As I sat at the airport waiting for the airplane to arrive, a voice came over the intercom with the devastating words, “Flight 2695 to Las Vegas is now delayed to 3:30.” My arrival into Las Vegas would have to wait, as would my fast paced weekend at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway (LVMS).
NASCAR weekend in Las Vegas was finally here (after the plane delay and several exams college students love to take). A three-day vacation away from college, a change in scenery and most certainly a change in decibel level. The routine weekend of sleeping in, relaxing with friends and cramming for upcoming tests was exchanged for early mornings and late evenings at the track. Such a rough life, right?
It was early Friday morning, around 9 o’clock when I finally arrived at the LVMS. The credential office was my first stop, which turned out be quite the adventure. My media credentials happened to be lost in the midst of all the race weekend chaos. After spending an hour of pacing back and forth, I began to lose my patience. As I looked for sympathy, I realized how unnecessary my impatience was. Not many people get the opportunity to attend a NASCAR race, let alone be part of the working media. While gathering my thoughts, I waited for a phone call back from NASCAR PR which occurred around 12 PM. All the miscommunication was sorted out and resulted in not only the media credentials, but also a golf cart ride to the media center.
Entering the media center at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway was truly a humbling experience. The men dressed in tuxedos insisted on getting the door for me, offering a warm welcome as I stepped into the illustrious piece of art (the term “building” just doesn’t cut it for this occasion). As I walked around the first floor, I noticed the brilliant photographs on the wall and the sweet aroma coming from the dining center (which reminded me just how hungry I was).
Searching for the stairwell, I noticed another man dressed in a tuxedo holding the elevator door open for me, so of course this was the easier option. While the elevator was in transit, I passed the time thinking about how silly it was taking the elevator to go up one floor, but it was certainly something I didn’t mind.
Following my short elevator ride to the second floor, I stepped out and was immediately greeted by the LVMS staff, offering me a work station in the “Deadline Room.” Taking them up on this offer, I slowly entered the room being certain not to interrupt. It was surreal to me that so many reporters and bloggers that I’ve always looked up to were working side by side with me. Looking around, I recognized so many faces (Mike Smith, Jeff Wolf, Jeff Gluck, Terry Blount, Shannon Spake, Jon Castagnino, Lee Spence and Claire B. Lang just to name a few) and they all welcomed me with pleasant smiles.
I set up my work station and exited the Media Center to catch a glimpse of Sprint Cup qualifying. I noticed reporters gathering around the top 3 qualifiers (at the time) and immediately headed over to observe the questions they were asking the drivers. The way it worked was simple, if a driver found himself in the top 3 after his qualifying laps, he would be directed to a dedicated location to park and speak with television and other media personnel. Get knocked down to 4th by another driver? You would lose your spot and have to head back to the garage.
After hearing a roar from the crowd, I glanced at the leader boards and noticed Carl Edwards, driver of the #99 Scotts Ford Fusion, was at the top. Edwards made the left turn and headed straight towards the “designated location” to claim the spot he rightfully earned.
As I observed Edwards being interviewed by SPEED channel, I pondered the thought of speaking with him individually. My heartbeat sped up and thoughts raced through my head at blistering speeds. Would he be willing to talk with me? What questions would I ask him? I must have replayed the conversation I planned on having with him over and over again at least 15 times.
Sooner rather than later, the opportunity to speak with Edwards arrived, and there was no way it was getting away from me. I introduced myself and he returned with a handshake and a smile as he removed his sunglasses. My first question was drowned out by the uproar of Edward’s fans, which I was quite thankful for due to the fact that it allowed me to repeat the question in my head once more. As the exchange of questions and answers continued, my respect not only for Carl Edwards grew, but also for the media that do these interviews. Having to ask specific questions in a timely manner with an iconic figure towering over you is no easy task (unless you are interviewing Mark Martin of course, he doesn’t tower over many). (Stay on the lookout for the full Carl Edwards interview as well as commentary coming soon!)
After several post-qualifying interviews, the media began to filter out of the Deadline Room (where driver interviews were held) and headed out for a night on the town in Las Vegas. Being born and raised in Las Vegas, I was more interested in what was taking place in the media center. With no warning, Brad Keseloswki (Driver of the #2 Miller Lite Dodge Charger R/T) and Andrea B. Ross (Executive Director of the Checkered Flag Foundation) entered the room, immediately grabbing my attention. They were holding a press conference to introduce Brad Keselowski’s new program, Race to Recovery. (R2R) (Article about the foundation coming soon)
Following the press release, Keselowski personally invited the remaining media to go downstairs with him and take part in the unveiling of the Race to Recovery Dodge Charger. Brad, David Hovis and I entered the elevator before venturing outside. Keselowski asked me where I currently attend college, and I responded “the University of Nevada-Reno but planning on transferring to University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.” This got a rise out of them, and I immediately came to the conclusion that they were Duke fans. Hovis admitted to being an avid Duke fan but Keselowski didn’t comment. (Duke lost to UNC the following day, 81-67)
Out front of the media center was the R2R Dodge Charger with a cover over it. As I looked around, the only people in sight were Brad Keselowski, Andrea Ross, David Hovis, a camera man, myself and a young lady by the name of Valli Hilaire. Hilaire writes for The Fast and the Fabulous, offering a female fan’s perspective on NASCAR. We both saw it as disappointing and unfortunate that the unveiling didn’t have a better turnout, because the program is truly special to Keselowski and serves those who serve our country.
Saturday was slightly less eventful. The majority of my day was spent in the media center observing how reporters worked with deadlines and learning the ins and outs of the working media. The LVMS staff would pass out factual information hot off the press, allowing for the media to stay up to date with the race and its exact facts. If you happened to miss one of the handouts, it wasn’t an issue. The wall just outside of the media room supplied hundreds of papers offering any and every fact about the Las Vegas race, the manufacturers, the sponsors and the drivers. Located just across from the abundance of papers was every parent’s worst nightmare, multiple refrigerators filled with Coke products. (This was quite the sight I must admit)
After spending the majority of Saturday observing, it was time to make lasting impressions on Sunday. The alarm sounding off at 5:30 AM reminded me race day was finally here. Normally I’m not a morning person and would have hit the snooze button several times, but not on this occasion. I had a deadline of my own, which was to be at the track no later than 7 AM for media pace car rides.
Now I’ve driven myself around an oval track before at speeds of around 70 mph (which was quite the thrill for a 9 year old boy) but never at speeds of 100+ mph. A 2011 Dodge Charger R/T came to a halt on pit road, where I was patiently waiting. Denise Maloof, Manager of Competition Communications, popped out of the rear seat and yelled something along the lines of “Branden, are you ready?” While running over to the car, I thought to myself “of course I’m ready!” That certainly wasn’t the case. After taking my seat in the pace car (front seat), I was greeted by Brett Bodine, Director of Competition, Research and Development and the man behind the wheel of every pace car. During the drive down pit road, he explained that pit road speed was 45 mph and the drivers must stay below the white line until the exit of turn 2. Following turn 2, the car jolted onto the track and instantly became inches away from the wall at speeds of 145 mph+.
During the transition from straightaway into turn 3, the effects of gravity reached a whole new level. The feeling was unexplainable, but it sure did give me a newfound respect for the drivers. As we flew around turns 1 and 2, I noticed the bumps that are often talked about. It didn’t affect the pace car too much, but I can see how it would impact a Sprint Cup car at speeds of 180 mph+. Following the pace lap, we had to make the transition from a 20 degree banking onto pit road and immediately bring the car to a speed of 45 mph. It’s unreal how drivers can do this time after time without losing control or speeding (I guess that’s why there was 3 penalties against drivers for speeding on entrance).
As I gathered my thoughts following the pace car ride, I remembered Steve Byrnes wanted to meet with me. He was waiting for me in the media center and grabbed my attention by shouting my name. He offered to sit down and speak with me and of course, there was no way I could say no. (Who would?) The way he offered advice and spoke with me was as if we were lifelong friends. Hands down one of the nicest and most inspirational guys I’ve ever met.
Next on the agenda was the drivers meeting which was quite remarkable. I looked around before it began and noticed everyone from drivers and their crew chiefs to Mike Golic (host of the Mike and Mike show on ESPN2) to Mike Helton (president of NASCAR). It was hilarious to me that hardly any of the drivers payed attention, but it’s understandable being that they know the rules (after all.. they are the best at what they do). Following the drivers meeting, I took a seat next to Landon Cassill and Kyle Busch for the Sunday church service. The story was quite touching and reminded me just how lucky I was to be given the opportunity of a lifetime. Looking around, I noticed just how caught up Kyle Busch was in the service, which was awesome to see given the negative connotation which usually surrounds him.
After meeting David Ragan (which I was told that I look like his brother, don’t see the resemblance though), Trevor Bayne and saying hello to Kyle Busch (who said my dad was the best modified racer he’s ever seen, pretty cool), next up was driver introductions. While walking over to view them, the LVMS security wanted nothing to do with me (literally) simply because I didn’t have a “hard card.” While asking them what that was, they continuously said you’re not allowed out there (there being the driver introductions). Instead of arguing, I made my way to the media center to catch a glimpse of it on the television after grabbing a drink. While taking a sip, I noticed the majority of the drivers walking out with their own bottle of Coke, product placement at it’s finest. While daydreaming, I took another sip and pictured myself on television turning the bottle to show the camera the label, but that didn’t last. (Coke, if you’re out there reading this, I can work on it)
The race was underway before I knew it, following the National Anthem and “Gentleman Start Your Engines.” I spent the majority of the race in the media center observing and pacing up and down pit road to watch pit stops and Steve Byrnes hard at work. He acknowledged me with a smile and a wave after speaking with Matt Kenseth’s crew. Following Jeff Gordon’s wreck, I made my way to his garage stall to hear what he had to say about his rough day, but he was no where in sight. The media received the word that he was headed to the infield care center and we all immediately changed directions. Claire B. Lang stopped me and said “Hey, weren’t you the one that wanted to speak with me yesterday?” I answered, “Yes I was, sorry again for interrupting you.” She was minutes away from hosting her radio show on Sirius XM. She apologized a few times and handed me a piece of paper with her contact information written on it. She said, “we will catch up later but let’s find this darn infield care center.” Being that I’ve attended races at LVMS before, I assisted her in finding it, but we arrived a little late. Denise Maloof offered me a golf cart ride back to the media center, this one a little slower than the pace car but certainly got the job done.
As the race neared a close, I headed down to pit road to catch the winning pit crew celebrate. I stationed myself between Carl Edward’s and Tony Stewart’s pit boxes. Carl Edwards began to pull away as did I from Tony Stewart’s pit. Carl Edwards had won the Kobalt Tools 400 and out came my phone to snap a photo of his crew celebrating.
Hurrying back to the media center to catch the press conferences held for the 2nd and 3rd place finishers was no easy task. The combination of the rush of people to victory lane and cars zipping past me made it feel like a game of Frogger. Sitting here writing this story, I can gladly say I passed the course but was a little late to the interviews. The first question I caught was for Juan Pablo Montoya and was asked in Spanish, which received a look from Tony Stewart which was hilarious. Stewart looked at the media like we had five eyes and an extra arm. As Stewart continued to show his displeasure with a 2nd place finish in a 1st place car, I stayed against the wall with my hands against my side (no need to get on his bad side this early in my career).
Next up was Carl Edwards, his crew chief Bob Osborne and team owner Jack Roush. This was quite the comedy act, starting with Edward’s brilliant Spanish quote after being asked if he had a comment for NASCAR’s Spanish followers, “Buenos dias, gracias, mi coche es rapido, and mucho dinero today.” Roush was then asked, “Jack, did he run this by you before he decided to leap 800 feet into space?” in regards to Edwards jumping off of the Stratosphere. Roush returned with, “What did he do?” As the laughter calmed, Edwards stated, “You can see Jack is really concerned about me” This surely got a rise out of the media. In the midst of all the questions, answers and laughter, Edwards scanned the room and noticed me, smiled and mouthed the words, “Hey buddy.” The ability to leave a lasting impression is something I’ve always worked towards, and it seemed like it was finally paying off.
The inspiration from my NASCAR weekend has led me to where I am now, creating this blog hoping to reach out and share my experiences as well as promote the sport that I’m so passionate about.
Special thanks to: Lauren Emling, Denise Maloof and all the assistance I received from NASCAR, the staff at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway, the media that were so supportive and friends/family which always support me in what I do.