Tuesday, June 6, 2023

AUSTIN CHASTAIN: This summer sparked a new love of racing, starting with ‘Saturday Night Thunder’ at Crystal Motor Speedway

As part of purchasing tickets, I had the opportunity to go out onto the race track and spend time walking around the infield, hanging out in victory lane and get close to the drivers during pre-race introductions on Aug. 7 at Michigan International Speedway. This is me sitting on the track near the start-finish line before the race. — DN Photo | Austin Chastain

Auto racing has been a source of joy for me since I was a kid — NASCAR has always had my heart. I’ve recently come to enjoy Formula 1, IndyCar, IMSA sportscar racing, MotoGP motorcycle racing among others. 

I mentioned that when I started at the Daily News back in January, I’ve written my thoughts about NASCAR’s “Next-Gen” race car in here, too. I used to watch NASCAR races with my grandfather on TV, I have the video games — I still play them to this day — I also have a large collection of diecast cars spanning from the 1990s all the way to this year’s new car. … I even had posterboard tracks to race them on.

Austin Chastain

But there was one aspect of racing that left me wanting something, but I couldn’t quite figure it out. I had never been to a race before, the closest I had been to any kind of stock car racing was Berlin Raceway in Marne years ago when I was a naive kid. 

So when I started at the Daily News, I discovered that there was a dirt track in the northern-most part of our coverage area — Crystal Motor Speedway. Going into the summer, I was so excited to be able to head out to the track and share some of the cool stories about the drivers in those race cars out on track. 

I finally had the opportunity to go out to the track — this was my first experience with dirt racing — and I was beyond pumped for a great Saturday night ahead. 

When I arrived to the race track, I had an opportunity to ride around on the track and get the feeling of the banking on the front stretch and through the corners — an absolute gem of a moment and one of those that I am so thankful for. 

I worked my way into the infield to shoot photos of the races for the night. I spoke with several drivers throughout the afternoon to share some of those stories, so I had some cars to single out during the races. I also found a neat opportunity to take some cool artistic-type shots throughout the night. 

The first race of the night jumped on track and took the green flag. My goodness, me, the thunderous roar of the engines blew me away. I was giggling like a kid pretty much the entire night. 

Seeing the passion for racing of each of the drivers I spoke with and those around the community within the race track — all the way to the fans in the stands at CMS — was beyond special. I had an absolute riot watching the races from the infield while shooting photos.

NASCAR Cup Series driver Chase Elliott drives his No. 9 UniFirst Chevrolet on the frontstretch on Aug. 7 at Michigan International Speedway. Elliott finished 11th in the race. — DN Photo | Austin Chastain

The sensation I felt in my feet through the clay and the grass all night was shocking but still one of the coolest things I’ve felt in a long time. I’ll say: Y’all brought the thunder and brought it hard. Thank you for that awesome experience. 

Walking away from an empty track at CMS with a nice layer of dirt on my white car, I left excited about the stories I was going to be able to tell and put together a cool series. I was also excited about racing as a whole again. 

The best thing for me about that new, reinvigorated experience in actually attending a night of racing was seeing how much it meant to the people. I was about to experience my first big race day as a fan — this one on a bigger scale. 

One of my best friends from Forest Hills Eastern High School and I snagged tickets to attend Michigan International Speedway for the Firekeepers Casino and Resort 400 back on Aug. 7. I know, a lot of people talk about MIS as one of the worst tracks on the NASCAR Cup Series circuit, but having the best stock car drivers in the world in our backyard was one word — awesome. 

My friend and I made the short trip from Grand Rapids to US-131 Motorsports Park in Martin the night before to see the top-fueled dragsters. The sheer power and speed in those machines was heart-stopping and, quite literally, breathtaking. 

After our Saturday at the drag races, we hopped in my car — with the CMS dirt washed off — at around 7 a.m. and made the trek to Brooklyn with plenty of anticipation in my head and heart — I was about to go see my first NASCAR race in-person. I couldn’t drive fast enough to satisfy my excitement. 

We found a spot to park near the track, and I was taken aback by how large the venue itself was. I’ve seen a lot of stadiums in my day, some of the biggest football stadiums in the country — Michigan Stadium, Ben Hill Griffin Stadium in Gainesville, Florida, — but the grandstands at MIS were just beyond anything I’ve seen before. Yes, I understand there is hardly any seating on the backstretch, but I was beyond impressed. 

The two of us hung around the fan village for a long while, taking in the scenes of a preamble to raceday, trying some of the interactive engagements set up around the village and, of course, hitting the merchandise trucks to add to my diecast car collection.

I got to sign my name on the start/finish line while I was out on the track before the Firekeepers Casino 400 at MIS. Below my name is the hashtag for my favorite driver, Chase Elliott. — DN Photo | Austin Chastain

Skip this part, Mom. I won’t share how much I spent, because it was far too much. 

To add to the experience, we had purchased infield passes to enjoy some time on the track itself. I even signed my name on the start/finish line and took a few pictures on the track — I was in heaven. We also had the opportunity to be up-close and personal with a prerace concert and driver introductions. Unfortunately, a cameraman from NBC camped out right in front of me, so I couldn’t really interact much with the drivers as they came down. 

Just as Denny Hamlin, the driver of the No. 11 FedEx Toyota, came down off the introduction runway, I felt it. Rain. Oh, boy. There was a mad scramble of about 2,500 people trying to make their way off the track through one tiny gate that led to the concourse. 

When I say it was raining sideways, I don’t think I could exaggerate it enough — and it was raining hard. To a point that my buddy was wanting to leave and get out of there to beat the traffic for a seemingly inevitable postponement of the race. MIS, as many race fans know, doesn’t have lights and the way the timing was shaking out, there wouldn’t have been much time to delay the race if it continued raining much longer. 

We were without cell service, too, so checking the radar or even calling others to check the radar was nearly impossible. So, we had to rely on what we could see — something I’m good at as a journalist. 

My buddy kept reiterating it would be smart to give up and go home. No, no — not me. I never say die until reality hits. We waited, and I saw the smallest break in the clouds. That was my small sliver of hope that there would be a race today. I remained positive, very loudly and probably teetering on the edge of obnoxious, that we would see the green flag. 

That positivity became a reality as the final rain cloud we would have to deal with drifted south of the racetrack — we were going racing, boys and girls. I got chills from the entirety of the pre-race ceremony from the national anthem to the command to start engines. 

Pace laps seemed to go on forever, there were only five of them, but the anticipation of the race beginning in the matter of moments was killing me — just drop the green flag already and let’s get this thing going! 

Finally, the pace car pulled to pit road and the initial roar of the NASCAR Cup Series sent shock waves through my entire body. The second time around, this time at full-speed, more shock waves. My jaw dropped at the pure speed that was before me. 

Thank goodness I brought my noise-canceling earmuffs. I did take them off for a few laps, I wanted to hear the unmuffled sound of the sport I loved as a kid — and I’m glad I did. 

My driver, Chase Elliott in the No. 9 UniFirst Chevrolet, did not come out with the win. He didn’t lead any laps, he didn’t even finish in the top-10. But there were some interesting storylines with the race itself that unfolded in a dramatic way in the closing stages of the race.

Bubba Wallace, the driver of the No. 23 McDonald’s Toyota started on pole for the first time, he lost the lead early but battled back to finish second. The Next-Gen car made the MIS race fast and intriguing with plenty of passing and drafting like at superspeedways.

Finally, Kevin Harvick, the driver of the No. 4 Busch Apple Ford, won the final race off pit road, led the final 20 laps and won his first race in 64 tries. 

Not bad for my first time, huh? 

We drove away from MIS and I told an old friend of mine from my college days at Central Michigan University that I just had one of the best days of my life. Because that was one of the best days of my life, seeing the sport I’ve loved all my life right in front of me.

I finally felt the thunder — and I won’t ever forget it.

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