Two Days Embedded in the World’s Hottest Brickyard
Including what happens when you hang out with a driver who gets a lot of boos.
Two things about my experience at this year’s Brickyard 400, held Sunday on the surface of the sun: This was my first NASCAR race (though I’ve seen Cars 4,000 times, which counts), and I was lucky enough to spend it with Team Penske driver Brad Keselowski and his Miller Lite 2 crew. So while I can’t hear a thing anyone is saying right now, I can offer these thoughts from Keselowski’s pit box and Pit Road:
• Being “embedded” means you sit directly behind the crew in the pit box and try not to touch anything or look at anyone. If you don’t know NASCAR—which, by most accounts, I don’t—this is like jumping from your recliner into the Yankees dugout. I was outfitted with a hat and crew shirt, an amazing souvenir that is also 100 percent polyester, which I mention since the track heat index was roughly 650 degrees. But these guys are all pouring canisters of reactive fuel into magnificently tuned power machines, and Keselowski (along with Tony Stewart, Kyle Busch, and the other drivers) are in ovens traveling at 200 mph, so it’s not like I can call up Roger and ask for one of those handheld spray fans. So I sweated for eight hours, which I feel accented the experience. It has also accented the experience in my car, which I will now clean with a scrub brush and flamethrower.
• Of course, I lost my hat. The 2 team was nice enough to plop me into the pre-race ride-around on the back of a pickup with Brad. Midway through on Turn 3, briefly forgetting that I was traveling 65 mph in the open air, I removed said hat to turn it around so it wouldn’t blow away, and it blew away. Naturally, this elicited an obvious humiliating “HAH” from the Turn 3 crowd, all of whom now know Keselowski rides around with idiots. Brad assures me hat loss is a common problem and that it even happened to him last week in Kentucky. I’m sure he’s lying, but it’s awfully nice of him to say. (Conversely, my younger brother, who writes for NASCAR as the magnificently named @nascarcasm, assures me that hat loss only happens to rookie clods, and shakes his head at me.)
• Fun story: Keselowski gets lots of boos. It’s a little like traveling with the visiting team for three minutes, and it’s weirdly uncomfortable, even when you’re not the guy getting booed. Keselowski, for his part, lets it all roll off his suit, waving it off by rightly arguing that if they’re booing you, they’re thinking about you. He’s used to it—I was told he came up quick, succeeded early, is on the big-shot Penske team, and has a reputation for giving no quarter on the track. Also he’s got the championship and wins to back it up. And a great NASCAR pageant wave.
• The pit box looks like a hastily assembled party deck, but it’s basically the Rebel Base. There are five screens and two laptops, plus everybody’s outfitted with radios, all live-gauging an insane amount of speed-based sabermetrics. Once the race starts, there’s little talking; only radio chatter and action when Brad comes in. Pit stops look fast on TV; in person, it’s an insane machine. And everything’s loud. Even the lug nut machine is loud. The lug nut machine is like a crystal demon screaming in your brain, only louder and more upsetting.
• On TV, a restart looks like heavy traffic on I-65 south. In person, it’s like hearing a tornado passing through your brain, followed immediately by several more tornadoes.
• They called debris on the track with a few laps to go; I was like, OH GOD SOME IDIOT LOST HIS HAT.
• Kyle Busch won, which is good news but apparently not a surprise to anyone. And post-race, the media clouds descended on two drivers: Tony Stewart and Jeff Gordon. (Great, my first race and half the guys I know are retiring already.) I actually felt a little bad for Kyle Busch, except for the two-race sweep, the prize money, and the gorgeous family. And all the free Skittles. And the fact that he had a much shorter walk to the shower than I did.
— Jeff Vrabel (@jeffvrabel) July 25, 2016