Wednesday, May 10, 2017

If Heaven Ain't A Lot Like Indy...

This is a piece I wrote at the request of someone. With the festivities starting at IMS this week, I figured my perspective on being an open wheel fan in NASCAR country and my first experience working as media at Barber
would be a good read. Enjoy.

The city name Dalton, GA doesn't ring too many bells, and really why should it? We're known as the “Carpet Capital Of The World,” meaning if you have carpet at home, it was made here. There's not much that's exciting in this town, but being deep in the heart of stock car country, things can get interesting. Across from the bargain supermarket is the bike shop owned by Tammy Jo Kirk, the former motorcycle and NASCAR Truck racer, and one town over in Chatsworth, Jody Ridley's family still participates in weekly events at North Georgia Speedway. Not to mention, we're a short drive away from historic Dawsonville, birthplace of a who's who of racing legends. Indeed, it is a slice of racing heaven.....unless you're an IndyCar fan.

Dixie ain't the place for people like me, the kind of people who can tell you as much about Bobby Labonte as Bobby Rahal, Dale Earnhardt as Dale Coyne, or Jeff Gordon as Jeff Andretti. I fit in well enough, but conversations are tough when you're talking to someone who can pronounce Kulwicki, Keselowski, or even Maggiacomo but not Kanaan, Castroneves, or even Salazar. While I do enjoy a good fender bangin' showdown at Martinsville, and while I always enjoy supporting the local late model racers, I often find myself wishing I was Back Home Again In Indiana rather than having Georgia On My Mind. (No offense to Ray Charles.)

But when I was 15, a bit of the yankee life headed my way. The IRL had left Nashville after 2008, but the IndyCars returned to the south in a big way, announcing the Indy Grand Prix Of Alabama at Barber Motorsports Park. Finally, just two hours away my favorite racing series would get to show everyone else what I had always been raving about. Who would have thought the pulse pounding symphony of chaos that is the IndyCar Series would come to life just a stone's throw from the home of stock car racing's Alabama Gang? And in the 7 years since, something must have worked, as over 80,000 fans from 41 states and six countries attended this year's event.

Through my years attending as a fan, I've seen the event grow from just another stop on the schedule to a destination for spectators and competitors alike. But this year, I had the opportunity to be on the other side of the fence and experience my favorite sport in pure, raw, unfiltered fashion. Working freelance with a television station out of Chattanooga, TN whose building is akin to the size of a 25 cent pack of Juicy Fruit, I signed up for a media credential with no expectation of being approved. My dream is to follow in the footsteps of a Paul Page or a Dave Despain, but would little old me really get the chance to chase it? Then, 8 days before the event, I received confirmation that I had been granted media access. Great! But what now?
Having only 8 days to make something from nothing, I scrambled into action, emailing and Tweeting to anyone I could find that could help, and thanks to some kind people, I had interviews lined up with Dale Coyne, Graham Rahal, and Mikhail Aleshin. So I packed up my '91 Crown Vic and motored down I59 for my first true IndyCar experience. Sure, I've been to a plethora of NASCAR races, an Indy 500 and 3 Grands Prix at Barber, but nothing prepared me for my first experience as media.
Getting to the track at dawn, hauling around 40 pounds of equipment, and setting things up as a one man band was tough, even shooting B-roll alone was mentally exhausting. What made it worth it, however, was seeing up close the dedication, the focus, the intensity of crews preparing cars for the race. Schmidt Peterson's PR representative Veronica Knowlton allowed me to shoot footage of pit practice, and I'll tell ya what, pit stops from 3 feet away will take your breath away. The views of the course that I got to sink in were incredible, even if I was wearing a suit in near 90 degree temperatures. Running around the paddock, I felt like a turkey in the rain, I was so confused. Setting up interviews on the fly and trying to get just the right shot for my television piece was hard enough, and then suddenly I realized I left my media pass in Mikhail Aleshin's transporter! (Imagine that, though. A Russian and a southern boy got along very well for the interview.)
But how fitting it was that with a handful of laps to go, another southerner took the lead and never let go?

I stood behind the pitbox of Josef Newgarden's team for the end of the race , and before I knew it, everyone was hugging and high fiving, and I ended up invited to victory lane. While I wasn't quite sure if I belonged, I remembered the advice of a longtime friend from my days in pro wrestling who told me “Act like you belong and nobody will question it.” That rang true as I wound up part of the party all the way until the post race press conference. Trust me when I say the excitement was so intoxicating, it was hard to stay professional.

The GP of Alabama is tremendous in that it helps expose southern race fans to a form of auto racing they only otherwise hear about every May. My hope through my media work was to convey my personal excitement for a sport I love so dearly, so that maybe we'll see more races in the south's most beautiful cities, like a Chattanooga street race perhaps? (Hey, one can dream, right?)

I've been to The Daytona 500, I've been to Petit LeMans, Bristol at night, Darlington when the Southern 500 came home, you name it. But the greatest experience of both my professional and personal lives came at the 2017 Grand Prix of Alabama. To put a twist on the old country classic, “If Heaven ain't a lot like Indy, I don't wanna go..”

No comments:

Post a Comment