FanSided's Adam Weinrib traveled to the legendary Bristol Motor Speedway with the folks from Montucky Cold Snacks (and the beer's new mascot, Gutz) to watch the ARCA and Craftsman Truck Series races from the pit. This is a running diary he began keeping after arriving in Knoxville, TN on Wednesday afternoon for his first-ever NASCAR race of any variety.
Wednesday, Sept. 13:
4:30 PM: I've landed in Knoxville, a delightful Southern city with a well-manicured downtown that almost feels Disney-fied. Market Square shimmers, perhaps a little more than is normal. I meet the Montucky team at a distributor event about a mile outside the downtown area. Drinking at a dive is more my speed than anything that's on the docket for Thursday, so I relish it.
I'd first heard of Montucky Cold Snacks on the eve of my wedding when my affable cousin -- who might've given their new mascot a run for his money, if he'd had the desire -- recommended their quirky, blue, horse-adorned can as a light alternative. Unsurprisingly, the people behind the brew were equally easygoing.
We ask for restaurant recommendations, and I make a sarcastic quip to a patron that I'm looking for Michelin stars. He believes I'm dead serious and is somewhat offended. Nobody is happy I'm from New York.
6:30 PM: We settle on a barbecue dinner. The Uber that picks us up is known by the moniker "Betty," but is actually operated by an elderly husband-and-wife team. The husband navigates audibly from the passenger seat. When we arrive at our destination, which is just a few minutes away, Female Betty screams, "I'm fast!"
7:30 PM: One of the two reps I've been sent to meet with is a NASCAR lifer who pegs the sport as his favorite, neck-and-neck with baseball. It's as if I've met a kindred spirit with one crucial differentiator. I could not be less well-versed in NASCAR. I appreciate the work done by the faces of the sport and the absurd technical achievement of everyone involved, from the automobile customizers to the lightning-quick pit crew. As the only American who Netflix did not get hooked on F-1, I was entering Thursday's event as a novice's novice. I don't even drive. My spiritual guide informed me that I'd need "medical-grade" ear plugs for the main event. These days, it seems "medical-grade" simply means "very powerful"; I'm not sure which medical condition could be halted by a gob of orange foam. Regardless, I will acquire these powerful puffs. I need sleep. I don't get it.
1:00 AM: ..."medical-grade"?
Thursday, Sept. 14: Race Day
9:30 AM: Diehard race fans have no doubt already perceived that I am currently nowhere near Bristol; the track is an hour and 50 minutes from Knoxville's downtown. Our caravan to the Last Great Colosseum (I won't learn this is Bristol's nickname for seven more hours, technically, we just did a time jump) departs at 2:30 PM, and it's a large, white van driven by a delightful elderly Southerner named Charles. Maybe, in retrospect, all travel takes longer in Tennessee because most cars are piloted by delightful elderly Southerners. I pound not one, but two coffees, and take a stroll around Knoxville's Old Town, attempting to transition between the gleaming sheen of Market Square and the harsh terrain of the speedway more seamlessly.
2:30 PM: I've been assured that Montucky's "King Gutz" has the indefinable "Rizz," something that is immediately obvious when he waltzes into the van at an 11-out-of-10 (with a pristine Larry Bird mustache) despite being hours away from his people at the raceway. He'll have his image emblazoned on both cans of the beer and on the side of No. 12 Spencer Boyd's truck. My stomach is full of a local delicacy called Petro's Chili, the rare piece of American fast food that actually requires excess to satiate you. If you don't order a large, you will be starved. That's usually not how that works.
3:30 PM: We pass a Dodge Truck with a "POS RAM" license plate. Self-deprecating irony is peaking.
4:30 PM: The van pulls into the credentialed parking lot, and I immediately spot four fans gathered on the other side of the road, sitting in lawn chairs to watch ... their fellow fans arrive. Fans love fans. They're flying a Florida Gators flag -- daring in any week, but especially this one when the Vols will be traveling to the Swamp. I'm told by my NASCAR lifer rep (NLR, from here on out) that fans have been camping for days and will likely leave our drive home devoid of traffic, considering they'll be staying for massive events Friday and Saturday. Gutz changes from a normal eccentric wardrobe to a bright gold jumper and powerhouse blue jacket. Every single person wants to take a photo with him, including one enthusiastic EMT.
5:30 PM: The cars are as loud as they tell you they'll be. A singular car circling the track -- which is a true colossus that rises from the wooded hills -- made a series of hundred-decibel crackles every time it zipped around a turn. If one car could do this, surely a whole track full going all at once would pop my ears off like a cartoon. NLR informed me that, actually, watching from the first row in the crowd was likely to be louder than watching from the floor in the pit due to the acoustic construction of the speedway. He was 100% correct; everything I heard for the rest of the evening sounded far more like a collection of high-velocity hornets buzzing rather than Godzilla stomping on bubble wrap.
NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series: Friend of Montucky No. 12 Spencer Boyd talks FanSided through process
5:45 PM: Gutz meets his driver, Boyd, and the chemistry is immediately clear. Both men pose with the truck which -- I'm not just saying this -- clearly has the slickest paint job. Apologies to the rest of the Truck Series, but there are colors other than black and red. It's science. Boyd shows us around his trailer, full of whizzes, pumps, vents, and beef jerky.
6:00 PM: Before Thursday's main event is another race called the ARCA Menard's Series. Per NLR, this is a starter race where the drivers are issued cars rather than modifying their vehicles. Then, they're able to move up levels to Truck Series, XFinity, and Cup Series. I was honestly not expecting to learn anything, assuming I'd be too overwhelmed by "Cars Go Fast" to retain information. Instead, it was all clicking. The pit area smells a bit like 300 men bathed in nail polish remover. I maybe expected the scent to be more singed, like an extended campfire? Everyone who passes, from the age of 8-89, has massive headphones or obvious ear plugs, looking at you with a glare that seems to say, "Where are your massive headphones, you tremendous dumbass?"
Oh, and MALCOLM IN THE MIDDLE'S FRANKIE MUNIZ WAS RACING IN THIS EVENT.
Of all the cultural disconnects I encountered at this NASCAR event, perhaps the most jarring was that everyone around me spent the evening acting like it was perfectly normal that Frankie Muniz was racing. "There goes Frankie Muniz, into his car. Frankie Muniz has crashed and he won't finish. Oh, that's a huge blow to Frankie Muniz." Wild.
NLR informed me that Muniz was actually in the points lead at the start of the season before he began an unfortunate streak of wrecks. That streak continued on Thursday. It's Bristol, Baby!
8:20 PM: The Truck Series race begins at 9:00, but for far longer than I expected, Boyd is around Gutz and the rest of us, holding court in street clothes. When he eventually dons the uniform and transforms into a driver, all marshmallow'd out, he continues to entertain us like next of kin. He will start the race in 31st position after officially qualifying earlier in the afternoon. As he told me a few hours prior, he takes personal pride in seeking out his own sponsors, and is immensely satisfied when he finds brands that fit his personal ethos. Coldly, from an outsider's perspective (and after having watched MLB fans cry foul about one sleeve patch), it always seemed somewhat garish to see cars and jackets plastered with endless brands. It was enlightening to hear the flip side, the prideful narrative. 15 more autoworkers stop to take selfies with Gutz, who simply refuses to slow down.
I cannot stress enough how much people at NASCAR races -- even if they're on the clock -- love to party with people who demand they immediately drop everything and party.
Prior to arriving, I was worried I might somehow get in the way of comings, goings and tire changes. I figured, though, that this would be impossible; the people in charge would make sure of it. I figured wrong. I was hilariously in the way, almost as if my accidental interference was the whole point, actually.
When each driver lined up in concise rows as the National Anthem played, striping the pavement while the entire crowd stood in sustained silence, it legitimately induced chills. Any threat of oncoming irony poisoning melted away. This was earnest and beautiful.
10:00 PM: In a quest for food, the group crosses the pit and walks through an extended tunnel to the concourse. Midway through the walk, I realize we are currently crossing beneath the track itself. The race is ongoing. Chaos above, stillness below. Before we reached the tunnel, I experienced the universal language of NASCAR: Men Gesturing at One Another Through Muffled Ear Plugs. I saw the mimed symbol for "eat" (a pronounced chomp of an invisible sandwich) approximately once every three minutes. Inside the tunnel, all was quiet.
10:30 PM: The race ends -- and, again, Frankie Muniz has not won. Corey Heim -- not to be confused with Corey Haim, or the band Haim -- captured his third Craftsman Truck Series victory of the season, edging out the winner of the race's first two stages, Christian Eckes, at the 195th lap. Heim stole victory from the jaws of defeat emphatically, and put himself in prime position to potentially capture the title. From what I'm told, Carson Hocevar in the No. 42 car is potentially the circuit's hottest prospect; he finishes fourth, and should make a more permanent move to the Cup Series next season after filling in a few times this year. Boyd finishes in 30th place, and there's something to be said for the clinical efficiency of finishing right where you started. To an outsider overwhelmed by a fleet of ruthlessly crisp vehicles, it feels like that's how it should probably go.
The morning after the race, I experience the only tradition more American than a NASCAR race at Bristol: Rampant airline delays. Less than 24 hours after watching people move as quickly as I've ever seen from a once-in-a-lifetime vantage point, my own personal progress has been slowed to a crawl. I've crashed harder than Muniz.
But I'm left remembering the order in the chaos. The entire crowd, from the pit to the concourse, showing up equipped for the wall of noise as if they'd been emailed an itemized uniform ahead of time. The crew's ability to work around my stumbling, constantly. Gutz, commanding his audience and, at one point, climbing up onto the pit crew's cart and watching his own visage zip around the track, his face morphing into a reflexive representation of instinctive glee. Boyd, cool as a cucumber 40 minutes before hurtling in circles at death-defying speeds, the same as he'd been gesturing at beef jerky hours prior.
Bristol's walls are like the below-track tunnel. The hulking structure whispers in the mountains. Inside it, hundreds of hornets are always buzzing. Outside, it's National Anthem-level silent, with history cradled behind the sprawling shroud. NASCAR is intricate, but with all the complex layers stripped aside, it's still inspiring that, from the Cup Series to XFinity to the trucks to Muniz, everybody gets to race at Bristol. Everyone daring, talented and driven enough gets access to the cathedral. There is no small, unfinished track a few doors down for all the hot prospects. Once you've gotten the head nod, you're certified. Gutz's smile on the cart seemed like the moment he realized he was in, too. My moment might not have come until takeoff in an aircraft the next day but at least, unlike a wayward tire, it finally hit me.
It's Bristol, Baby. It's larger than life. It's also the smallest world, brought together by the crack of a cold one and the love of the game. I may never go back, but now I'm within the walls, too. Forever.