NASCAR's 10 Best Spots for Tailgating, Camping and Partying
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NASCAR fans love their drivers, their racing and tailgating at racetracks from Loudon to Fontana.
Be it before or after a race, countless fans can be found noshing and nibbling—if not downright enjoying multi-course meals—on fare as simple as store-bought snacks all the way up to thick steaks, slabs of ribs and even lobster.
And, of course, where there's tailgate partying and food, there are liquid refreshments that can range from water to soda to, shall we say, the more "adult type" of beverages.
Heck, there are some fans who come out to racetrack parking lots to party for the setting and fellowship—even if they don't have or can't afford tickets to go inside and watch the actual race.
You'd be amazed at the fun you can still have watching a race on TV in the track parking lot; the ambiance doesn't get much better, for sure.
To clarify, while I use the term "tailgate party" for this particular exercise, such verbiage encompasses the overall entire experience, from partying in the infield to pitching a tent in a remote lot a half-mile away.
So, which tracks have the best parties and best party animals? Based on personal experience of having traveled to and visited every stop on the Sprint Cup circuit numerous times over the years, here's my unscientific picks for the 10 best NASCAR tracks to party down (ranked in no particular order).
Sweet Home (away from home) Talladega
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When you have a 2.66-mile racetrack with an infield large enough to hold a small third-world country, along with acres upon acres of parking lots and campgrounds, it's a natural magnet for tailgating and partying.
Such is the case with Talladega Superspeedway. Fans oftentimes pull into a parking lot or campground and stake out a spot several days before teams and drivers even arrive.
While TSS used to be one of the wildest places on the circuit years ago, it has definitely calmed down and become more fan- and family-friendly.
The view is great at Sonoma.
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This is one of my favorite tracks because the fans there take tailgating to a whole other level.
Sure, there's the typical fare like hot dogs and hamburgers, but Sonoma Raceway (formerly Infineon Raceway) also attracts health-conscious partying—with lots of salad, veggies and the like. And you're just as likely to find fans sipping a glass of Chablis or Zinfandel as you are downing a couple of beers.
Going to Sonoma is a different experience, indeed—one that should be on every race fan's bucket list just to take in the unique goings-on.
Oh yes, by the way, the racing there is also pretty darn good too.
Michigan International Speedway
Biking through the infield at MIS.
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Although the state of Michigan has been hit hard by the economic downturn of the last five years, fans still make their way to tiny Brooklyn—about 80 miles west of Detroit—to not only watch some great high-speed racing, but also to forget about some of their problems for a day or a weekend.
MIS fans can get a bit rowdy, particularly after a race (take a ride westbound on Route 12 to see what I mean), but it's usually all in good-natured fun and fashion.
Much like Talladega, MIS has tons of space to spread out, which is both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, you can set up a canopy or tent and stretch out to your heart's content. On the flip side, however, it used to not be like that, as MIS would pack in fans for miles around.
But due to the economy issues, at-track attendance has dropped significantly in the last five years. Although, to their credit, track officials continue to do things such as creative ticket prices and added-value events to make sure fans still get to see a great show and get their money's worth.
Bristol Motor Speedway
On St. Patrick's Day weekend, everyone at Bristol is a wee bit Irish.
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Bristol Motor Speedway is a conundrum.
On the one hand, at a half-mile, it's one of the smallest racetracks in the sport. Yet, on the other hand, show me any other track that can squeeze in 160,000 fans into a facility where there are no bad seats (even way up high in the nosebleed section).
Bristol is like a mini-version of Talladega, particularly when it comes to camping in numerous lots both adjacent to and as much as a mile away from the legendary eastern Tennessee racetrack.
Fans like to pitch a tent and not only get caught up with old friends, but also to make new friends as well. I've often compared going to a race at BMS like a NASCAR version of Woodstock—minus the mud, drugs and logistical issues that Woodstock had, but still with a similar great sense of community, friendship and excitement to reach the final destination.
Texas Motor Speedway
Things can get kinda hot at Texas Motor Speedway!
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They like to do things bigger and better in the state of Texas, and going to a race at Texas Motor Speedway certainly lives up to that axiom.
Situated in the far northwest corner of Fort Worth and on the outskirts of the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex, TMS typically throws open its parking lots and campgrounds to fans as much as two weeks before a race.
One of my favorite sights there—usually about three to four hours after a Cup race has concluded and most race fans have departed in their cars—is the second wave of exiting fans in their motorhomes, converted school buses and the like, practically leaving in a parade of sorts.
One other thing: You'd be hard-pressed to find another track on the circuit where one of the most favorite meals of tailgaters is rattlesnake! I don't know about you, but I like my 'snake crunchy and with a little extra seasoning.
And yes, it does taste like chicken!
Las Vegas Motor Speedway
Viva Las Vegas: the hauler parade means NASCAR is back in town.
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Come on, this is Las Vegas, party capital of the world. How could I not include Las Vegas Motor Speedway on this list?
Admittedly, tailgating and camping are a bit more of a challenge at LVMS than most other tracks on the circuit. First off, the ground in parking lots and surrounding area is, for the most part, desert-like.
Then, you can be fast asleep in your pitched tent in the middle of the night when you're suddenly woken up by a jet fighter taking off at top speed from Nellis Air Force Base, directly across the street.
On the other hand, if you're in the parking lot partying before or after a race, while you've paid for your race ticket, you oftentimes get a free airshow thrown in as a bonus.
Daytona International Speedway
This young fan is preparing for his first start in the 2033 Daytona 500.
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Daytona used to be known for more than just racing, just like its sister track Talladega. Some of the sordid tales of debauchery and an everything-goes atmosphere have helped shape DIS's legend.
Sure, there's still a festive Mardi Gras atmosphere at times—and just like in New Orleans, strings of beads are still prized commodities at DIS. But for the most part, tailgating and partying at Daytona is much more mundane and G-rated these days, where some of the action off the track no longer holds as much interest as the action on-track.
And how many tracks have a bona fide lake within the confines of the infield. DIS does, with Lake Lloyd offering a great view, not to mention an opportunity to take a quick dip if the weather and situation both present themselves.
You'll typically find more families at Daytona than most other tracks, and for good reason: Orlando and places like Disney World and Sea World are just over an hour's drive away, not to mention the Kennedy Space Center straight down Interstate 95.
And what better way to end a hard day of tailgating, race-watching and then more tailgating by driving a few miles east to walk along the beach or take a dip in the Atlantic Ocean?
Charlotte Motor Speedway
Vintage Charlotte, circa 1989. Some things never change.
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It was a real tossup on this pick between Charlotte Motor Speedway and Dover International Speedway, because I like both tracks.
Dover had a slight edge because what other track has both a hotel and casino attached to the backstretch, where you can watch the race from the comfort of your room or try to win baby a new pair of shoes on the roulette wheel? Admittedly, Kansas has the same accouterments with the adjacent Hard Rock hotel and casino, but Dover just does more for me.
But in the end, and with no disparagement to DIS, Charlotte won out by a half-fender length. Granted, CMS has great facilities for parking, camping and tailgating. But it also has things that Dover doesn't, like the majority of the Sprint Cup race shops within a short drive, as well as the NASCAR Hall of Fame just 15 minutes away in downtown Charlotte.
Much like Texas and Bristol, fans headed to CMS oftentimes come a week or more before the race to camp, tailgate and party. And some even stay a few days after the race as well. Attending a race at Charlotte is like watching the race in your living room with about 100,000 of your closest friends right next door in the stands, parking lots and campgrounds.
New Hampshire Motor Speedway
To me, New Hampshire Motor Speedway's tailgating and partying is perhaps the best-kept secret in NASCAR.
Maybe it has to do with NHMS's relative isolation in the far northeast reaches of the U.S., just outside Concord, NH. Lots of fans just don't know much about the place or surrounding area.
But take it from me, not only is there great racing on the flat one-mile track, there's also great tailgating and partying every night after the day's activities.
Plus, if you go about 45 minutes east, you'll run into the ocean, not to mention great restaurants (boiled lobster up that way is to die for), some great outlet malls for shopping and, if you're adventurous enough, Canada isn't all that far away.
On the flip side, you're only about 90 minutes north of Boston if you want to maybe take in a Red Sox game or the like.
Indianapolis Motor Speedway
How's the old saying go, "Any port in a storm"? That's Indy!
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Much like the tough decision to pick Charlotte over Dover, I had a similar difficult choice with this one, pitting Darlington Raceway against Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
I love Darlington, and tailgating and partying are top-notch there. Much like going to Bristol, it's an experience every NASCAR fan should enjoy at least one time in his or her life.
It's old-school racing at an old-school track and readily harkens back to some of the greatest duels the sport has ever seen over the years, including Richard Petty vs. David Pearson and Cale Yarborough or, more recently, the incredible by-a-nose finish between winner Ricky Craven and close runner-up Kurt Busch in 2003.
But how can you exclude Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the most famous racetrack in the world, with all its history and lore?
Sure, Darlington has more than its share of history and lore, too. That's why it was such a tough decision between the two.
What finally pushed the needle in Indy's direction is its history as one of the greatest places to ever tailgate and party in all of sports—until officials tore up a good chunk of it for expansion and to construct a golf course.
Remember Indy's original (as opposed to today's watered down version) famous—make that infamous—"snake pit?" If you don't, look it up. If you do, you know exactly what I'm talking about.
Even though things have changed quite a bit, when it came to partying and tailgating, Indy was the place—and still is, albeit on a much smaller and far more family-friendly scale.
Follow me Twitter @JerryBonkowski