I never imagined my first NASCAR experience would be in Columbus, Ohio; I always thought it would be one of the big venues, like Daytona, Charlotte, or Indianapolis.
Well, my assumptions were wrong, and I’m happy they were.
The K&N Pro Series East visited Columbus Motor Speedway Saturday night, which is only an hour and a half away from my house. So, my parents and I loaded up and drove down. Honestly, I had no idea what to expect. I’ve only been to one other track, and that was Attica. Nothing would be the same, I knew.
This was completely different. This was asphalt.
As the woman behind the Pit Pass counter made me sign a waiver, my signature went wayward; hand trembling, I could hardly contain myself. I received a weird look from the lady as she put my wrist band on, possibly wondering if I was going to pass out. With a smile and a nod, I was asking myself the same thing.
We claimed our seats with Sharpie-marked masking tape, then we traveled to the pits. Being in the pits is my favorite part of each trip to a track. The crews make everything possible. Even better, you got to see the drivers up close, how they presented themselves outside of the car. To me, that’s an important aspect of a racer, what they’re like away from the track. Seeing these hopefuls relax and laugh was refreshing. Eye-opening.
After a blur of pictures and chatting, qualifying for the main event began. We ran to turns one and two, where an old chainlink fence separated everyone from the catch fence for safety. I shut my eyes and listened.
The car’s growl grew louder and hungrier as it neared, searching for the speed it needed. Since I wasn’t visually taking it in, my body panicked, that heart in my chest smashing against its chamber. In an instant, the noise was all I could hear, feel, taste. The air vibrated with something I couldn’t recognize. A wall of sudden wind hit me, wanting to push me away from this sheet metal-wrapped monster.
Everything died as the growl weakened with distance. With my eyes back open, I couldn’t believe what I had faced in a few seconds. To some, it was just a qualifying session. For me, my curiosity, my passion, it was much, much more than that.
The times shook out to put Ben Kennedy on the pole, Cale Conley starting second. My mom and I dove into the pits again while my dad went to get something to drink. (He had a close encounter with Bill Elliott, who was standing next to him during qualifying, and he needed to calm down a bit. Honestly, I have never seen him freak out so much in my life, but I completely understood.) Everyone was so calm, laidback. Whatever possessed them to chill was what I needed; my nerves were all jumpy, heart rate sky-high.
All the roaming stopped, and we ended up back in our seats to watch the Columbus Modifieds duke it out for 30 laps. It was the perfect pre-show to the main event, getting everyone in the stands anxious. When that carnage cleared, the K&N drivers lined their cars on the frontstretch, and fans got to jump into the arena and receive an autograph from their favorite driver. This was perfect for those who couldn’t afford a pit pass. The venue got points for fan-friendliness in my book.
Everyone settled in the stands, and the pace laps began. This was going to be 150 laps of great racing and a dash of magic. The fans around me sensed it, also. My stomach clenched uneasily.
Anticipation thickened the air. It smelled like burning tires and sounded like thunder.
The track caught a spark and cracked into flames when the green flag waved. An announcer’s livid commentary faded to the back of my mind. All I wanted was to take this in. This was my first asphalt race. It will be impressed into my skull forever.
Cale Conley dominated and captured the win, and there were a few cautions. I heard a few people mention afterwards that the race lacked excitement. They could say whatever they wanted; I thought the total opposite. Sides were scraped, donuts were imprinted, and dents were made. Just because the event didn’t have eight cautions didn’t mean it was boring; real racing happened. That’s what mattered to me.
We watched the crews take cars apart for a bit, but it was time to go. Buckling up, I let out a sigh. For a small town girl, it was a long, thrilling day.
All the connections I made. Every heart attack I nearly had watching the drivers come out of turn four. Each picture I snapped. I loved how it made me feel.
It might not have been the Daytona 500 or The Brickyard 400, but it was my first NASCAR experience. I wouldn’t want it any other way.