Magazine

Fall Travel: Thrill Seeking

A new fan’s guide to NASCAR

How a mild-mannered, Kia-driving visitor learned to love the speed, the danger, even the noise at the New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

Dina Rudick/Globe Staff

I MEANT TO GET EARPLUGS. I really did.

But it was after noon on Saturday, and my nephews, 16-year-old Alex and 10-year-old Jack, and I are running late for our first visit to the New Hampshire Motor Speedway. Rather than miss the start of the race, I decide to temporarily skip the ear protection. I mean, how loud could it possibly get?

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The three of us hustle through the turnstiles and into the speedway. It’s enormous: a 1.058-mile oval of asphalt flanked by enough aluminum bleachers and other seating for more than 100,000 fans. The infield is bigger than Fenway Park and Gillette Stadium combined. But today’s race isn’t shaping up to be crowded, so we’re able to stake out three spots just a few rows up from the starting line.

As we’re getting settled, 30 drivers simultaneously start their supersize engines, sending a roar through our bones. “I can feel that in my chest!” Jack says with a big smile. It’s a fun kind of loud, like being close to fireworks, and as the cars begin to slowly circle the track we can still hear the announcer. “We’re ready to go racin’, ” he says. “These people will have you shakin’ your bacon before the afternoon is out.” Then an official waves the green flag and the drivers hit the gas.

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Now this is loud, and not the fun kind. This kind of loud is painful and disorienting, the sort that makes you wonder if you’ve just damaged your hearing forever, not to mention that of the two minors entrusted to you for 48 hours. Fingers in our ears, we rush down the stands to search for earplugs, and that’s when I wonder: What in the world have I gotten us into?

I’d bought tickets for a weekend’s worth of races on little more than a whim. I’m not a car guy. I can’t drive a stick or tell you the first thing a carburetor does. The closest I’ve been to NASCAR is getting my old Kia station wagon stuck in New Hampshire traffic after a big Sunday race. Still, I had this idea that a trip to the speedway in Loudon would make a fun boys’ weekend with Jack and Alex (they’re technically cousins-in-law, but that term never captured our closeness). Plus, I’d finally get the chance to see what all the racing fuss was about.

With an estimated 75 million fans, NASCAR is one of the most popular sports in the United States. Even I’ve heard of the Daytona 500, the kickoff to the 10-month racing season, as well as stars like Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr., and Danica Patrick. But other than that, all I knew were the cliches, chief among them that car racing is less a real sport than an excuse to drink beer and wait for crashes.

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But then I spent two days among the NASCAR faithful — cheering three races, testing my nerve behind the wheel of a souped-up go-kart, and, yes, seeing a bunch of crashes — and now I think I just might be on the road to becoming a fan. And for a couple of days, I might even have become a pretty cool uncle.

THE NEW HAMPSHIRE MOTOR SPEEDWAY, the only one of NASCAR’s 29 top-level tracks in New England, is easily accessible off Interstate 93, a little over an hour’s drive from Boston. There’s free parking in dirt lots served by regular shuttles (don’t be tempted by nearby property owners asking $50 or more to rent spaces on their lawns), and you can bring in as much food and drink as you can carry (though no glass bottles, and coolers can’t be larger than 14 inches). Regulars pull coolers to the track in kids’ wagons, then chain the wagons to fences outside the entrances.

You can theoretically survive without a cooler — we do — but it won’t be in the best interests of your health or your wallet. Sitting in the shiny, sun-baked stands, you’ll need many bottles of water, which go for $3 at the concession stands. Sunblock, sunglasses, and hats are necessities. So is hearing protection. Government researchers once found the decibel level at a NASCAR race “equivalent to a jet engine.” Earplugs won’t cut it, so I put three pairs of heavy-duty hard plastic earmuffs for $16 each on my credit card. (I neglect to bring enough cash for the trip, too, and get hit with a $4.50 fee at one of the track’s ATMs. Twice.)

LOUDON, NH - JULY 13: A view of cars racing during the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Camping World RV Sales 301 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway on July 13, 2014 in Loudon, New Hampshire. (Photo by Chris Trotman/Getty Images)

Chris Trotman/Getty Images

The New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon can fit 105,491 spectators; the town itself has a population of only 5,335.

Earmuffs on our heads, we return to our first race, the Whelen Modified Tour’s Sunoco 100. NASCAR oversees many divisions, each with its own automobile types and terminology, and today and Sunday, July 12 and 13, we see three types of stock car races. The announcer explains that Modified is particularly popular in New England. This is partly because there is lots of passing, something that doesn’t happen that much on New Hampshire’s relatively short “Magic Mile.” It’s more common on tracks with long straightaways. Here, all that passing in close quarters brings about a half-dozen crashes over the course of the 90-minute race, including one that requires an ambulance. But we thankfully witness no serious injuries. (The potential for tragedy is always there: A few weeks later, a racer named Kevin Ward Jr. was struck and killed by NASCAR driver Tony Stewart during a dirt-track race in New York.)

During this race, we see a track-record-setting 35 lead changes. By lap 95, even the announcer is fired up. “Look at the struggle for the lead! It’s bare-knuckle racing from here to the finish!” In the last turn, Franklin, Massachusetts, native Bobby Santos pulls to the head of the pack. The crowd is on its feet. After more than 100 miles of racing, Santos wins by 3 feet.

The next race won’t start for more than an hour, so the boys and I decide to do some exploring. We spot one guy who’s fashioned some kind of spaceman’s helmet out of a case of Coors Lite. Another man pulls a single can of beer in a tiny wagon. “He only gets one a day!” quips his buddy. Behind the main grandstand is Souvenir Row, a long line of box trucks (“haulers” in NASCAR parlance) that open on one side to display their wares, lots of them autographed. There’s a truck for each big-name driver, but the same sort of stuff everywhere: everything from foam beer cozies ($6) to Matchbox cars ($8) to hoodies ($80). We walk past the Lite Lobster Lounge, an all-ages restaurant with live bands, and into a display area, where we see a replica of the General Lee from The Dukes of Hazzard (the boys are less impressed than I am) and Jack gets to sit behind the wheel of a real race car.

LOUDON, NH - JULY 12: A fan walks through the grandstands during the NASCAR Nationwide Series Sta-Green 200 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway on July 12, 2014 in Loudon, New Hampshire. (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)

Jared Wickerham

A day at the races can include fans in crazy costumes.

Dina Rudick/Globe Staff

Author Francis Storrs surveys the crowd.

Although I won’t let Jack and Alex try the zip lining offered in a corner of the 1,200-acre complex, there’s no getting out of the go-karts. With big engines and speeds topping 20 miles per hour, these aren’t kiddie-park machines — and I get handed the legal releases to prove it. Once Jack clears the 54-inch height requirement and I pay $75 in cash for the three of us, we pick out big helmets and foam neck supports. We get the track to ourselves, wedging into deep bucket seats, steering wheels at our chests, gas and brake pedals at our feet. It feels a little dangerous.

But once they wave the green flag, my nervousness is gone and I’m trying to shoot past Jack on the inside of a corner, tires squealing. Alex hangs onto the lead the whole 20 laps, fishtailing like crazy, and notches the win. The race is over in five minutes, but it’s worth the money. Despite some trash talk between the brothers about whether Alex lapped Jack once or twice, this would turn out to be the boys’ favorite part of the weekend.

Afterward, it’s back to the track to see how the pros do it. Saturday’s second event, the Sta-Green 200, is part of the Nationwide series, NASCAR’s minor league. Yet top drivers regularly compete in its races, which is like David Ortiz spending a day off playing in Pawtucket. Today’s big-name moonlighters include Brad Keselowski, Kyle Busch, and Matt Kenseth — two hours later, they’ll end up finishing the race in first through third places.

With less passing than the Modifieds, the Sta-Green 200 proves to be a bit of a letdown. The cars seem not only faster — zipping around the track in less than 30 seconds — but louder, too. Too loud to occasionally take off our earmuffs and get an update from the announcer, as we did at the last race, so we’re all lost. Still, there’s something oddly relaxing in the repetition: roaring cars, the heat, the smell of rubber and gasoline. It lulls you. When Keselowski wins, he burns tight circles in front of various parts of the stands, tires smoking. “Victory doughnuts!” shouts Jack.

7/13/14 - Loudon, MA - New Hampshire Motor Speedway - Waldo Shaffer, Jr., cq, thrust a triumphant fist into the air as he hugged his new bride, Tonya Shaffer, cq, formerly Tonya Guthrie, cq. The Greenbush, ME couple had just wed seconds earlier in parking lot S1 of the New Hampshire Motor Speedway. They were wed by tuxedo-t-shirt wearing justice of the peace George Jack, cq, of Concord, NH. - For first-person story about day at the NASCAR races at The New Hampshire Motor Speedway. Story by Francis/Storr. Item: 091414nascar. Dina Rudick/Globe Staff

Dina Rudick/Globe Staff

The day may also include a wedding ceremony.

As the crowds filter out, we take a walk around the fenced-off track. At one point, a security guard waves Jack over to hand him something: a yellow lug nut from one of the cars. Overjoyed with the treasure, Jack texts his mom while Alex and I walk a few steps ahead. “I enjoyed it a lot more than I thought I would,” Alex says. That goes double for me.

Then it’s back to our car for the hour’s drive to our hotel, the Homewood Suites by Hilton (603-427-5400; homewoodsuitesportsmouth.com) in Portsmouth. By the time I made reservations, most places closer to Loudon were booked. But the boys like the indoor heated pool and the s’mores; I like that the room is clean and big and that the price includes a breakfast buffet.

On the drive, I heed the track announcer’s advice to “keep the speed at the speedway.” Yet here and there I find myself leaning into corners, dreaming I’m piloting a far more powerful machine.

LOUDON, NH - JULY 13: Jamie McMurray, driver of the #1 McDonald's Chevrolet, makes a pit stop during the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Camping World RV Sales 301 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway on July 13, 2014 in Loudon, New Hampshire. (Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)

Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images

The pit crew for the No. 1 McDonald’s Chevrolet scrambles during the July 13 race.

AFTER A HURRIED BREAKFAST at 7 on Sunday morning, we swing by Market Basket, where I intend to stock a cooler with sandwiches and healthy snacks. Instead, we somehow end up with a half-dozen bottles of water, a box of Little Debbie Snack Cakes, and an enormous tub of cotton candy. (In the race for cool-uncle status, this is probably cheating.) The main event doesn’t start until 1 p.m., but we want to get there early to use our Pre-Race Pit Passes, special add-on tickets — $100 per adult, $50 for kids 14 and under — that let you spend several hours roaming big parts of the speedway’s infield.

There’s much more traffic today, and it’s close to 9 a.m. before we park. Rather than wait for a tram, we walk the quarter-mile to the track through a lot filled with hundreds of RVs. Camping at races for as long as a week is a big part of NASCAR culture. Later, we meet an older couple from Middleborough whose son has been doing it for 22 years, sometimes bringing enough buddies to fill a dozen campers. On the walk, we see a propane grill that looks like a race-car engine, a speedway truck selling bagged ice, and a group offering Jell-O shots for charity. In another parking area, a couple are getting married.

After a long wait in disorganized lines to sign more releases, we finally cross under the track through a tunnel and step out on the infield. Despite the crowds, we get to see lots of cars up close and lots of pit crews making their preparations. A track employee seeks out Jack, the youngest kid in the crowd around us, and hands him another lug nut. We catch a bit of a performance by Recycled Percussion, a STOMP-like troupe of Loudon-area locals that made a splash on America’s Got Talent and now performs in Vegas.

LOUDON, NH - JULY 13: Ryan Newman, driver of the #31 Caterpillar Chevrolet, leads a pack of cars during the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Camping World RV Sales 301 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway on July 13, 2014 in Loudon, New Hampshire. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

Ryan Newman, driver of the No. 31 Caterpillar Chevrolet, leads a pack during the July 13 Camping World RV Sales 301, part of NASCAR’s sprint cup series.

Chris Trotman/Getty Images

Jimmie Johnson walks away from a bad crash early in the Camping World RV Sales 301, but his car isn’t so lucky.

Overall, I don’t think Pit Passes are worth the money for casual fans like us, but at least the boys and I get to take a group selfie while we’re standing on the actual track. We end up leaving the infield early to grab lunch, a foot-long corn dog ($7) for Alex and burgers ($7 each) for Jack and me, eating on the ground under the grandstands because the picnic tables are full.

We also take a few minutes to get acquainted with our FanVision device, a hand-held video monitor I rented that morning for $45 to let us see and hear track broadcasts. It also connects to video and audio feeds from inside select cars, though the boys turn out to be disappointed that we won’t overhear any of the salty language the rental guy warned us about. (The screen proves to be hard to see in the bright sun, so next time I’ll rent an audio-only scanner, which starts around $35, and you can hang on to for multiple days.)

This is the one race of the weekend with assigned seats, and we find ours in the Concord Grandstands, an area good for families because it’s closer than other sections to restrooms and concessions.

There’s a lot more pomp to today’s top-level race, the Camping World RV Sales 301. Governor Maggie Hassan pitches tax-free shopping, and actor Tom Wopat, Luke from The Dukes of Hazzard, talks up a Christmas album he’s trying to get going on Kickstarter with his TV brother. A military jet flies over, followed by a sky diver who delivers the race flags. My mom and dad call to ask where we’re sitting. They, like 4.3 million other people, are watching the race on TNT, even though it overlaps with the Germany-Argentina World Cup Final.

When the day’s drivers are introduced — “the 43 members of the Fraternal Order of Go Fast,” as the announcer puts it — each elicits a different reaction from the crowd. There are big cheers for Rowley, Massachusetts, native Eddie MacDonald, here for his first big race, Danica Patrick (“You go, girl!”), and racing royalty Dale Earnhardt Jr. (“Get ’em, Junior!”). But the boos are even louder for Jeff Gordon, a longtime superstar, and Jimmie Johnson, who’s won six NASCAR championships. “He’s not popular,” a man behind me from Springfield explains about Johnson. “He tends to drive rough, and sometimes runs his mouth — but he’s fun to watch.”

7/13/14 - Loudon, MA - New Hampshire Motor Speedway - NASCAR enthusiasts camped out on a nearby hill to watch the race. For first-person story about day at the NASCAR races at The New Hampshire Motor Speedway. Story by Francis/Storr. Item: 091414nascar. Dina Rudick/Globe Staff

Dina Rudick/Globe Staff

Superfans pay $375 to $700 for a prime camper space and access to a hillside overlooking the track. Most arrive on Wednesday and won’t leave until Monday.

Just 13 or so laps into the race, Johnson’s left rear tire blows, sending him crashing him into the wall and eliciting a whoop from the stands. But people go quiet when they can’t see him moving. I put my hand on Jack’s shoulder as an ambulance rolls out. Johnson finally steps out of the car, to loud applause, yet his car is totaled. He’s done for the day.

Nick Laham/Getty Images

Brad Keselowski holds up a winner’s trophy unique to New Hampshire: A 20-pound lobster named Loudon.

Over the next few hours, we get to enjoy the race much more than yesterday’s Sta-Green 200, thanks to the FanVision scanner. We even start to get a sense of the skill of these world-class drivers. At one point, a paper gets stuck to the front grill of Matt Kenseth’s Toyota Camry, and the announcer explains that even a small air blockage can cause these precision machines to overheat, lose horsepower, maybe even blow an engine. “That is the Achilles’ heel on that Camry right now,” he says. But a few moments later, Kenseth deftly drops back, pulling sharply behind another car — the sudden change in air pressure sucks the paper away, and Kenseth guns his car back into the running. It’s a move of inches between two cars rocketing around the oval at more than 100 miles per hour, and it’s incredible.

We also learn a bit about NASCAR strategy. After a much-needed snack break of frozen lemonade ($5), an ice cream cookie sandwich ($6), and a roasted turkey leg ($8), we return to the stands just in time to see a costly miscalculation. As the race approaches its final laps, Jeff Gordon forgoes a chance to refuel because it would mean dropping down from his current third place. He’s betting he’s got just enough in the tank to take first. He’s wrong: Gordon runs out of gas and needs to be towed to pit row. He’ll finish 26th.

In the end, it’s “Bad Brad” Keselowski who wins this race, sweeping the weekend’s two big competitions. Following his victory doughnuts, he gets a trophy and a special prize unique to this track: a lobster as big as his torso named Loudon (don’t laugh — Texas Speedway winners don a Stetson and shoot a six-gun). Keselowski holds the 20-pound crustacean up awkwardly for the cameras. “Lookit,” Alex deadpans, “he did all this just for his dinner.”

While waiting for traffic to die down before heading home, we take one more walk around the track. Alex picks up a marble — the term for the pieces of rubber that come off racers’ tires — and stows it away, saying he’s putting it in his “bag of memories.” Jack’s already done the same with the two lug nuts. We agree we had a blast.

Next time, I’m thinking I might just go on a Saturday, when the stands are less crowded, you get to see a couple different types of races, and tickets are cheaper.

Then again, NASCAR will return to New Hampshire on September 17, and this time the main Sunday event will be part of the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship series. It’s going to be a wild day of full-throttle racing.

I wonder if Jack and Alex are busy.

IF YOU GO

Dina Rudick/Globe Staff

The author and nephews Jack and Alex outfitted before their go-kart race.

Francis Storrs/Globe Staff

The boys would count the go-kart experience as the weekend’s highlight.

The fall race week at New Hampshire Motor Speedway (603-783-4931; nhms.com) is September 17 to 21, with the biggest events on the weekend. In addition to qualifying matches, Saturday will host a 175-lap truck race at 1 p.m., a 100-lap Modified race at 3:30 p.m., and a 50-lap “shootout”— which puts the best racers in the middle of the pack and makes them fight for the front—at 5 p.m. And Sunday is the SYLVANIA 300, part of NASCAR’s Chase for the Sprint Cup playoffs, broadcast on ESPN at 2 p.m. Additional activities include zip lines, go-karts, a petting zoo, and a show by country music’s Frankie Ballard.

Tickets cost $25-$50 on Saturday and $25-$125 on Sunday. Skip Ticketmaster and its multiple service fees and call the speedway’s box office, which charges a single $7 fee for everything. An attendant will walk you through the dizzying array of options and packages.

ROAD TRIP! 3 MORE TRACKS TO VISIT

Bank of America 500

Saturday, October 11

7:30 p.m. (ABC)

> This 1½-mile track, just a 20-minute drive from Charlotte, North Carolina, is in the heart of NASCAR country. Almost all the racing teams are based nearby (and many offer shop tours).

> Charlotte Motor Speedway, Concord, North Carolina, 800-455-3267, charlottemotorspeedway.com

Geico 500

Sunday, October 19

2 p.m. (ESPN)

> Speeds typically average more than 190 miles per hour at Alabama’s 2.66-mile Talladega, the longest track on the Sprint Cup circuit. Come for the racing, stay for the legendary party scene on the infield.

> Talladega Superspeedway, Lincoln, Alabama, 877-599-3816, talladegasuperspeedway.com

Ford EcoBoost 400

Sunday, November 16

3 p.m. (ESPN)

> In Florida, the racing will be intense as NASCAR’s final Sprint Cup matchup of the season determines the series champion. A decade ago, five drivers gunned for the title right through the final lap on the 1.5-mile oval.

> Homestead-Miami Speedway, Homestead, Florida, 866-409-7223, homesteadmiamispeedway.com

More coverage:

- A taste of NASCAR in N.H.

- Video: Race enthusiasts experience NASCAR in London, N.H.

- Map of New Hampshire Motor Speedway

- More from the Magazine

- More from Sports

Francis Storrs is an assistant editor for the Globe Magazine. E-mail him at francis.storrs@globe.com and follow him on Twitter @fstorrs.
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