Clinton, S.C., Friday, May 31, 2013, 10:02 a.m.
Timing probably has something to do with my love of Dover International Speedway. The first Sprint Cup weekend there falls each season after The Two Weeks of Charlotte.
Drivers, owners and crewmen always talk about Charlotte Motor Speedway being their home track and the joy of being able to sleep in their own beds. When I was at the Gaston Gazette for 16-1/2 years, CMS was the also the home track and, naturally, the work load was greater. During the early years, I’d have some help as another writer would show up for at least a couple days. Then I was allowed to hire “stringers,” which is newspaper-speak for free-lance writers, to add to the coverage.
Times change, nowhere more so than at newspapers during my career. By last year, I was all by my lonesome. Same workload, of course, so what Charlotte basically became was even more exhausting. The Coca-Cola 600 was particularly rough because hell hath no greater fury, in terms of my job, than a Sunday night race. What kept me at the Gazette as long I made it was the newspaper’s popular syndicated NASCAR page, the copy of which had to be written on Monday morning. So I’d be at the track until 2 in the morning, get up at 6 to write “NASCAR This Week,” check out of the motel and drive home to Clinton, where I would then morph into a zombie for a day.
Dover was great because it was back to normal. I’d fly to Philly on Thursday, write in the motel, then go to the track on Friday, Saturday and Sunday, write the syndicated copy on Monday, check out, drive back to Philly and fly home that afternoon. That was my standard week, with the only variation being whether I drove or flew.
For much of my time in Gastonia, I covered virtually every race. Over the final three or four seasons, I cut back to 28 races a year, which were still plenty.
I didn’t go to Dover last year, in part, because I had a feeling that I wouldn’t be around much longer and wanted to go back one more time to a few of the tracks I had passed up. Sonoma, for instance.
As a general rule, I’m leery of shortening races. Longer races add a level to the skill set of a Sprint Cup driver. Some drivers can’t make the adjustment from Nationwide and Camping World Truck to the premier series. It’s not a matter of conditioning as much as concentration. But, when Dover shortened its races from 500 to 400 miles, it made the racing better. At one time, I’d be sitting in the Dover press box with the guy on my left reading a novel and the one on my right working on crossword puzzles. I’d be listening to music while pretending it was the scanner.
The last 500-mile race at Dover, on June 1, 1997, was a classic, won by Ricky Rudd. It scared me to death. I was afraid the track would change its mind.
Herewith are a few of my favorite aspects of Dover International Speedway:
- The view from the press box, overlooking the first turn, is breathtaking. Stock cars dive into the high-banked, concrete turns of Dover like fighter jets in a dogfight. One of my better paragraphs went something like this: “The sight of Winston Cup stock cars diving into turns one and three is one of the sport’s dazzling spectacles. Unfortunately, they will do so 1,000 times on Sunday afternoon. Even the sublime can get old with repetition.”
- It is overly simplistic to claim that Dover is in “the middle of nowhere.” It’s not far from lots of somewheres. I often went to major-league games – in Baltimore, Philadelphia and, once, Washington, D.C. – while covering NASCAR there. I also saw a football game between the Naval Academy and Northwestern.
- I tried to pack light so that I could return home with a half dozen books from Atlantic Book Warehouse, conveniently located in front of the speedway near the main gate. It probably hurt sales there when the races were shortened.
- If South Carolina had a restaurant known as Sambo’s Tavern, pickets would likely be out front, but in Delaware, it’s just a place whose original owner was named Sam. It’s hidden in the middle of a small village and speed trap known as Leipsic, and it is one of the more original restaurants I’ve ever visited. Sambo’s is not a swanky place, and it’s not uncommon to leave there with bits of crab shells stuck to one’s elbows.
- Dover is the only place where I walked from my room to and from the track. That’s because the Dover Downs Hotel & Casino overlooks the third turn.
- My greatest conquest of slot machines occurred on a Monday afternoon after a race that had been rained out on Sunday. Unlike Vegas, Dover was a place where, generally, I got better than I gave. I was either superstitious or smart. I always gambled on Thursdays and Mondays, based on the suspicion that the slots would be “looser” before and after race fans were around. It may not have been true, but it worked.
- I used to play music on Fridays and Saturdays in front of a bar at the side entrance to the casino. Most everyone watching was at least a little tipsy with a pocket full of dollar bills. This made the atmosphere absolutely perfect for tips. A guy once offered me $20 to play a Creedence Clearwater Revival song, which I had never done. Hmm, I thought, “Proud Mary” ought to be easy. I think I know all the words. I did, and it was.
- They changed over the years, but I always enjoyed chatting with the women who worked in the press box.
- Dover has a great recruiting tool. I defy anyone to walk across the pedestrian bridge during practice and not be impressed. Ruhm-ruhm, ruhm-ruhm-ruhm …
- Some of my more memorable conversations occurred while sitting on the wall while cars were lined up for qualifying. For some reason, Mark Martin often happened by, and, in general, what we talked about had little to do with racing.