Monday, March 1, 2010

Fans, locals share Speedway for annual NASCAR weekend

By Anthony Fenech

Monday, Mar. 1, 2010 | 1:45 a.m.

Luke Aikins makes the jump once a year.

He falls from the sky, his arms and legs outstretched, descending to Earth at the 1.5-mile oval of asphalt most commonly referred to as Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

There are mountains to his left, mountains to his right and desert everywhere he looks.

In the distance, a speck of a city becomes clearer and clearer as he freefalls faster and faster.

“It’s beautiful,” he said. “There really isn’t anything like this place.”

He lands on the track next to a parade of people who greet the Red Bull skydiver with cheers, much like the Las Vegas valley welcomes NASCAR Weekend.

The fall is intense, he said, seconds upon seconds of adrenaline and exhilaration, but with a snap of his fingers, it’s over, much like the past weekend at LVMS.

But what was once a run-of-the-mill stop on the major league stock car circuit has become much more. The Speedway could hold the key to a western expansion of the sport.

“I’ve jumped at Texas and at Bristol,” Aikins said. “But none of them compare to this. The whole atmosphere is just, like, Vegas.”

Both NASCAR and its fan base are starting to realize it.

Donna Shoemaker lives in Linden, Wash., a stone’s throw from the Canadian border. She makes 21-hour trip from the northwest every year.

“I love it here,” she said Sunday morning. “Just look where I’m standing.”

She leaned on the garage of Home Depot’s No. 20 car, driven by Joey Logano. Stuffed into two plastic bags were a Christmas’ worth of autographed NASCAR memorabilia.

“We practically live in the Neon Garage when we’re here,” she said about the 4-year-old racing and entertainment hub that lies just inside the racetrack. “I’ve met most of my favorite drivers down here and a couple even remembered me from last year.”

It’s this kind of fan-to-driver interaction that has set the Speedway ahead of the competition, with some comparing the facilities to – gulp – Daytona.

“This reminds me of Daytona,” Phil Cummings said. “But better.”

And Cummings would know -- he's a Daytona native who migrated west to Las Vegas just a few months ago.

“You can’t beat this, man,” he said. “To be down here and smell the rubber, it’s something else. It’s not Daytona, don’t get me wrong. But I’ve been to a majority of the tracks and this one really stands out.”

On Sunday, the Speedway sold out its Sprint Cup date for the ninth consecutive year. The fans have bought in, and more surely than slowly, NASCAR brass is buying in as well.

“I love the track and I love coming to the city,” said Joe Gibbs, owner of Joe Gibbs Racing. “It’s a huge deal for us when you get fans to travel all over just to be here and then they see all the fun things they get to do.”

Gibbs runs one of the most powerful teams in the sport and believes that, thanks to innovative ideas like the Neon Garage, NASCAR’s brightest light has yet to shine.

“Our best years are in front of us,” Gibbs said. “We might have a track to get in the northwest and hopefully we can get out here more.”

Currently, the furthest destinations west on the tour are Fontana and Sonoma, Calif., followed by Las Vegas and Phoenix.

“Las Vegas is different,” said Zach Price, a rear tire man for A.J. Allmendinger’s No. 43 car, most famously driven by “The King” Richard Petty.

“The track isn’t much different, but everything around it is so different. It’s a different kind of fan, more lively than I’ve seen.”

Randy Heffner, part of Tony Stewart’s No. 14 Old Spice team, agrees with Price.

“I think the fan base in the West is good,” he said. “Maybe not so much at Fontana, but here it is really good and I think Las Vegas has done a great job of promoting it.”

Fontana is the westernmost city that hosts two events a year.

Aikins, the skydiving NASCAR fan who carries as much of an appetite for thrill as the drivers themselves, said the proof is in the pudding.

“Look at these fans,” he said, scanning the pit road area. “You can’t even tell the difference between team members and fans.”

And if he’s certain of the positive energy created by Las Vegas’ NASCAR experience, he’s certain of something else:

“I’d love to make this jump twice a year.”

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