My first years watching NASCAR…A History and Top Five Races List

Sorry, but I couldnt find pictures for hardly any of this stuff, not even ones Id made on my own. I like my articles a lot more than my pics.

In October 1997, my uncles and cousins wanted me to go to Talladega Superspeedway for the DIE HARD 500 with them so I could experience my first NASCAR race. To be honest, I had never watched a race and despised the sport to a great extent. However, I didnt want to hang out at the house alone, so me, being 14 at the time decided to go with them at about 5 in the morning.
I had no idea what to expect. My cousins, aged 18 and 11 at the time, were both huge Jeff Gordon fans. Gordon was a one time champion and was then in a three way battle for the 1997 title with Mark Martin and Dale Jarrett. My uncles that I went with were all big Dale Earnhardt fans. More than half the people at the race that day were looking forward to seeing Earnhardt break a long losing streak that dated back to the previous year. There were Earnhardt shirts everywhere. We stopped in a place called Rainbow City just east of Talladega. There were race fans everywhere. Id never been in such a place in my life. Once we got to the speedway, I decided to get my first NASCAR shirt. I quickly caught the Earnhardt fever and decided to get me a number 3 Dale Earnhardt t shirt. There were a ton of things to do at the race, including this huge WINSTON cigarettes tent where you had to be 21 or over to get in. Keep in mind now that Sprint is the sponsor of the main NASCAR series, we dont have to deal with that kind of bias anymore. Most of the stuff aside from beer sponsored areas is open to everyone. Of course, Im 25 now, but I think a sport like that should be accessible to everyone.
We gave the people our tickets at the gate and settled in for the race. We sat on the backstretch around row 2 or 3. You could only see about half the track from where I sat, but we were pretty much right on top of the race. As the cars made a lap before the race, I could feel the wind off of them and feel the vibrations off the track, and they were only going something like 55 miles per hour. Finally, the race began.
There are no words in the English language to describe the feeling of the first time those 43 cars come racing by at 190+ miles per hour on the first lap of a 500 mile race at Talladega. It was just unbelieveable and was an experience I will never feel again as long as I live. Sure, I went to several more races later on, but none of them matched the magic of being there for the first time. Back in 1997, safety at Talladega wasnt what it is today and we actually climbed down out of the stands and leaned up against the fence to get closer to the track. Granted, the adults didnt, but me and my two cousins did it several times throughout the three and a half hour event.
Roughly 50 laps or so from the completion of the 188 lap event, Jeff Gordon blew out a tire and went spinning in the middle of a huge pack of traffic, taking out favorites such as Dale Earnhardt, Mark Martin, Dale Jarrett, and many others. Something then happened at the tail end of that 20 plus car wreck that I regret to this day. Nearly every one of those Dale Earnhardt and Jeff Gordon fans in the stands got up and left the race. Thats right…more than half the place emptied out because the favorites were no longer in contention. Guess who else had to leave? Yep, you guessed it. My uncles got the bright idea that since Earnhardt was no longer in it, we shouldnt be either. We packed up our stuff and were nearly half way home before the race finished. Of course, with my luck, the finish was awesome, with Terry Labonte winning and his younger brother Bobby coming in second place. My uncle to this day says he regrets leaving that race early. To the best of my knowledge, it was the last time he ever did that. That first race was a very memorable experience and the beginnings of a nearly decade long love affair with NASCAR.
I dont want to go too far to the present with my association of NASCAR. About the farthest I will go is the 2001 Daytona 500, and that is because that is when my hardcore love of the sport died. Losing Dale Earnhardt hit harder to me than the loss of some of my family members in the past. He was my favorite driver of all time and while I have tried, I have not quite been able to get another driver to replace him as my fave or even to inspire a passion for the sport in me like he did. I got into NASCAR big time. I had a room with posters and 1/64 scale cars. I had probably 100+ of them on my wall in my room. I even had a few life size stand ups of different drivers, among them Earnhardt Jrs from his rookie year with Budweiser, the late Earnhardt with Busch beer from 1998, Dale Jarrett from 1999, and Jeff Burtons Coca Cola racing family from 2001. I also had several bits of signed memorabilia from drivers such as Steve Grissom, Earnhardt Jr., Kenny Wallace, Benny Parsons, Chad Little, Kyle Petty, the late Adam Petty, and several more from meeting them at several different functions in Charlotte, NC during the summers of 1999 and 2001. Those were good times.
No article on here would be complete without a cliched top five or top ten list, and I feel it is my duty to list my top five favorite races/ moments from NASCAR during my 1997-2001 affair with the sport. These are for me personally, not necessarily the NASCAR nation as a whole.

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5- 1998 DIE HARD 500 at TALLADEGA, AL.
This was my third NASCAR Winston Cup series race. Id been to the fall Talladega race and the fall Atlanta race in 1997, and this was my first and only NASCAR race for 1998. The race was fun, but once again, with 50 or so to go, Earnhardt got tangled up and was in a horrific fiery crash on the front stretch while me and my family sat on the backstretch. The seats were cheaper for a family of three. This was also the first time Id ever had a woman flash me from the back of a pickup truck before the race. Actually, that was the only time. Being 14, that was a big deal to me and was a fun experience. Bobby Labonte won the race, making the Labonte brothers 3 for 3 in my first three NASCAR races.

4- 1999 UAW GM 500 at CHARLOTTE, NC.
This was the only points paying race that I saw Jeff Gordon win. He was in kind of a slump and we were well on our way to seeing Dale Jarrett win his first and only championship. The race was postponed due to rain and started early Monday. It was hot as hell and humid in October. The sun stayed out all day and we were begging for cloud cover. It was neat to see Gordon win and I had a good time the whole weekend, although I did get in trouble because a friend kept me out late the Saturday night beforehand and my parents were worried sick.

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3- 1998 DAYTONA 500
Any NASCAR fan knows the story here. Earnhardt won his first Daytona 500 in 20 tries, the crews lined pit road to congratulate him, and all our hopes were falsely turned up for Earnhardt to win title number eight. It was a high that I got for a few days that I watched from home. 1998 was probably my biggest year in NASCAR, and this was probably my favorite race of the year.

This one was fun and was attended by me and my family. It was my first night time experience at the track. Everyone in attendance truly expected the rookie Tony Stewart to win. People all in the stands were wearing his apparel and I was a big fan of his at the time, although I was decked out in my awesome Dale Earnhardt WRANGLER car apparel I got at the track. I was immersed in the atmosphere of the track all weekend since my dad was renting a mobile home right across the street from Lowes Motor Speedway while working in Charlotte for the summer. Stewart ended up finishing fourth after winning the Winston Open to advance to the main race. Terry Labonte came away with the win, making the Labonte brothers 4 for 4 in the first four races I ever attended. Nonetheless, it was getting old, but the race, especially at night, was fun!

This is my favorite race of all time that I have ever attended. I was a Jeff Gordon fan after Earnhardt's untimely passing just a few months earlier. This was also my third night time experience at the track. At the start of the race, the track was wet due to a small rain storm that passed through on lap one. Several cars wrecked, but in an odd turn of events, the drivers that wrecked, including Jeff Gordon, were allowed to bring out back up cars to finish the race, since it was ruled it was NASCARs fault they ran the race anyway and it was not a points race. After a lengthy red flag, the race resumed and amazingly, Jeff Gordon came back and won the race in a back up car. This was by far my most exciting race and the coolest have ever attended. I honestly doubt that if I ever go to another race, it will be half as good as this one.

The last race I ever attended was the 2003 Talladega race that was won by the late Bobby Hamilton. The race was caution free, but an exciting race nonetheless. I miss going to the track sometimes, but with NASCAR being in a decline as far as excitement and competition is concerned and the outrageous price of tickets, it just isnt worth it to go to a race. Maybe one day the affair will be rekindled, but like a lot of our favorite games and pastimes, the best days of NASCAR are behind us. Anymore NASCAR fans out there? If there are, Im sure you have a few stories of your own to tell.