As I sat atop a pit box at Pocono Raceway, all I could think was, Wow! From interviewing drivers to riding in a pace car, my first in-depth NASCAR experience was anything but boring.
When I arrived on a Saturday in July, I didn’t know a thing about racing but was eager to learn. After getting media passes, I met Daija Gilliam of NASCAR, who would be my guide for the weekend. At first, I waited to ask questions behind seasoned reporters. I watched Claire Lang, one of the first women to host a sports radio show. I was inspired! I interviewed six athletes: Bubba Wallace (below), Kyle Larson, Ty Dillon, Alex Bowman, Matt DiBenedetto, and Matt Tifft! I also met the president of Pocono Raceway, Ben May, and Kevin Haney, the content director for Pocono Raceway, who were helpful as I covered the weekend’s events.
I could hear the practice rounds as I toured the garages where teams keep their cars and equipment. Did you know that drivers have photo cards available to collect when you are near their trailers? I have 23 prints of racers and their cars, so now I can identify drivers quickly. I then passed Tricky’s Kit Kamp (the racetrack mascot’s play area) on Lehigh Valley Reilly Children’s Hospital Kids Day! Numerous national and local companies had free giveaways, and kids could get their faces painted, or watch someone making bubbles as long as three feet, or get a family selfie. This year, kids 12 and under got in free to the the 100 and 200 seating areas on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday events at Pocono.
Tifft said he started watching races on TV when he was around six years old. “I remember watching with my dad—I want to say it was a Rockingham race or something like that,” recalled Tifft. “I remember sitting in the living room and quizzing him on what was going on.”
Now, it was race time! The Truck Series, NASCAR’s third tier, had its race on Saturday. I watched from the grandstands, and then I joined Gilliam in Victory Lane. The winner, Ross Chastin, was there celebrating with his whole crew! I interviewed Ross, a great way to end the day. As we left, we saw families camping for the weekend in the infield as we passed the new dog park!
On Sunday morning, my mom and I rode in the pace car. Our driver was Daniel Hemric, one of the Cup Series racers. Going over 100 mph on the Tricky Triangle was exhilarating and memorable. My mom screamed as we headed toward the wall on Turn 2, which is one of the hardest turns on any track in the country because it only allows one car at a time to make the turn. This was the first race at Pocono that the new PJ1 compound (a sticky black material) was supposed to heat up over the race to allow two car-widths in Turn 2, creating a new strategic move for this race.
Said Larson of the key to succeeding at Pocono, “You have to have good restarts,” said Larson. “This place is crazy on restarts. You have to take advantage of those moments, but then your car has to drive good in all three corners. You can't sacrifice one corner to be good in another; I think you have to find a good balance for all three.”
I then saw the cars get inspected and pushed out of their garages into their number spots so they were ready for race time. I met Breanna O’Leary, one of the two female pit crew members for NASCAR, and Joe Gibbs, the former NFL coach of the Washington Redskins who owns a race team.
As driver introductions began, I met Don Perry, who owns the 51 car that B.J. McLeod was driving. For the whole race I sat atop the number 51 pit box. I listened on FanVision to the different channels of various racers’ teams. I watched the positions on the four TVs in front of me to see the strategies the drivers were using. I stood up and watched the pit crews change tires and fuel up the cars. To finish off my memorable weekend, I watched the post-race celebration and spoke to the winner, Denny Hamlin (above)!
The speed of the racers showed me how hard it is to compete at that high of a level. It’s definitely fun to go to a NASCAR race, especially if you get to interview drivers. I learned a lot!