Jeff Gluck, NASCAR Scene
The dawn’s early light cuts through the morning haze and leftover campfire smoke, illuminating towering grandstands and one sleeping giant of a paved oval. It is an island surrounded by a sea of tents and RVs, within which lie snoozing race fans who have traveled from far and wide to see the continent’s premier motorsports series.
At the center of this soon-to-awaken chaos is a parking lot containing lavish motorhomes owned by the stars of the show. And though the race may be seven hours away, the drivers of the Nextel Cup Series are beginning to stir, preparing to meet a long list of obligations before they ever fire up the engines.
To race in NASCAR, drivers must do more than just risk their lives in a high-speed game of chase. They must entertain fans and sponsors, schmooze at meet-and-greets, act as corporate spokesmen and still find the time to be teammates and family men to those who they hold closest.
Drivers do all of this just hours or even minutes before they take to the track, with a knot of nerves in their stomachs and a challenge to mentally prepare for competition while fulfilling the unique duties that auto racing demands.
It’s akin to walking a tightrope while juggling.
No other sport asks its competitors to deal with such event-day distractions during what would be the traditional preparation time.
There are no pregame meet-and-greet sessions in the NFL. In baseball, starting pitchers don’t speak to the media before the game. Golfers don’t endure a pre-tee-time meeting, and basketball fans don’t get access to Kobe Bryant before tipoff.
But in NASCAR, Sundays don’t just belong to the drivers; it’s the sponsors’ day to shine, too. The corporations that pour millions of dollars into race teams require a return on their investment, and race day is their best chance to collect.
So instead of holing up in their motorcoaches and listening to an iPod in solitude for seven hours before the race, drivers are shuttled from stop to stop, asked to answer questions about what their favorite track is, and whether they pee during the race.
Such is the nature of greeting fans and sponsors. Not that the drivers are complaining – they understand that’s part of the game.
Still, it can be an eye-opener for those who aren’t familiar with the prerace routine.
“I’ll bring in some of my friends from baseball, and they say, ‘I can’t believe you have to do this stuff before an event – it’s just crazy,’” defending Cup champion Jimmie Johnson says.
Starting The Madness
When exactly the craziness begins varies by driver and race. By the time 6 a.m. rolls around, Mark Martin has already been awake for a long time.
“I don’t have to be woke up,” he says. “It’s a struggle to stay in bed in the mornings for me.”
Johnson isn’t one who requires an alarm clock, either. He awakens naturally at around 6:30 or 7 a.m. every morning and says he’s “lucky” if he can sleep past that.
After he makes himself a cup of coffee and eats breakfast, Johnson’s schedule for the next few hours – like all the other drivers – is determined by when he needs to be at hospitality.
“Hospitality” in NASCAR refers to the at-track corporate entertainment that serves as a vital tool for sponsors. Companies host prerace gatherings in a village of tents outside the track where they can wine and dine their customers or reward employees for a job well done.
Drivers are asked to make appearances at these events, usually lasting about 15 minutes apiece. Fans at the invitation-only parties can ask questions or shake hands and pose for pictures with their favorite driver, depending on the sponsor’s preference.
How many hospitalities per race weekend and how often the drivers make appearances also vary according to the sponsor’s wishes when they sign a contract with the teams.
Jeff Gordon, for example, does one or two hospitality appearances every weekend – and always shows up at the DuPont tent. DuPont doesn’t do a lot of television advertising, instead reaching out to its customers by bringing them to the track. Having Gordon show up and answer questions for 15 minutes is usually a good way to get those people excited.
Gordon’s second hospitality appearance, which occurs at about half of the races, would be for an associate sponsor such as Pepsi or Nicorette.
Other sponsors would rather organize a meet-and-greet with the drivers inside the track. The Army gives away tickets and VIP access to some of its new recruits, who get the chance to meet Martin.
On one recent race day, and under cloudy and threatening skies, Martin stands in a semicircle of baby-faced recruits and asks for a show of hands among the NASCAR fans in the group. Only a few of the two-dozen hands raise skyward.
Martin launches into a talk about how he thinks his car will handle and updates the recruits on his weekend so far. This is a shy group of recruits, and none seem to have any questions, but they are glad to pose for photos and glean autographs from the veteran driver.
After he ensures that everyone receives a picture, autograph and handshake or kind word, Martin climbs the side step to the No. 01 hauler and disappears through the doorway.
Naturally, the drivers put on their best face for the hospitality sessions. But that can be difficult, because their focus isn’t 100 percent on the meet-and-greets. The race is only a few short hours away.
“I’m thinking about it the whole time,” Gordon says. “It’s always on my mind. The second I get to the track, the race car is on my mind.
“When I go do these other things, it’s really just a part of the routine that I don’t really think a whole lot about.”
Routine is the key word for Gordon. He’s become so accustomed to doing his two hospitality visits each race day that it is part of his race preparation. And he is insistent on it staying that way.
“I want it to be the exact same as it always is,” he says. “I want it to be pretty regimented. That’s my big thing. Don’t throw me for a loop and do something totally different – that’s the type of thing that will distract me.”
Gordon is so serious about sticking to his routine that he’s turned down some fairly big celebrities who have wanted to meet him before the race.
But if something unusual does come up, Gordon tries to let it go without allowing it to affect his on-track performance.
“I feel like that’s one of the things I do fairly well,” he says. “I’m able to put up with a lot of distractions and not let it get to me. I’ve just learned over the years that if you get mad and upset about something that you’re not thrilled with ... you gotta really be able to catch yourself about it and move on.”
Johnson, Gordon’s teammate, takes a similar mental approach to dealing with distractions.
“Even if something big does come up, I’ve found a way to switch it over to Monday,” he says.
Time To Focus
When the hospitalities are over, it’s time for the drivers meeting – a far bigger occasion than it sounds.
It would probably be nice for the drivers if the meeting was just a simple gathering of drivers and crew chiefs, but those principals are squeezed into a small area – usually an empty garage or a tent – that can be hot, stuffy and cramped. The meeting is well-attended by sponsors, dignitaries, celebrities and media in addition to those who actually participate in on-track activity.
After the meeting, some drivers opt to stay for the chapel service held in the same space, while others return to their motorhomes or haulers to begin their final race preparations.
At this point, it’s time to get serious.
With less than two hours until race time, the drivers need to make sure they eat and drink enough to be comfortable for the duration of the race.
Elliott Sadler pops a few energy bars, eats some pasta to raise his carbs and gulps a ton of water. Gordon often enjoys salmon or chicken with pasta.
Johnson’s nutritionist wants him to stay on something similar to the Zone diet, which is 40 percent carbs, 30 percent protein and 30 percent fat. That usually entails something like chicken and pasta.
Tony Stewart – despite munching on a small can of unheated Chef Boyardee at the time he says this – usually eats chicken or turkey before the race.
“I just eat what [the trainer] gives me,” he says. “I have no idea what has carbs in it or too much sugar, other than candy. I’m pretty simple when it comes to that.”
Martin follows a more traditional route, preferring to munch on his favorite sandwich – turkey on wheat with mustard.
“The human body, you don’t tune it up like you do to the car, the night before,” he says. “It can’t happen. You can eat all the pasta and drink all the water you want, but it’s not gonna do much for you unless you’ve been living it.”
Do Drivers Get Nervous?
Between them, Stewart, Johnson and Gordon have seven Nextel Cup championships and decades of racing experience. With that much success, one would assume those drivers can’t possibly get nervous before a race. That assumption would be incorrect.
“The day I don’t get nervous before a race is the day I’ll quit racing,” Stewart says. “That’s what makes it so much fun for me, the fact that you do get nervous and excited.”
Several years back, Johnson found he didn’t have any nerves before racing off-road buggies in a just-for-fun race during an off-weekend.
“I ended up flipping end over end down the frontstretch and knocked myself wacky,” he says. “That was the only time I ever put my guard down, like, ‘Ah, just out here screwing around, having fun.’
“When I came to my senses after that, I thought, ‘You know what? I’d better have butterflies. I’d better respect this and keep me honest.’”
Gordon finds that the fluttering in his stomach is reserved for bigger events, like the Daytona 500. But despite the lack of butterflies, there’s still something different about him before the race.
He can’t eat as much, he says, “because there’s definitely some nerves there because my stomach, I can feel it.” And, he adds with a laugh, “My wife will tell you that I kind of tune her out on race day. I’m not 100 percent there, because I’m 100 percent somewhere else,” he says. “That race day is my day to not be distracted.”
Not all drivers get nervous. When he first entered Cup, Kasey Kahne’s stomach was upside down before a race. Now the nerves only come occasionally.
“Man, I wish I still got them,” he says. “I still get them sometimes, but not like I used to. The more you do it … you just get used to it after a while.”
Just like the nerves vary from driver to driver, so does the time it takes to mentally prepare for a race.
Martin can’t say how he gets ready to race. Not because it’s a national secret, but because he’s never thought about it – he just does it.
“It’s not a conscious thing,” he says. “It’s hard to answer that question. Maybe [the preparation] happens before or after we start the engines. I don’t know.
“Racing is the center of my life – has been for over 30 years. I do most of it without thinking. It comes naturally.”
Stewart is much the same way.
“It’s kind of like you getting up and doing what you do every day,” he says. “You’re used to it, you don’t have to think about it, you don’t have to prepare to do your job. That’s kind of what we do. … We just get in there and do it.”
Not so for others, including teammate Denny Hamlin. While Stewart makes a beeline for his hauler in order to spend time with his crew guys – whom he considers family – in the hours leading up to the race, Hamlin looks for the most solitary spot he can find.
“The biggest thing is to try and get a clear head three or four hours before the race,” he says. “We have the drivers meeting, but after that, no one is really allowed near me. I really don’t like to talk to a whole lot of people, friends or family.”
As the time approaches for driver introductions, the drivers change from corporate-logoed street clothes into their firesuits. They stretch, watch Speed’s “RaceDay” TV show with their crews and hold team meetings. Some, like Sadler, inhale oxygen to clean out their systems.
“I kind of relax, get into a good place [mentally],” Johnson says. “Then you go out to driver intros, and it’s all back in your face again.”
Calm Before The Storm
Drivers cannot wait for the race to begin.
By the time they march across the introduction stage, ride a pickup truck around the track to wave to the fans and stand by their cars making small talk with family and friends, drivers look at their cars like a cool swimming pool in the middle of the desert.
“When the national anthem is over, I cannot get in that car fast enough,” Johnson says. “I just kind of want to sit, exhale, shake everything off and think about what I need to do.”
When Sadler hears, “And the home of the brave,” he knows it’s time to go to work.
“After the national anthem, it’s really nice when we get in our own little car,” he says. “That’s like my office. I put my window net up, and then we’re ready to start business.”
Finally, most drivers are alone for the first time all day, and they can start thinking about the race.
But how much time is it, exactly? Try four minutes.
“It’s just long enough to get your belts buckled and helmet plugged in and it’s, ‘Gentlemen, start your engines,’” Johnson says. “Whew! OK – here we go.”
Gordon relishes the moment when he can finally sit inside the car, clear his mind and not worry about anything but how the car is going to run and how he’s going to start the race.
“Once you put that helmet on and the window net up, you don’t have to worry about cameras, you don’t have to worry about speaking to anybody or talking about anything else,” he says. “It’s just you and that car and that team, getting ready to go.”
In a moment, the cars will begin to roll off pit road, and drivers will have to worry about heating their tires and brakes, checking gauges, flipping switches and running fans.
Now the drivers can actually concentrate on their real jobs. The chaos and stress of prerace activities is done, making for an odd moment of relief before the true danger begins.
“I think that’s the moment,” Gordon says, “where I start to actually calm down.”