Drivers, fans keep newbie from going around in circles

Editor's note: Review-Journal sportswriter Jon Gold is attending his first NASCAR race weekend. The following is his first-person take on the racing phenomenon.

All it took for NASCAR to win me over: a bit of Bon Jovi, a pair of friendly drivers and a little lady from Long Island.

After Day One of my first NASCAR experience -- qualifying Friday for Sunday's UAW-Dodge 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway -- I can't hear a thing, I'm covered in exhaust, and I still don't know the difference between a lugnut, a wingnut and a peanut.

But after taking in the sights and smells, I have a slightly better understanding of the sport.

Revelation No. 1: The drivers accept that the sport has become mainstream, and they still love it.

Sure, sponsorships have taken over NASCAR. Budweiser, M&M's, Bad Boy Mowers, oh my -- there are more sponsors than an A.A. meeting.

But the entertainment aspect of NASCAR in Las Vegas is a sight to see. The Neon Garage offers complete fan access, allowing people to hover over glass windows, peering into the garages of their favorite drivers. Of course, Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s window was busier than a McDonald's drive-thru.

"NASCAR does a really good job of making every race an event," driver J.J. Yeley said. "You don't get to see it on TV. Fans sacrifice a lot so they can come to these races, so we have to make sure they continue to come out."

Really, I knew it would be a good day when I drove into the complex and Bon Jovi's "Living on a Prayer" blasted over the loudspeakers.

Revelation No. 2: The racing doesn't drive the fans, the drivers do.

As a "stick-and-ball guy" -- a fan of the mainstream sports: football, basketball, baseball -- I just never understood the draw to auto racing. Just a bunch of guys driving in circles, I thought.

But the bond between racer and fan is truly special, and that's what NASCAR is all about.

The connection is simple to understand; all these million-dollar speed racers were fans first. Mark Martin recalled his first race, the 1973 Daytona 500, heading into the grandstand in total awe, staring at his heroes, Richard Petty and Cale Yarborough.

"I'm talking about a hillbilly from Arkansas, and I'm in Daytona Beach with the palm trees and everything else," said Martin, who finished third in qualifying Friday and won the Las Vegas race in 1998. "It was overwhelming. I was a racing fan, already, but it was truly the big time."

Revelation No. 3: Still, these new fans are nuts, as in slightly crazy. Here's this nice woman, Linda Mastroianni from New York, sounding like an extra from "Goodfellas" but describing her love for Jeff Gordon.

She got hooked on NASCAR 10 years ago, when her husband took her to her first race. Now she's a die-hard, teaching a NASCAR newcomer the ropes.

"My husband got me involved because I owned a red '95 Monte Carlo like they drive," Mastroianni said. "I said, 'You're crazy, watching cars go around in a circle, you're out of your mind.' So I came to the inaugural (Las Vegas race in 1998), and the rest is all history."

So here I am, after 10 hours of the speedway media center, pit road and the Neon Garage and it hits me: My NASCAR history is just beginning.