Like many sports fans who aren't NASCAR fans, I would hear the names and maybe catch a few laps now and then on TV. I would sit through the race highlights on ESPN only because I knew that another football game was coming up. But for the most part, I had neither clue nor interest in "stock car racing."
That began to change when Will Ferrell's second-funniest movie (after "Anchorman") came out. Yes, most of the track scenes in "Talladega Nights" involved computer graphics (as opposed to the oh-so-accurate "Days of Thunder"), but the send-up of racing culture caught my attention. Drinking a Macchiato during a race spoke to me!
Eventually, I got curious enough to tune in my just-purchased HDTV one Sunday to Fox's NASCAR coverage. I found that Fox Sports president David Hill did for racing what he'd already done for the NFL and MLB: taking us into places we never saw before on TV, and could never access at the track. In short, NASCAR on Fox looked and sounded awesome!
On June 1, 2008, I finally invested the time to drive from Washington, D.C., to Dover, Delaware, to see a race in person. What I discovered -- several years late -- was this: NASCAR's charming, but outdated, "home grown" era was over, and I was watching a major league sport.
No more pit crews in t-shirts and tennis shoes. No more smoking in the pits! NASCAR’s race day look and feel has graduated into the big time.
Like football, when your sport only performs once a week, you need to maintain interest all week long. Yes, there's plenty of talk of this week's track, the conditions, the state of The Chase and all the other motoring X's and O's.
But it's the people that keep things interesting from Monday to Friday: The feuds, the fun and even the fights. Thank you, Jeff Gordon and Jeff Burton!
And there is no one more fun to watch off the track than Kyle Busch. It may have helped that he won that Dover race -- and that being a D.C. guy, I’m also a Joe Gibbs guy. It also helped that he was, and remains, NASCAR's best villain. Some call it a soap opera, but my wife compares him to the great tragic heroes and villains of opera. Maybe Don Giovanni would have fared better with a crew chief and spotter.
And, oh yeah, he drives the wheels off his ride every weekend.
But for all the on-track excitement and off-track drama, what got me to the track in the first place and what's kept me coming back is what's NOT happened since February 18, 2001.
Dale Earnhardt's death probably confirmed to NASCAR haters everything they hated about racing. They could rightly ask "Why would I bring my children to see an event where there is a very real chance that one of the participants is going to die a horrible death as we watch?”
It took losing NASCAR's most popular driver ten years ago -- because of a safety device he CHOSE not to use -- for the sport to decide that safety is no longer optional. And from the Car of Tomorrow to the SAFER barrier to catch cans to custom fabricated seats, it's all worked. Death is no longer a "given" on any given Sunday.
But it's been a semi-solitary conversion. Friends love to hear all about it -- for maybe five minutes. By the time I start free-associating about concrete vs. asphalt, bump drafting at Talladega, just plain ol’ bumping at Bristol, half-mile vs. two-and-a-half miles, road course ringers, start-and-park and hot dogs in Martinsville, friends suddenly realize they have software to upgrade or lawns to mow.
But before they rush off, I tell them this: No other sport displays both individual talent and ultimate teamwork in the same instant. In football, we see great teamwork or great individual moves from play to play. In soccer, managers plan and plot all week, but are reduced to spectators after kickoff. In NASCAR, it's teamwork and individual talent hand-in-hand from green to checker.
Being a NASCAR fan is not pain-free. No other sport changes rules week to week, much less in mid-season. And, from the start, I never even tried to figure out the points system. It's just like icing in hockey, the infield fly rule in baseball and LBW in cricket -- that'll send you clicking over to Wikipedia. I'm never exactly sure how to explain them, but I kinda know it when they happen.
This whole "43-down" system actually makes sense. But even a novice fan like me might tend to wonder if someone snuck into Charlotte this off-season and replaced NASCAR management with Mr. Spock-like beings that value logic over all else.
In three years of being a NASCAR fan, I've made it to Richmond, Dover, Fontana, and Talladega. I've been rained out in Martinsville and Pocono. I've become hooked on Sirius NASCAR Radio (thank you Rick Benjamin, Chocolate Meyers, Dave Moody and Claire B. Lange) and MRN's race coverage. I have TrackPass and DirecTV's in-car channels at home. I bought a scanner instead of renting at the track. And I typed this article with the help of my Kyle Busch mouse pad.
I guess I'm hooked. And counting the days until the Daytona 500.
Rich Johnson is the Senior National Correspondent for Fox News Radio. He’s covered the White House, Congress, politics, both natural and man-made disasters, and more than a dozen Super Bowls. He plans to cover as many NASCAR races as his schedule and frequent flyer miles will permit in 2011.