NASCAR in Sonoma: Chardonnay Meets Bud
Maybe it was the queuing marathon the day before at the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, but I wasn’t in the least bit phased today when I exited the 80 Freeway onto California Route 37 and found myself at a dead stop – still 16.5 miles away from Infineon Raceway and the SaveMart 350 Sprint Cup race.
I actually started to calculate it out… “OK, at 10 miles an hour that should put me in the parking lot at just about noon, so I’ll only miss the first few laps”. Imagine my pleasant surprise to find that the lion’s share of the traffic was actually getting off the very next exit at the Six Flags amusement park. My own slowdown didn’t kick in for another six miles or so. Which was OK, because it was a beautiful NoCal morning as I edged ever closer to my first-ever encounter with NASCAR.
Some time later, as we crawled down the access road toward the enormous parking lot complex I used my time to look around and size up my fellow race attendees. Directly in front of me was a white Mercedes hardtop convertible, with red fuzzy dice hanging from the rearview mirror. Its only occupant was a young woman who was incapable of going more than 3-5 minutes without extensive attention to her hair. In the lane adjoining hers was a muddy Chevy Blazer with heavily tinted glass – and two decals bearing the silhouettes of naked women. This was going to be interesting.
Particularly noticeable by its absence was the species “ticketis scalperalis”. I’m pretty sure this was the only professional sporting event I’ve ever been to that lacked the siren call “Who needs tickets?” I don’t know if that is a NASCAR cultural thing, a Sonoma County legal thing, or a logistical “where would the scalpers park” thing, but from what I saw, had I gone without a ticket in hand I would’ve been hard-pressed to buy one – from a scalper or otherwise. I’m not sure if this is necessarily a direct correlation here, but throughout the day I noticed there were lots and lots of empty seats.
When I entered the parking lot, it was with surgical precision that I was guided along, thanks to one of the most common-sensical admission processes I’d ever seen. Here was a step-by-step guide for what I had to do:
Step One: Show my ticket to the parking lot attendant, who scanned the bar code.
Step Two: Say “Thanks, same to you” when instructed to have a great day
Step Three: Park where shown.
Step Four: Walk to my seat.
I was in before I was in. Think about it – you’ve got a large facility surrounded only by hills. If someone were to walk up to an admissions gate, they pretty much had to have driven there. And there was no place else to park than in one of Infineon Raceway’s lots. So why not kill two birds with one stone and process people and their cars at the same time? That’s how you get 93,000 people parked and in their seats in a reasonable time frame.
“But what about security?” you may ask. “Don’t people still have to go through a security check?” Here’s the brilliant part. Since there is next to nothing that people can’t bring into the facility, there’s nothing to check for. Food & non-alcoholic drink? Be my guest. If you want to lug a decent-sized cooler in, that’s your option. Pets? From what I saw, sure, as long as they’re on their best behavior. Cameras, radios, cell phones…check, check and check. The only thing they seriously frown upon is, and I quote, “Weapons, including, but not limited to, guns, knives, stun guns and pepper spray”. And they’ll take your word for the fact that you’re not carrying them.
“But won’t that cut into concession revenue?” you counter, now starting to get on my nerves. Well here’s the deal – the SaveMart 350, like most NASCAR races I assume, takes about four hours from beginning to end, if you want to see the warm-up and the winner’s presentation ceremony. People are going to get hungry and thirsty during that time. But few will go to the effort of pre-packing and lugging everything that they’re going to want to eat and drink.
So after they’ve finished off what they’ve brought along they turn to the concession stands. And since they’ve already saved themselves some money by bringing their initial round of food and drink, they’re typically not going to be overly shy about paying a somewhat inflated price for round two. It’s the same mentality that allows you to have a huge bowl of ice cream after eating a garden salad and grilled chicken breast for dinner. You paid your dues, now go nuts! Sure enough, as the day wore on, concession stand traffic did not dissipate – and the lines for the ATM machines lengthened considerably.
Sure the track may theoretically forego a little incremental revenue with the BYO policy, but they’ve gained the trust of the patrons that they won’t be hassled or gouged, and they’ve saved themselves the labor cost of checking people’s bags as they enter. Compared to the OCD admission process the previous day at Pebble Beach, this was refreshing – bordering on downright inviting. And isn’t that what sporting events are supposed to be?
As for the seating once I got inside…well, I would normally describe it as Spartan, but I think that would be doing a huge disservice to all Spartans, Michigan State or otherwise. For my $45 entry fee, I “got a rock”, as Charlie Brown would say each Halloween. My seat was literally a slab of brown concrete with a number affixed to it. I struggled to get the word “tombstone” out of my mind.
But we were all in this together, me and the other folks in the Turn Nine Terrace, and I plopped down on my rock and nodded to my picnicking neighbors, who eyed my notebook and camera somewhat suspiciously. Nobody had time to ask any questions though, such as “Why are you wearing a shirt with a collar?” for the start of the race was upon us.
To be continued…