start your engines

How do you start Diane Cyphers’ engine? Jeff Gordon, Tennessee moonshine, brand loyalty and a few laps around the World’s Fastest Half Mile.




Anyone who knows me knows that baseball is my sport of choice. But my husband, Dave, enjoys NASCAR. So when friends asked us to join them to see a NASCAR race at the Bristol Motor Speedway in Tennessee during the week of Dave’s birthday, I decided it would make a great gift.

Jeff Gordon
Jeff Gordon

I know little about NASCAR except for bits and pieces that I’ve picked up from Dave over the years. “Most fans support a specific driver,” Dave told me as he held up his Dale Earnhardt Jr. shirt. So I did a cursory search of the drivers in the race and decided on Jeff Gordon. I recognized his name and know he is a seasoned NASCAR driver. (I also once saw him host an episode of Saturday Night Live and thought he was kind of cute.) I bought a #24 Gordon shirt and was ready for NASCAR.

The racetrack sits atop a Tennessee mountain and the enormous structure holds a whopping 160,000 spectators. (As a comparison, Pittsburgh’s PNC Park holds 38,000.) We plunged into the circus-like atmosphere of pre-race festivities.

Because NASCAR fans are brand-loyal, the sport attracts many Fortune 500 company sponsorships. We visited booths by Nationwide, FedEx, Irwin Tools, DuPont and many others. It was an advertising manager’s dream come true. (I’m mtl’s advertising manager.)

Food, beverages and virtually anything NASCAR-related are for sale. You could try your luck at games, contests and prizes. And, stop by the Bible Ministries booth for free ice water, cookies and literature. (It’s true!) The music was country-western, of course, and a live band provided popular toe-tapping hits.

Spectators included young children, busloads of senior citizens and everyone in between. I think it may have been the world’s record for the amount of bare skin and freakish tattoos on display. I noticed that a lot of women seem to favor pairing short shorts with cowboy boots (and I noticed my husband noticing too).

I opted to sit inside an authentic race car and get a short education about cars and driving. I walked away with a new respect for drivers who have earned their places and risk their lives to compete in the dangerous and thrilling sport of NASCAR.

Once inside the speedway, we stopped to get a drink. Choices ranged from lemonade, soda, sweet tea, many different beers, all the way to mixed drinks and even Tennessee moonshine. (I’m not kidding!)

By some fluke, our seats were separated by four seats from our friends. So, we asked the people seated there if we could sit together. The group rose amicably and shuffled places to accommodate us. “Where y’all from? Pittsburgh! Well, how ’bout that. Glad y’all could make it!”

The racetrack is a half-mile concrete oval with a narrow track and high banking at the curves. Views are terrific, and you can easily see the entire track that’s dubbed “The World’s Fastest Half Mile!” Dave explained to me that the narrow track allows only two cars to ride side by side and makes passing extremely difficult. One lap at NASCAR speed would take about twelve seconds.

Pre-race ceremonies included a moving tribute to U.S. veterans. Then, the crowd stood, with hands on hearts, and recited the Pledge of Allegiance. I haven’t said the words aloud since high school homeroom, and it felt very patriotic to do so again with more than 100,000 others. Our national anthem was played; skydivers parachuted to the track, and then came the thunder of a jet flyover. A minister delivered a heartfelt prayer thanking God for our country, our veterans and our freedoms, and asked for a fair race and the safety of the drivers and fans alike. I was surprised to hear a prayer delivered in a public venue. (I found it a welcome change from today’s hyper political correctness.) I learned that race fans appreciate God, America and NASCAR and are happy to say so.

We inserted our earplugs after the most famous words in all of motorsports were spoken: “Gentlemen, start your engines.” Dave yelled for me to “chop wood and watch for hawks.”(At least that’s what I think he said, but probably not.) Oh, wow, it’s difficult to describe the loudness factor. I know there is a decibel system for measuring sound, but I feel certain it was off those charts. Fireworks-finale-loud doesn’t even come close; rock-concert -loud just doesn’t compare. It was more like an explosive roar that rises up and surrounds you, and pummels you, sending you reeling until you feel the vibration deep within your chest.

But then gradually, somehow, my senses returned and I was riveted as the race unfolded. The cars buzzed by in a blur of colors, and sparks flew as they grazed the banked wall. I watched No. 24 Jeff Gordon closely and he was driving a good race. The lead changed more than 20 times and I was amazed at the expert maneuvers drivers made as they charged for the lead. I cheered loudly in support for Danica Patrick, the only female driver in the race, when she emerged from her damaged car unhurt. I oohed and aahed along with the crowd as cars careened off the wall in fiery streaks and were knocked out of the race. I was drawn to the action and simply couldn’t deny the appeal of a skillful and thrilling competition.

With 10 laps to go, I was on my feet and screaming for Jeff Gordon to take the lead. The checkered flag waved and Denny Hamlin won the race. Jeff Gordon took third. My husband assured me that placing in the top three is still an impressive race victory.

We exited the racetrack among a sea of people in mass exodus the likes of which I have never seen before. A man stepped in front of me and gestured to my shirt and then back to his. (We were both wearing #24 Gordon shirts.) He smiled and said, “Hey,” as he raised his hand palm up. We exchanged an enthusiastic high-five. And that’s all it took and I’m in. I’m a NASCAR fan!