I had a meeting in Mondello Park about 6 months ago and afterwards I was chatting to Phil and Ken in the office and the door opened and a guy walked in carrying a trophy. It was an impressive one too, and the inscription said “Mondello Park. July 1977. Shell Oils Formula Ford 1600 A Final” The man, it subsequently transpired, was Martin Allen, a native of Naas, now living in Boston and a relative of his had been about to bin the trophy so he took it and dropped into Mondello to see if anyone knew who won it originally.
Fast forward a few months and Martin and I, having chatted for a considerable length of time when we met initially, had kept in touch. His business is AvPro Worldwide and they specialise in flying advertising banners over sporting events. As a result of this, he has an involvement with NASCAR and with the Sprint Cup visiting his local circuit, North Hampshire Motor Speedway, he thought it would be a great idea for Jenny and I to cross the pond and have a taste of oval racing at its best.
Having put my thinking cap on (-unusual I know,) I began to formulate a plan to make it a working trip. Despite the best efforts of Patrick McKenna, Peter Dempsey et al, we have not had an Irish Indycar driver for many years- but bar hearing about Kieran Dynes’ efforts, I was not aware of any attempt to target NASCAR in recent years. With this in mind, I began to do a bit of research in terms of the path taken by drivers to reach NASCAR. There are many different steps, well before the second tier InfinityCup class or even the K&N series- but on the weekend of our intended trip, the Modifieds were joining their high profile brothers on the Magic Mile.
Media passes were applied for, flights were booked and before we knew it, we were headed stateside.
Martin picked us up at the hotel on Friday morning and we headed to the local airfield, where I got my first taste of NASCAR fans. The drivers all have their own private jets and most of them land at a local airfield, Concord Airport. Already outside, the fans were lined up, seats, water, even a few beers, hoping to catch a glimpse of their favoured driver! As we walked by, a guy standing up with headphones on and a Jimmie Johnson #48 shirt nodded at the crowd and said “Yeah, Jack Roush comin’ in, guys, Jack Roush!” Sure enough as we walked through the building a Citation jet was on approach and when it landed, the “Cat In The Hat” appeared, climbed into an awaiting car and drove out by the fans, even stopping for a quick chat! We then headed out to the circuit and I was amazed at all the stalls selling unofficial merchandise on the road approaching the speedway. We went in, checked in with the staff at the circuit office and collected our passes, then pretty much did a full tour of the very impressive facility. This included a visit to the area used only by the TV crew and the team spotters during the race- on the very top of the grandstands. There was also some practise on and we got to see the action close up. It transpired the passes allowed us into pitlane, the team paddock, pretty much anywhere and it was great to see the teams working on the cars and chat to some of them first hand. We also met Bubba Wallace and a few other drivers and teams and spoke to them about their deals, and how they got to where they are now. It quickly became apparent that NASCAR is not just motorsport, it is a huge marketing campaign.
On the Saturday, we had been invited to go Mountain biking with the aforementioned Jimmie Johnson, Bubba and a few others with Marty Allen (Martin’s son) but not being “race fit” (ahem!) I had politely declined the kind invitation. We instead ventured into Boston. Much like NASCAR, I had heard the stories but never been. If you get the chance, go- and visit the North End. Originally full of Irish Imigrants, apparently due to its geographic proximity to the Emerald Isle and hence cheaper travel costs, it has since been taken over by many Italian families. I say taken over because you feel like you are in a scene from Goodfellas when the pseudo “Eye-Tallions” get going on the street. As Jenny took a picture, one of them growled. “You can take a pickcha doll, but it betta not be for the feds!” I jest you not. We were also introduced to the delights of the Cannoli. Might sound like a pasta dish but in fact it is a delicious pastry of Sicilian origin. Despite a customer informing us that “they ain’t nothin’ compared to the ones I get in Sicily!”, they were delicious and highly addictive, especially with a good coffee. If you are ever in Boston’s North End, a visit to Caffé Vittoria is a must!
We returned to the track early on race day, which was a good idea as the crowds were already arriving at the Speedway. The staff at the Speedway were fantastic and the service and level of access we received as media was absolutely outstanding. With temperatures predicted to be well over 90, in US speak, bottled water and sun cream were vital and luckily we had plenty of both. We headed to the pitlane to meet some drivers and teams and also hooked up with former Vee driver Dave Heavey, who had travelled down from Canada with a group of mates for his stag. They were staying onsite and by the looks of them, they had already begun partying on their bus on the way down! Dave’s Jeff Gordon top was quickly replaced by a Danica Patrick top by the stag party, and the sleeves were also crudely removed for further effect!
Wandering through the “Fan Zone”, which had everything from a kart track and Ferris Wheel to sponsor stalls with show cars etc, I turned around and Jenny was nowhere to be seen. I eventually found her up on stage, involved in a Game Show organised by the AAA. She eventually came down, having won two tickets to a Basketball Game- it was that kind of day. I was beginning to think that the race itself was almost incidental, it was all about the show! Before the race, a truck carrying a stage (yeah, really) came round the track and set up on the start finish straightaway (see, I even picked up some lingo!)- a band came on stage and played but after that the real fun started- and the fans loved it. The backstage was the pitlane and the stage itself opened out onto the start finish straight and one by one, with a big announcement, the drivers appeared on the stage- in reverse grid order. The crowd boo’d and cheered depending who they were supporting. (The last time I heard anything like that, Maureen Potter was on stage!) and as we got to the top ten, the anticipation was heightening. As indeed, was the commentator’s voice as he began to big it up. The top ten each had fireworks launched from each of the stage as they came onto the stage and when it got to the polesitter- the place, and the crowd, went mad. The scenes were amazing and it is hard to convey the emotion we felt just by typing these words. As each driver left the stage, they stepped into the back of a waiting pickup for a lap waving at the crowds. NASCAR certainly know how to put on a show.
Just before the start we nipped back across the the pitlane and took the opportunity to get a few pictures with Grand Marshal for the day Adam Sandler, as well as Danica Patrick and Jimmie Johnson, amongst others. We decided to abandon the media centre, with its wonderfully helpful staff, endless supply of water, coffee and food, its massive screens and ice cold air conditioning, in favour of the grandstand seats Martin had kindly arranged for us- in order to soak up more of this incredible atmosphere. As we took our seats, we got chatting to the people around us, who were tickled pink that we did not have a cooler box full of beers and water. Hearing we were Irish, they seemed to take it upon themselves to look after us. (Everyone in the Boston and NHMS area is part Irish it seems!) Now everyone knows I like a beer, but with the display on the tower showing 93 degrees (somewhere about 35 in Celsius) and three people already having been helped off the stand by medics in our immediate area, I opted for the water, to start anyway. As the pace car prepared to pull in , the nice woman beside us told us that “this is when we stand up and wave our beers” so we did. As the race started, the whole place went crazy. Had there been a roof on the New Hampshire Motor Speedway, it would have been lifted off around then! I can honestly say that I have not encountered that type of atmosphere at a racetrack anywhere in the world before, and I include Le Mans and various F1 races in that. As I said earlier, its all about the show!
After about 50 laps, we decided to head down under the grandstand and move to somewhere else. I grabbed an ice cold beer and Jenny a badly needed frozen lemonade- it really was proper hot. Martin had texted me saying he was down at Turn one so we walked down that way. As we walked up into the grandstand someone shouted “Alright Leo!” I turned to see Dave Heavey and his entire stag party, complete with tricolour and cooler boxes, somehow having accessed the stands, despite a lack of tickets when we had met them earlier. We sat with them for a good portion of the race and the banter was good- Dave having been branded a Danica fan by his mates.
The race was won by Kyle Busch, despite late race pressure from our man Brad Keselowski. Keselowski had led the most laps, having looked strong from the start but a late race caution for Alex Bowman ended the race prematurely. Jimmie Johnson had a terrible run, with the car not looking good at all. From the opening laps, he began to fall back, much to the disappointment of our grandstand neighbours, resplendent in their #48 apparel. We heartily agreed with them as they shook their heads and opined that “Jimmie’s car is not good today”
After the race, Martin brought us to Newick’s Lobster House, something of a post race tradition for him and his family. Unsurprisingly, our eyes were bigger than our stomachs but the banter was good, and the food better, even if we probably left more than we ate!
For a far more detailed report on the race, and the possible paths stateside for ambitious Irish drivers, pick up the CarSport Yearbook in a few months time. A huge huge thank you to Martin Allen, without whom none of this would have happened and to Kristen at new Hampshire Motor Speedway, for her hospitality- we’ll be back!
Motormouth’s Mutterings has been nominated for the Blog Awards Ireland 2015.