkered flag and thanked his family and sponsors for helping him get to the winner's circle, and like any great racer, thanked all his fans for supporting him.
Every race that followed was just as exciting.
I sat in the stands for the Road Warriors race. With a name like Road Warriors, this had to be interesting. The race filled with cautions and lead changes, just like any great race. If you were in front of another car coming out of turn 2 and looked in your review mirror, there was sure to be another car on your bumper waiting to give you a bump and run. Those Road Warriors sure did live up to their names.
On lap 9 the #22 driven by Ann Marie Ricardi went into turn 3 sideways than headed into the dirt bringing on the first caution of the race. There were 3 more cautions during that 25 lap race. On lap 23 #30 driven by Chris Huntoon gave the #18 a little bump and run coming out of turn 2. #30 eventually took the checkered flag 2 laps later.
My soda I drank earlier finally had the best of me. If I had to choose to go into the bathrooms at Charlotte County Speedway or Homestead-Miami Speedway, it would be Charlotte hands down. They were clean and well kept. It was nice not having to be scared of the bathrooms.
I then took off back to the pits. The stock car racers were on the track getting their turns at taming the asphalt. I sat on the wall, behind the fence, off Turn 2 during the race. They came in hard off turn 1 and went high out of turn 2. You could feel the cars as they rushed around the track. Friends, family, and crew members lined the wall cheering on their driver. That was my favorite spot to watch the race. Piece of advise, if you go down to the speedway, and want to see the race up close, pay the money to get a pit pass and sit on the wall. It was truly amazing to sit there. I fell in love with racing all over again.
The highlight of the evening was watching the fan participation flagpole race. All those battered old cars on the infield were going to get their chance at a race.
First, a flagpole race is where you have a flag in the middle of the track, in this case, before turn 1, and every time you go by the flag you must complete a 360-degree circle around the pole and than continue on your way.
At the beginning of the evening, they had sign-ups from fans of who would like to enter this event. The only requirements were that you were over the age of 18 and had a helmet. Several drivers donated their helmets for the fans to use. It was truly something that the track wanted to give back to the fans for supporting them every week. It was their way of saying 'Thank you'.
Ok, so let me get this straight. A bunch of racing fans are going to get into old cars and race around the track, but also having to do a circle around a flagpole. How fascinating. The cars lined up, green flag dropped and off they went. Around the track they went, and then it was time for the flagpole. Single file down the straightway and than the brakes came on to go around the pole. The first few went around incident free. As more cars came went around the more hectic it got out there. One car would go around the pole hoping not to run into another car trying to start their circle around the pole. As the race went on, the people increasingly got more daring around the pole. It was a sight to see. Next time I am down there, I will be in one of those cars to experience for a brief moment what it is like to be a driver of a race car.
My other favorite part of the night was to watch the Road Warriors compete in a figure 8 race. 15 laps of figure 8's, with drivers who have never ran this type of race, more excitement going down at Charlotte County Speedway. Figure 8's are when they use the X in the infield. They race around the corners, but go through the X thus forming a figure 8 during the lap.
At first, the cars went single file around the track. As the laps went on, the cars got spread out, making it more dangerous to cross in the middle of the X. Around lap 8, it got interesting. Lap after lap there were narrower escapes in the middle of the X. The leader would not want to give up his lead by stopping. Full speed they ran down the X, meeting up with someone coming in from the other side. Imagine sitting in your car, going towards on coming traffic trying to get through the same intersection as you are going through, just in different direction. That to me is just plain nuts, but makes for an exciting spectator event. Everyone escaped with minor damages. The Mazda, which was used for the flagpole race, was also used for this race. It suffered the most damage, loosing only it's front bumper. I needed to catch my breath after this race. My heart was racing for the drivers.
If you have only ever been to a NASCAR race, go to a small local short track. See where all the big names got their starts. I cannot wait to go again. It will only take one time, and you will be hooked for life. I know I am.
Charlotte County Speedway is the home of amazing and exciting racing. If you live any where near there and are bored on a Saturday night, get in your car and drive down there. Pay the $15 for your ticket and have a fun filled night of racing. Support the locals.
You never know when who you might see later on the NASCAR circuit. In addition, just think, you can say, hey I saw him down at Charlotte County Speedway where he got his start.
[Editors Note: Kim Hale is the newest edition to KARNAC.com's growing group of staff reporters and photographers, she also writes for KARNAC's partner in print Florida Motor Sports Magazine. Kim can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org]
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