This weekend, two of NASCAR's top three series make their first visit of 2011 to Talladega. The races at Talladega are always edge-of-your-seat exciting, and provide more than their fair share of nail-biting moments.
Being a spectator at this spectacle has to be a thrill in and of itself. While you may have to strain your eyes when the cars are on the backstretch, there is no doubt that the sheer atmosphere of the weekend will more than make up for it.
That said, I am going to take a look at 25 of the best fan experiences in motorsports. While I have not had the opportunity to participate in all of these events, I am assuming that these would be the best.
The following list is in no particular order. And it is strictly based on my opinion of the things I have been able to do as a fan and the things I would most like to do as a fan.
I am going to start the list on a biased note. If you are looking for the best possible fan experience, look no further than the best short track in the country, Thunder Road.
Thunder Road is located in Barre, Vermont and is my hometown track. It is a one-quarter mile, high-banked oval. Turn 4 is such a challenge for the drivers that it has been dubbed "The Widowmaker."
This track is so much fun to race on that stars like Tony Stewart, Kenny Wallace and David Ragan have all come up in the last couple of years to take their turn on it. If you are looking for the best possible fan experience in motorsports, treat yourself to a race at "The Nation's Site of Excitement."
This is the only one on the list that fans actually have no control over. The best experience that a fan could get would be if they had the opportunity to say: "I was there when..."
There are some moments in motorsports history that will never be forgotten: Richard Petty's final race, Dale Earnhardt's Daytona 500 win and Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s win in the No. 3 car at Daytona. Those are all moments that will never be forgotten. If you were fortunate enough to be there for any of those historic events, you have one of the best fan experiences possible.
This is another one that shouldn't really need a whole lot of explanation. If you want a history lesson on NASCAR, there couldn't possibly be a better place to get it than at the Hall of Fame.
I have yet to make it to the Hall of Fame, but I am hoping to at some point in the next year. It just seems like anyone who loves NASCAR would make this a priority to see sometime.
Many of the teams' race shops are located in Charlotte, North Carolina. If you have a day or two, and are in the area, I would recommend stopping by and seeing the sights for yourself.
It is actually quite interesting to go see each of the different shops. Each one offers something different. Most of them give the fans a viewing area where people can look right into the shops and see employees working on the cars.
I was given a chance to get an exclusive inside look at the Haas/CNC shop back in 2008. One of their employees took me right into the shop, as well as into fabrication, the paint shop and the testing areas. It was an in-depth tour and was very insightful.
It added just one more perspective of how to view the teams and get more appreciation of how hard they all have to work to make race days successful.
This one was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for me, and it produced the most amazing fan experience I could have ever imagined.
As I mentioned, I am a Scott Riggs fan. Last season, he ran a handful of races for RAB Racing in the Nationwide Series. At the time, the team had no sponsorship, so a group of Riggs' fans decided that we would all take part in a "Sponsor Scott" themed car for the Nashville race.
For varying donation amounts, fans can get their name on his car and be an official sponsor. I took advantage of the opportunity, and it resulted in one of the most amazing experiences of my life. I was treated just like a big-time sponsor, and I was given the opportunity to feel like part of the team for a weekend.
If any situation like this ever comes up for anyone, I would heavily encourage taking advantage of it. It is well worth the donation money.
It is one thing to watch a team make a pit stop on the television. But when you see it in person, it really makes you appreciate how amazing it is that they can get all of that stuff done in 14 seconds or less.
I have had the opportunity to watch a race from atop a team's pit box. When the car comes in for its service, there are six people that have to be on top of their game, because one mistake can cost their driver a bunch of positions.
If you can see this in person, and truly see how in sync the whole team is, your respect and appreciation for what these folks do will grow exponentially.
What a fun time this would be. Tony Stewart is the owner of Eldora Speedway in Ohio. He has become famous for hosting his annual Prelude to a Dream dirt-track race each June.
Many of NASCAR's top stars take part in this one night race for charity. It has even become such a spectacle that it is now broadcast live on Pay Per View with the proceeds going to the charity.
I can honestly say that I have actually never been to a dirt race in my life. But I know for a fact that this one would be a heck of a way to begin my dirt track-watching career.
There is a major sense of excitement when you know that you are going to meet your favorite driver. And you get that sense when you attend a driver's autograph session.
The only problem with these sessions is that your time with the driver is fairly limited. A lot of times, the number of items you can get signed is limited to just one or two, and you have to keep the line moving at somewhat of a steady pace.
But if it is the only way you have to get an autograph or a picture with your favorite driver, it is well worth the time. I have attended numerous sessions from various drivers, and with just one or two exceptions, the drivers are usually always very cordial and accommodating to their fans.
If you have never been to a race or, for that matter, any sporting event, then you have no idea just how special this moment is. If you have been, then you are well aware of how surreal this moment can really feel.
When you get 100,000 people together, and then all of them stand in unison for the National Anthem and the subsequent flyover, it is truly a sight. And more importantly, it's a moment that almost seems to stand still.
The thing I remember the most from the first time I was ever in attendance for a flyover was just how loud it really was. As much as I love the sound of the engines of the race cars roaring to life, the sound of the airplanes doing their flyover at the end of the national anthem is one of the great sounds in all of sports.
Raise your hand if you expected to be reading an article about a hot dog tonight! I don't expect to see many hands up, but if you are a NASCAR fan, than you have undoubtedly heard about the famous Martinsville hot dog.
This is yet another experience on my own list that I have yet to partake in. But from all accounts, this is the hot dog to top all hot dogs.
Some would argue against the famous Martinsville hot dog, what with all of its nutritional negatives. Then there is the fact that the pink dye used on the hot dog sometimes turns the inside of the bun an off-pink color, making it very unappealing to the eye.
But with all of its negatives aside, this culinary perfection smothered in chili is something that every motorsports fan should ingest at some point.
Attending your first race is something that you will never forget. It is one thing to watch a race on television, but being at the track, hearing the sounds and seeing the sights in person is something very special.
I will never forget my first race. Being from New England, the only choice for a Sprint Cup race was at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. I went for the first time in July of 2000. It was a cool and rainy day, but they were able to complete 273 of the 300 scheduled laps before the rains came and soaked everything for good.
I vividly remember the sights, the sounds and even the finish of the race. Tony Stewart was declared a winner when track officials determined the track couldn't be dried before sunset. As a Mark Martin fan, I was devastated, because I remembered that he had enough fuel to make it to the finish. In contrast, Stewart and second-place finisher Joe Nemechek were both due in to make green-flag stops for fuel within the next 10 laps.
Either way, attending your first race is an event that no one will ever forget.
If you have ever been to a race, you know those moments before the drivers fire the engines, when they all get introduced one by one and then take their parade laps around the track. Now imagine being one of the lucky fans that get to be standing on the track while the drivers are being introduced.
That is yet another cool moment to take part in. I have also had the opportunity to do this on one occasion. It came at Nashville for the Nationwide Series race. Some people might not think that this is anything special, but it is just one more opportunity to get right up next to the biggest stars in the sport.
Only a select few get the opportunity to race at the highest levels. But with programs like the Richard Petty Driving Experience, anyone can feel what it would be like to be able to be out there with the greats.
Most race fans would love nothing more than to strap in to a race car and take a few laps around the track just to get the rush of adrenaline that comes with being a race-car driver.
This is something that I have regrettably yet to do. I wouldn't even care if I had the opportunity to drive the car or not. Even if I was just a passenger, getting the chance to go upwards of 200 miles per hour would be quite the thrill.
Call me crazy, but once or twice a year I enjoy listening to a race on the radio as opposed to watching it on television. I know that sounds crazy, but when you have quality radio personalities like MRN lead announcer Barney Hall and lead turn-announcer Dave Moody, they paint just as good of a picture as what you would actually see on a television screen.
NASCAR has two major broadcast partners that it goes through, MRN and PRN. If I am going to listen to a race on the radio, I would much prefer that it is during an MRN broadcast. I just feel like they cover the race with superior quality.
As I said, I don't always make a habit of doing it. But every once in a while, listening to the radio coverage is a nice change of pace, and can sometimes be a real unique experience and bring you all the same action but from a different perspective.
This one, much like meeting Richard Petty, really doesn't need a whole lot of explanation. In the world of motorsports, Mario Andretti is a legend. Everyone knows his name, and everyone should also have the good fortune to meet him and hear some of his stories.
Andretti is one of the best race-car drivers to have ever lived. He has been successful at every level and in all different types of racing. To have the fortune to spend any time with one of the all-time greats would certainly be time well spent.
The third-and-final living legend that every motorsports fan should be so privileged to meet is John Force. When you think about the world of drag racing, the first name that comes to mind has to be that of Force.
Whether you are familiar with drag racing or not—truth be told, I am really not all that familiar with it—you know who John Force is.
He, much like Andretti and Petty, would have a wealth of stories to share. And from all accounts I have heard, Force is truly one of the nice guys in the business. So that in itself is all the more reason to want to meet him.
As I mentioned, I am very unfamiliar with drag racing and funny cars. What I do know, though, is that they are a heck of a show in person.
While the sights and sounds of a NASCAR race are something to be seen, the sights and sounds of the funny cars are incredible. The sheer speed that they run with is amazing. As long as you don't mind a loud noise, the sound is absolutely phenomenal.
This is the perfect opportunity to meet your favorite driver. If you are ever fortunate enough to get a garage pass, jump all over the chance. Most times, in order to get your hands on one of these, you have to have some connections. They can cost a little bit of money, but they are well worth it.
I have been fortunate enough to enter the garages twice—once at Atlanta Motor Speedway and the other at Nashville. It made the race weekend about one thousand times more exciting. Once in the garage, you are free to do basically whatever you want.
You can get right up next to all of the cars and you can get elbow to elbow with all of the biggest stars of the sport. If you are an autograph seeker or are into getting photographs taken with drivers, a garage pass is the right thing for you.
It doesn't matter who you cheer for in the racing world. Whether you are a fan of one of the top stars in the sport, like Jimmie Johnson or Jeff Gordon, or a fan of a driver still looking for their big break, like a Travis Kvapil or Reed Sorenson, having the opportunity to meet them is the thrill of a lifetime.
My two favorite drivers are Mark Martin and Scott Riggs. I have had the opportunity to meet both of them on multiple occasions. I have nothing but the highest of praise for both of them.
I actually had the chance to spend an entire race weekend with Scott Riggs a year ago for the Nationwide Series race in Nashville. It was the trip of a lifetime. I was able to take away so many memories and met a lot of great people besides Scott.
If, as a race fan, you never do anything else, make every effort to at least meet your favorite driver one time. It is the most rewarding moment that a fan can have.
One of the ultimate thrills of my life as a racing fan has been the opportunity to meet "The King" Richard Petty. I have been fortunate to meet him a couple of different times, and it is something that every race fan should get to experience.
While Petty's glory days were before my time, there are still fewer thrills than meeting one of the two greatest drivers in NASCAR history.
Both times I have met Petty, he was nothing but gracious and friendly. He was willing to sign autographs, and more than willing to take some time to get to know everyone. He took the time to talk to anyone who wanted to exchange stories.
Richard Petty is one of the all-time greats in the world of racing. But he's an even better person who everyone should have a chance to meet at least once.
What a cool race the 24 Hours of Daytona is. A team event, in which the name speaks for itself, it is a race that runs a full 24 hours.
Many top stars from various types of racing enter the annual event. This season, Jimmie Johnson, Juan Montoya, Dario Franchitti and Scott Pruett were among the notable names that were entered into the event.
Maybe I have a thing for night racing, but that would be the part of the show that would intrigue me the most. While there is nothing wrong with daytime racing, once the sun goes down and the lights come on, the action just seems to really pick up.
Whether you are a NASCAR fan or an open wheel fan, the Brickyard is a place that any motorsports fan must go to once in their life. There is no other racing venue that is more famous or has more history associated with it.
There is so much to be excited about when it comes to Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Whether it is just to see the row of bricks that comprise the start/finish line, or whether it is to sit in the grandstands that are on the inside of the racetrack, every aspect of the Brickyard has a story.
I was tempted to title this one "Attending the Daytona 500," but as a fan, you don't even have to be in attendance to love and get the full Daytona 500 experience.
I have never been to Daytona either, but not being there in no way diminishes my excitement for the Great American Race. Maybe it's because it's the first race of the NASCAR season, or maybe it's just because of what race it is, but when Daytona rolls around, I am like a kid in a candy store.
This year's 500 brought us one of the greatest feel-good stories in many years with Trevor Bayne scoring the win for the Wood Brothers. Last year's Daytona 500, with Jamie McMurray's incredible victory and subsequent emotional Victory Lane celebration, were also moments that race fans will never forget.
So, whether you are able to attend the race or not, the Daytona 500 itself is easily one of the 25 greatest fan experiences.
For me personally, if I could only go to one racetrack, it would be Bristol Motor Speedway. While it may not have the same tradition as a Daytona or an Indianapolis, what could be better than sitting in a completely enclosed 160,000-seat stadium of a racetrack?
To take it one step further, I would choose the night race at Bristol. The excitement and atmosphere, while still strong during the spring race, is seemingly multiplied when the Sprint Cup makes its end-of-summer visit to the half-mile under the lights.
I will be the first to admit that, ever since they repaved Bristol a few years back, the action that we came to expect from the short track is a little tamer. But that doesn't change the fact that Bristol would be an absolutely amazing track to watch a race at.
I have never attended a race at Talladega, and for a while, I didn't think I would ever want to. The track is huge—2.66 miles long. That is a lot of opportunity to miss some action.
The more I think about it, though, the more I think I would enjoy going. Sure, you might have a hard time seeing some of the action, but the atmosphere of just being there, as well as the photo finishes, would be well worth it. There is never a lap at Talladega when, as fans, we aren't holding our breath.
Inevitably, the Big One is more than likely to happen. That kind of edge-of-your-seat excitement is what keeps the fans continuously coming back for more.