LEMASTERS, JR.: Bristol And Its Fans Get Pre-Race Right

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BRISTOL, Tenn.
No matter where you’re from, you need to put Bristol Motor Speedway on your bucket list.

Down at the start/finish line before Saturday night’s Sharpie 500, I had an epiphany.

Keep in mind that standing around during pre-race is something I do almost every weekend; you never know when you’ll stumble across a story or an observation. But this time was different.

When BMS General Manager Jeff Byrd stepped to the microphone to introduce the imposing-looking Marine officer behind him, you could sense a change come over the crowd. They hushed and they listened, and I’m glad they did.

The officer introduced a tribute video to the American military — all branches — that was played on the SprintVision screens in the middle of the infield. Set to Toby Keith’s “American Soldier,” the video featured photographs sent in from the families of military members all across the country…some from as far back as World War I.

While the video played, a giant American flag came to life in turns one and two, one of the card stunts that BMS is famous for, and it just seemed to complete the mood.

The video was interspersed with live shots from SprintVision cameras of the military personnel on the front stretch, and each time the camera shot went live, about 80,000 people started clapping and hollering.

If there was a dry eye in the house, that person needs to report to the border for deportation, or be sentenced to watch every episode of “Roseanne” in order and consecutively.

Patriotism is under much discussion these days, sort of a political football among warring parties seeking control of the national agenda. But on Saturday night, the message was clear: NASCAR fans love their servicemen and women, and the services love them back.

The national anthem was sung by children of the drivers and team members, and it was, as it usually is, completely cute. Michael Waltrip was standing and watching, along with David Gilliland, and they were just like any dad watching a child play or perform.

What I’m trying to get at is, while NASCAR racing might seem corporate and cold and other less complimentary adjectives at times, it sometimes remains true to its family-style roots, and Bristol does that as well as anyone ever has.

The pre-race intros were conducted not on the frontstretch, but down the banking of turn three. Each driver would walk out onto the catwalk, grab a microphone and say a few words while his hand-picked theme music blared in the background.

There were some basic ones (“I’m so-and-so, welcome to Bristol and have fun tonight!” was really popular) and some funny ones, too. Jimmie Johnson had an interesting bit. “I’m Jimmie Johnson, El Cajon, Calif., and you know you love me!”

Juan Pablo Montoya capped it off by committing the mother of all whoopsies: sponsor confusion. Montoya seemed a bit startled by all the people, and claimed he was the driver of the No. 42 Texaco…I mean, Target Chevrolet.

Somewhere, H.A. “Humpy” Wheeler was lurking. This had his fingerprints all over it. Well, maybe it wasn’t Humpy’s idea, but he’d have loved it nonetheless.

The point of all this is, despite all the time that is spent telling what NASCAR does wrong, or how they mishandled this or that or some other darn thing, NASCAR and its tracks do some pretty incredible things on a routine basis.

Like getting 160,000 people to pony up for tickets to what has to be the premier short-track event in the world. Sorry, Knoxville, Eldora, Boone, etc. Bristol has you beat on the strength of numbers.

Not to say that Knoxville, Eldora and Boone are not fantastic events. They are, and they each have their own cachet. But for one night in August, Bristol is the king of the by-God NASCAR universe, and that counts for a lot.