NASCAR fans are known throughout the country for their devout loyalty and enthusiasm in planning and attending the event weekend. On September 2-4, Atlanta Motor Speedway will again play host to some of those same die-hard fans that make the journey to their local tracks to see their favorite stars compete, this time in the AdvoCare 500 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race.
But some fans aren't so local at all. In fact, some are traveling across the country, and many will come from overseas for the biggest Labor Day Party in the USA at Atlanta Motor Speedway. Historically, AMS plays hosts to fans in all 50 states and up to 15 foreign countries.
Donald Hansen is a longtime NASCAR fan from Fairbanks, Alaska. Hansen makes a yearly pilgrimage across the country in his motorhome to various tracks along the way. This year, Hansen will make his way to Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the first time. From there, he will follow the NASCAR circuit across the country, taking in 16 consecutive races, attending all races through the Phoenix event in November. The first four stops will be new tracks for Hansen. He says he's considering attending every race on the schedule next season.
Hansen, who is part owner of a local speedway back home in Alaska, says that the camaraderie is one of the best parts of traveling to the races.
"I'm a long ways form home and you meet so many good people," says Hansen. "I have motorhome, and I've never met anybody that was bad that I parked next to. That's the kind of fans you attract at each track. I go alone, and when I pull in, nine times out of ten I get invited over for supper and drinks. And that's how it is, it's a friendship. Some of them are lasting; I've gotten tickets from a few of them."
Hansen's fandom reveals his age a bit. He's been to every race at Las Vegas, each race at Phoenix for the last 18 years, every race but one at Auto Club Speedway, and has been to Atlanta numerous times. In fact, Hansen remembers attending Atlanta races prior to the reconfiguration in 1997, saying his first race at the speedway was in 1964.
Hanson says he has never had a bad experience at Atlanta, and every memory is a good one.
"Just going and having fun," Hansen says is his favorite memory at Atlanta. "I don't think I've been to a boring race. They are all fun to go to."
While Hansen's cross-country trek is impressive, some patrons of the speedway will need to bring their passports along with their AdvoCare 500 tickets when attending this year's race.
Possibly traveling the farthest to make it to AMS is Colin Winzar. A native of Queensland, Australia, Winzar and his family have been NASCAR fans for many years. A former Australian title holder in motorcycle speedway sidecar racing, he will be bringing his sister, brother-in-law, and their children with him to Atlanta. This will be Winzar's first NASCAR Sprint Cup race to see in person, and they are all excited.
"We will be staying at a hotel in Atlanta," says Winzar. "I think racing under the lights will be great and the proximity of Atlanta to other areas is perfect for our family to explore."
The bright city lights of Atlanta are certainly one attractive option for an out of town fan to experience while in the area for the race. But other fans are here just for the track. Brian and Michelle O'Connell will head to Georgia via Auckland, New Zealand. They will be making a trip of it, flying into New York City and spending six days prior to driving down to Atlanta. Following the race, they plan to travel further south on their exploration.
Self-described "petrol heads," this will also be their first NASCAR race. Atlanta stood out to them from other tracks.
"Atlanta appealed for a number of reasons," says Michelle. "The track itself, the fact that it appears to be a great viewing track, the length of the track and the type of racing. Also the tailgating."
Coming from across the pond will be at least a couple of Europeans. Richard Disint of Lyon, France and Rob Buchan of Leeds, West Yorkshire, United Kingdom will both make their way to the speedway on Labor Day Weekend.
Disint plans to travel with his daughter, Cecile, and says that for a European traveler, AMS is easy to access thanks to the Atlanta airport, which allows for direct flights from Europe.
NASCAR fans are the minority in Europe, with F1 and LeMans racing being more popular. Disint happened upon NASCAR when traveling in the United States on business in the early 2000s. Having visited several different tracks, Disint says Atlanta remains his favorite destination.
"It's an easy place to access, clean, well-organized, nice seats from where you have a nice overview of the track. There's a nice village with all the attractions and all the team souvenir haulers. Atlanta is a friendly place. The staff is very nice and very available."
Many fans, both domestic and international, will say that television does not do NASCAR full justice. It is something that must be experienced in person, and our international fans find the trip worth it.
"For me, NASCAR is a real show," says Disint. "At the track, we can easily follow the race. The crowd, the colors, the noise, the village, the people, all this mixture makes the NASCAR attractive for me."
And often times, one of NASCAR's many colorful personalities can help make a curious observer a fan for life.
"In 2005, I was attending Atlanta with my daughter, and Carl Edwards won," says Disint. "The following Monday, we came again to the track to have the last look before leaving back for France. We had the chance to see some testing, and we had the chance to enter the garage. We had the great chance to meet Carl Edwards, who spoke a little bit of French, and he agreed to take a photo with my daughter. Since that day, we support Carl Edwards."
Englishman Rob Buchan is a lifelong motorsports fan and now motorsports worker, who will be making his first trip to the speedway this Labor Day Weekend. A previously planned trip to America just happened to work out and bring Buchan to Atlanta.
"Knowing I was coming to Orlando in September, I checked to see if any NASCAR was in reach and luckily Atlanta was," says Buchan. "It's about 400 miles from Orlando, so covering most of the distance the day before, staying in Columbus, and should be an easy trip of 90 miles up and back on race day."
Buchan compares the crowds at NASCAR races to that of European soccer crowds, with fans wearing shirts of their favorite driver and cheering them on. He also notes that British race crowds are usually pretty quiet compared to NASCAR fans. It will be his wife's first NASCAR race, but she is not a total stranger to motorsports; she is a big Lewis Hamilton fan from the F1 series.
Traveling in from north of the border will be Neil Wirtz from White City, Saskatchewan, Canada. While the time difference or lack of media coverage in other countries is an issue for many international fans, Wirtz used the lack of coverage to his advantage when originally becoming a fan back in 1988. He says he could record the races and watch them at a later date without hearing or reading about the outcome of the event. For many years he was a shift worker, and the races took place while he was on the clock. Wirtz could easily record the races and then watch on his own time, still unaware of the results.
This year's AdvoCare 500 will be Wirtz's first visit to the speedway, and he says that Atlanta's speed and knack of exciting finishes has him excited for the event.
In a time when budgets are tight, NASCAR fans near and far continue to prove why they are the most loyal sports fans there are. And with such an international flavor to the events, it's possible that the Labor Day party at Atlanta Motor Speedway is not only the biggest in the USA, but even the world.
NASCAR night racing returns to Atlanta Motor Speedway this Labor Day weekend, September 2-4. Tickets for the AdvoCare 500 start at $39 and $19 for students. Children 12 and under admitted free for the Great Clips 300 and the Atlanta 200 with an adult ticket. For more information, call the Atlanta Motor Speedway Ticket Office at (877) 9-AMS-TIX, (770) 946-4211 or visit www.atlantamotorspeedway.com.