Every father who is a NASCAR fan can agree with me on this. You want to pass that love down to your children. You want them to be able to revel in it the way you do. You want them to enjoy the noise, the commotion, the fight of it all. You want them to understand those weekends where you were in front of the television, reading the magazines, or talking about it with your buddies. In short, you want to see them become a fan.
Last year, I wrote about my time covering the June Camping World Truck Series race at Texas Motor Speedway and how huge it was for me. How it was a dream come true to be able to go down there and experience being on the front lines as a reporter. It was at that time I started considering taking my oldest daughter, Meredith, along for the ride the next time I went. November was a no-go, sadly, due to threatening weather, but with the April 2017 race weekend looking promising, I enlisted the assistance of my father to come along with us and keep an eye on Meredith.
Another reason I wanted Meredith to come along was that it was her birthday weekend. Her birthday is April 11, so this weekend was close enough I figured I could do double duty; gather content and enjoy the day with her. It didn’t hurt that Disney was bringing their Cars 3 tour to the track. I figured she’d get a kick out of that. All said, it was looking like a full day was in store for her.
My dad showed up late the night before. Meredith’s two younger siblings, Aeris and Dexter, were already fast asleep so greetings were short and sweet. Meredith was happy to see her Grandpa Don, but with an early day the next day we all rushed quickly to bed. At 6:30 the next morning the three of us were up, and an hour later, following a stop for goodies at Walmart and a McDonald’s breakfast, we were on the road.
Meredith sat in the back, at first talking Grandpa’s ear off. Any notion I had of her not being excited went out the window. Thing is, Meredith isn’t a sports fan. She knows enough to know who Jimmie Johnson is and who Danica Patrick is, and if a driver wins they do a large, smoky burnout, but other than yet I’m the only sports person in our household.
But on this trip, she unleashed a barrage few nine-year-olds have been able to achieve, firing off a rapid-fire barrage of news, jokes, and questions about the day, making it obvious she was in fact excited for the race. At first, I thought Grandpa Don would be overwhelmed, but if anything, he seemed to be enjoying it, matching her laugh for laugh and joke for joke. If there is any cosmic truth out there regarding grandparents and grandkids, it’s this. There is nothing too much for grandparents to handle. Anything grandkids have to offer, grandparents take it with ease.
After awhile the conversation lapsed into the usual with me and my father while Meredith returned to her iPad. My father backed my brief racing career in high school, so we talked about old faces, old friends, the competition at Thunder Valley Raceway Park in Noble, Oklahoma, things like that. But once we left 287 for 114 East in Rhome, the excitement started taking over. Before too long we could see the speedway looming on the horizon, a high-speed Valhalla for fan and competitor alike. So many variables were at play on the day. The stage racing, the new repave, all of which were looking like it was going to make for an interesting day.
I gave directions to my father on the easiest way to get to the credential office. Race day traffic is not fun, as many fans may know. But somehow, it seems that in Fort Worth they make traffic mixups an art. Shove the traffic one way and let them figure it out themselves. Oh, you need to go east? Well go west, young man, and figure it out! I’m almost positive Edward Scissorhands designed the traffic plans for race day.
We did something of a bell end. We got onto I-35 and made like we were going to Fort Worth proper. Afterward, we turned around and went the other way on I-35. The trick is to avoid the congestion where the gas stations are at and get onto the overpass near Turn 3 of the speedway. Once you make it across and take a left, go to the first entrance to the campgrounds and use that road to the credential office. Took 10 minutes instead of 40, and saved several tense moments full of swearing and single-digit salutes.
Meredith was happy to be out of the truck after the ride, and while I received my credentials she went with Grandpa Don to get her wristbands for the infield. Maybe it helps that the ticket office has a souvenir shop; she ended up with a No. 48 diecast among other things. That’s another thing I noted. When someone isn’t a complete NASCAR fan, they stick with what they know. It’s natural and hopefully a good first step to NASCAR fandom.
We had our souvenirs, we had our credentials and wristbands, and we had our Paddock Parking Pass. A brief drive took us into the Paddock Parking, where my father parked his pickup in between the first and second turns, with a stellar view of the action in the corners. I had to go get set up, so I left Meredith and Grandpa Don and made my way to the Press Box high above the speedway. Meredith had been looking forward to going to see the Cars 3 exhibit, and before this day was done I had every intention of taking her there. But first, a detour down pit road and the garage to see if anything big was going on. Afterward a trip onto the frontstretch to see how the new repave looked.
While I did all of this, Meredith and Grandpa Don hung out and seemed to have a good time. At one point as I walked toward the track I looked back and saw them on the cab of the truck, both knocking back a Dr. Pepper. I felt a sense of relief at that. My father and I are both NASCAR fans, veterans of many race trips. But with us, we had someone who wasn’t really a fan. When that’s the case you have to tread lightly sometimes; a good time at a race could become a bad time. Seeing my daughter having a good time with her grandpa made that weight a little easier to deal with.
Once settled in the Press Box I hooked up my computer at my perch close to the window just to see if I could see them near the entrance tunnel to the speedway. Just barely: Two black dots atop a gold pickup. They hadn’t left their perch, and that said I felt a lot more at ease. She was having a good time and her Grandpa Don was keeping pace with her. So I waited a bit before I went down there. Fort Worth’s the home to some of the best barbecue in Texas, Hard Eight. They did the catering there two of the three times I’ve been there as part of the media, so a quick glance in the conference room of the Press Box yielded several plates of that manna from heaven. I scarfed down a plate before heading back there. It was time to take her down the Fan Zone.
To say that I’m grateful that the walk from where they were parked to the Fan Zone was short is an understatement. I was pretty happy to see the first exhibit we came across was the Cars 3 exhibit. What I should’ve known though was that the line wrapped almost around the exhibit and toward one of the gates to the stands. The exhibit wasn’t going to be a free-roam exhibit; rather, it was a long, ridiculous line in the hot son. Meredith and I both agreed to come back later.
From there it was off to the Team Chevy exhibit. We got pictures of Justin Allgaier’s car (“I don’t know who that is.”), Austin Dillon’s car (“Isn’t he the guy who landed upside down that one time?”), and Jimmie Johnson’s car (“Is he going to drive that back into the track here in a minute?”). My father and I took shots of the 454-cubic inch display motor they had on hand as well as the 383 Stroker motor, but once we got over our essential gearheadedness we took shots of Meredith behind the wheel of the Corvette they had on hand.
From there, it was off to the Coca-Cola exhibit, then off to the AAA Insurance exhibit, where a spin of the wheel netted her some more swag. Before long she was carrying a decent-sized grab bag with junk from various vendors. But it wasn’t long before we needed to be back for the green flag. We made our way back to the truck, almost stopping at the Cars 3 exhibit again when we saw that the line had shortened considerably. We decided against stopping, a decision that would bite us in the end.
We got back in time to catch the National Anthem, where Meredith got the surprise of her young life when the flyover happened, almost splitting her eardrums. She made it a point to screw in her ear plugs while Grandpa Don searched for a good spot along the fence to get a good view of the cars barreling into the corner.
This was the moment I had been waiting for. Race fans who have been to multiple races know that sensation, of the cars going through the gears when the flag drops. Of the rising scream that shakes the world both outside of you and inside. Of that crescendo that blocks all coherent thought and understanding, that leaves you helpless to it.
As a father and a fan, I wanted Meredith to feel that. I figured if she felt that and experienced that, she would understand why I do what I do, why I watch it and keep track of it, so on and so forth. Can you blame me? As a parent, could you understand why I was wanting to bring her into the fold?
We made our way into between a couple of motorhomes and up to the fence as the cars pulled onto the track. Meredith was quick to point out Jimmie Johnson to me, jumping up and down with excitement as she saw his No. 48 car pulling onto the banking. I got my camera ready because not only did I want to get the cars, I wanted to get her reaction as well.
The green flag dropped, we could hear the rise of the sound as they tore into the first turn. I turned to her to get her reaction and…
I leaned in closer to make sure I got her reaction right. Sure enough, her reaction was “meh.” A litany of questions came to mind. Does she not like it? Is she not having fun? Is she bored? A quick grin from her assured me she was still having a good time but just didn’t feel that rush. I figured, hey, she’s just a kid. Give her a few years.
We went back to the truck and I promised her and Grandpa Don I’d be back later, but now I was off to the Press Box. There was more barbecue waiting when I got back, and considering in Texas you never turn down good barbecue, I dug into plate number two. I sporadically checked where my father and Meredith were sitting, and I saw both of them perched back on the cab of the truck, no doubt digging into the Pringles and knocking back some Dr. Pepper as promised. I watched from the Press Box, keeping an eye on the action as well and watching Ryan Blaney run away with the lead. I was also keeping an eye on the clock because come whatever may, Meredith was going to get to visit the Cars 3 exhibit.
Not long after the start of the second stage, I stepped out to take her over there. Well, by the time we got there the line was back to its normal length – which was an absurd length. We ended up spending the majority of the second stage of the race and well into the beginning of the third stage in the line to get our pictures with the cast of Cars 3. Honestly speaking, Disney could have done better regarding line control. We spent a little over 100 laps in this line, both Meredith’s patience and my own being tested. Didn’t help that we were slowly turning into lobsters by the sun.
We were finally let in and joined the line to get pictures with the cars, FaceTiming Meredith’s younger sister Aeris, who is obsessed with all things Cars related, so the wait wasn’t a total loss. We spoke with a Disney worker who told us about the cars being actual race cars at one point, as well as why they had to stop it being an open exhibit (something regarding minor cosmetic damage to the cars). After the pictures, we skipped out on the theater exhibit which was showing the first 12 minutes of the movie, but we did get our picture taken at the Crest toothpaste portion of the exhibit and Meredith did get a birthday smoothie, so her mood was starting to rise again. The visit wasn’t a complete loss at all in that case.
We got back to the truck with less than 100 laps to go. Grandpa Don had acquired a couple of guests at the truck, a young tattooed couple who were lost and attending their first NASCAR race. My father has always been a helpful guy, and as a result, they were more than happy to share their beer with him and myself. He gleefully accepted while I turned down the beer and instead took Meredith on a quick run to Fuzzy’s Taco Shop in the infield. We live near a Fuzzy’s, so it’s something of a thing for us. Meredith loves her usual chips and queso, which in Fuzzy’s case we’re pretty sure is heaven sent.
Afterward, she was dropped with Grandpa Don for the final time, where she resumed her perch on the cab of the truck while I went back to grab my stuff from the Press Box (but not before stopping there to load up a plate with nachos and cheese). After I left I made my way to pit road for the end of the race.
The finish was undoubtedly everything the track was looking for. It was a good race at the end, with Johnson taking the checkered. I was able to snap off some shots at his pit stall while his crew celebrated and he celebrated on the frontstretch. I was also hoping that with the No. 48 taking the checkered Meredith was taking note, hopefully enjoying the fact that the driver she picked ended up winning.
An attempt to get some interviews on pit road didn’t pan out as I had hoped, so a quick stop in the Media Center and a write-up on the race capped off the day. I joined Meredith and Grandpa Don in the truck, where Meredith was casually playing with her No. 48 car and I told Grandpa Don about the post-race.
Now, you may think our adventures were over at this point, but once again, it’s all but a given that Elmer Fudd designed the post-race traffic control. That’s not to say I don’t like Fort Worth PD by any means. I respect the badge. I don’t respect the efforts to just shove the traffic in one direction and hope for the best. So for several colorful minutes and many colorful miles, our frustration became a running joke between us three as we chose different words for the situation and several possible ideas as to who could have come up with the traffic plans. Frustrated words became giggles and laughs among us three as Meredith (at this point highly sugared up) and Grandpa Don traded jokes back and forth.
I couldn’t help but notice that despite some of the day’s setbacks, Meredith was in pretty high spirits. Therefore I took the time to talk to her about the day.
“I’d give the day a six on a scale of one to 10,” she told me from the back seat once we were finally back on 287. It was a rating I still found decent for her first time. “I didn’t like waiting in the line at the Cars 3 exhibit (her red complexion backing up that statement). But I did like that the cars weren’t that loud. I also liked that we had Fuzzy’s in the infield. But I really liked that Jimmie Johnson won.”
I took that and held onto it. She wasn’t sitting in the truck griping or complaining. If anything I took her comments to be indicative of a good time. I couldn’t help but ask the next question I had on my mind. “Would you come with me again?” I asked her.
She gave me a perfect little goofy nine-year-old grin. “Yeah.”