Once you've gone to a NASCAR race for the first time, it becomes a habit.
If I had a dollar for every story I've heard about someone who didn't know what to expect upon attending his or her first NASCAR race, only to leave the race track afterward thoroughly hooked on the sport after the checkered flag falls, I'd be a millionaire.
Face it, there is no other professional sport that compares to NASCAR for excitement, color, pageantry and the overwhelming attack on the senses of sight, sound, smell, taste and touch.
Longtime NASCAR fans know what I'm saying. They get it. But folks that have never given NASCAR a chance or have previously ignored it because, for example, in their minds drivers can't be athletes, really don't know what they're missing.
Fortunately, NASCAR gains countless numbers of new fans every year to keep the sport popular, successful and self-sustaining.
If you're reading this, you're more than likely a NASCAR fan already. But what if a non-NASCAR friend of yours asked what is the lure of the sport to you? What would you say?
We'll give you a hand here, as we cite five reasons why non-NASCAR fans need to give the sport a shot.
Mark Martin signs an autograph for a fan Friday at NASCAR Preseason Thunder in Daytona, Fla.
NASCAR has the best fan engagement and interaction of any pro sport out there today, period.
In what other sport can you get garage and pit tours, meet and greet opportunities in and around the race track, have drivers sign autographs at their souvenir trailers just hours before they go compete?
Do we see that in the NFL, Major League Baseball, NBA or NHL? Hah, not a chance, not even close. More often than not, players go from the locker room to the playing field, court or ice, barely looking at the thousands of fans in the stands. Then they repeat the process on their way back to the locker room.
And can any other sport boast of having its most popular athlete have a 10-year standing like Dale Earnhardt Jr., NASCAR's Most Popular Driver—as voted by fans—for the last decade?
About the only other sport that compares with NASCAR in being so fan-friendly is NHRA drag racing. It touts that every ticket is an automatic pit pass where fans can roam through the pits to see their favorite Top Fuel, Funny Car, Pro Stock and Pro Stock Motorcycle drivers up close, take pictures and get autographs.
And when it comes to social media, no sport has the kind of engagement that NASCAR has, particularly on Twitter.
Who can forget the 24-car pileup at Talladega this past October?
Much of the popularity of modern-day football is a combination of the touchdowns and the tackles. How often do we watch sportscasts on TV, with the highlights of NFL games including both TDs and vicious hits that cause concussions and other injuries—particularly with quarterbacks.
But NASCAR has made crashing—and safety—an art form, and an unprecedented safe one for the most part.
There have always been wrecks in NASCAR, but since the death of Dale Earnhardt on the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500, NASCAR has spent countless millions of dollars to make the sport as safe as possible with advancements including head and neck restraints, SAFER barriers and constant refinement and improvement of the cars racers drive.
With the exception of Dale Earnhardt Jr., who was knocked out of two races due to a concussion after the massive wreck at Talladega last fall, really, who was the last NASCAR driver who was seriously hurt in, say, the last five years or so?
Knock on wood, let's hope it stays that way, but NASCAR has definitely been a pioneer and front-runner when it comes to keeping its athletes—and fans—safe as humanly possible.
A.J. Allmendinger went through a treatment plan and was back racing in less than two months after being suspended for a failed drug test.
Okay, yes, NASCAR has had a few instances of drivers accused of drug use, the most recent being A.J. Allmendinger and Jeremy Mayfield.
Allmendinger made a mistake, paid a costly price (lost his ride with Penske Racing), but manned up, went through the NASCAR prescribed treatment program and was back racing a little over three months after being initially suspended for a failed drug test.
As recently as this past week, Mayfield called in to a radio show that featured NASCAR chairman Brian France, who said the sport would welcome Mayfield back if he would simply go through the treatment program, something that Mayfield has thus far refused to do, still maintaining his innocence.
Granted, there have been a few NASCAR drivers who have been arrested for DUI in recent years, including Allmendinger and Michael Annett, but certainly nowhere near the number that have been busted for the same offense in the NFL.
Or how about all the steroid use in Major League Baseball over the last decade or so?
You won't see anything like that in NASCAR, which is unquestionably the cleanest sport in the U.S., takes pride in it—and intends on staying that way.
Just a small part of Bristol Motor Speedway's 160,000 seating capacity.
Other than maybe the Rose Bowl and University of Michigan Stadium, name me a stadium—particularly one in the NFL or MLB—that seats more than 90,000 fans.
There are none.
By comparison, NFL and MLB arenas are minor league to some of NASCAR's "stadiums" when it comes to stadium capacity.
For example, the largest in NASCAR is also the smallest, as Bristol Motor Speedway has the smallest racing surface in NASCAR, yet also has the largest seating capacity of roughly 160,000.
Sure, Indianapolis Motor Speedway, which holds the annual Brickyard 400, seats upwards of 250,000, but it holds just one race a year and is considered more of an open-wheel facility than NASCAR, which has only been racing there since 1994.
Daytona International Speedway can play host to about 150,000. Likewise, Texas Motor Speedway can seat 150,000 fans around its 1.5-mile racing surface.
Talladega Superspeedway comfortably seats about 135,000, as does Michigan International Speedway.
We could go on, but you get the idea. The next time someone says a certain NFL or Major League stadium is big, remind them that's small potatoes compared to several NASCAR racetracks.
Richard Petty led a short-lived, one-race 'strike' in 1969, the only strike in NASCAR history.
In just the last two years, we've seen lengthy lockouts in the NFL, NBA and most recently, NHL, which is set to start a significantly shortened 48-game regular-season schedule for all its teams next week.
Fans hate lockouts and strikes, but invariably keep coming back and paying their hard-earned money once leagues and player unions make nice-nice, settle their disagreements and get back to the business of playing games.
You won't see that in NASCAR. There has never been a lockout of drivers by team owners.
Efforts to form a drivers union have been virtually nonexistent.
And the one time drivers tried to organize and strike, in 1969, the late Bill France Sr. simply got replacement drivers, prompting the regular drivers, including union leader Richard Petty, to fold their virtual picket lines and get back behind the wheel in less than two weeks before they lost their rides for good.
Again, something no other major pro sport can boast about like NASCAR can.
Follow me on Twitter @JerryBonkowski