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A reporter’s love-hate relationship with NASCAR

I hate NASCAR.

This is what I’m thinking as I’m waiting to get into NASCAR legend Jeff Gordon’s car Thursday afternoon. It’s Champion’s Week in Vegas, and the top 12 Chase drivers are in front of Planet Hollywood, preparing to drive their cars down the Strip in a one-hour Victory Lap parade.

I’m riding shotgun with Gordon.

Thousands of fans line the Strip , cold weather be damned. I look around at their ruddy, happy faces and think about my toes, which I cannot feel anymore, and wonder when the heck we’re getting in this car and doing this thing. I’m ready for this to be over.

The crowd’s enthusiasm doesn’t faze me one bit. I have disliked racing since the ’80s, when I was a kid growing up in the South.

My high school marching band often performed at NASCAR races and, honestly, the best memory I have is of a glorious ham sandwich I ate sitting in the stands one Sunday, waiting for the Talladega 500 to end. I had lost my trumpet mouthpiece on turn two of the track, and I couldn’t play for the rest of the day.

I didn’t say my hatred was based on anything rational.

Then there’s the smell of exhaust fumes, which make me sick, and I don’t particularly like cars. So here I am, a hater, about to do something that a lot of NASCAR fans would probably pay to do.

A pit crew member tries to help me get into the passenger seat. There is no door, he says, so you’ll have to Bo Duke it and climb through the window.

"We need your feet going this a-way," the guy says, gesturing to the floor. Then he reaches out to help but doesn’t quite know where to put his hands. Before he can get a grip on me, I grab the top of the window and swing my legs in.

"You’ve done this before?" he asks.

I shrug and say, "I’m from Alabama," as if that explains everything.

Gordon is already in the car, pulling his gloves on and gunning the gas. With 12 racing engines revving, the fumes are getting thick, and I feel a little light-headed. This is turning out to be exactly what I imagined: loud and smelly.

"Are you nervous or excited?" Gordon asks. I smile and nod. I’m neither, but as we pass the cheering crowd, I feel a surge of adrenaline.

The drivers merge into a single line, engines thrumming. Then the peel outs begin. Fan favorite Dale Earnhardt Jr. spins his car out, and then it’s Gordon’s turn. Champion’s Week is fun if you’re the champion, he says later.

"It’s an honor to be here doing this for the fans, but let’s be honest, it’s for the champion," says Gordon, who finished eighth this season.

For the past three years, NASCAR has held Champion’s Week in Vegas. It’s a lot different than when it was in New York, Gordon says. They never let the drivers do burnouts on the city’s streets.

Yet, Vegas closed the Strip for more than an hour so the drivers could parade a mile or so, do burnouts and a pit stop before ending up at the Hard Rock hotel.

"When we do these burnouts, I’m going to ask you to put your head all the way back," Gordon says to me. "I don’t want you to get hurt."

And now I’m nervous. He’s wearing his HANS device with a lap belt, a shoulder harness and something to keep his head from jerking all over the car. I have a lap belt on. He’s wearing a fire suit. I’m wearing pants and a jacket.

"Do what you’ve got to do; don’t worry about me," I say, lying.

While we drive down the Strip, with the crowd yelling and waving and looking as though this is the most exciting day, ever, all I can think about is the burnouts we’re about to do.

We idle in front of the Palazzo and watch the drivers try to out-do each other until a cloud of smoke hangs over the road. Ryan Newman blows his engine. When it’s our turn, a Metro cop leans in and says, "Keep it tight in the middle; don’t float outside," and he claps Gordon on the shoulder.

"I’m really amazed they let us do these doughnuts on the Strip," Gordon says. "In New York, we drove down the street, but they didn’t let us do any of the cool stuff."

None of this  puts me at ease.

"OK, here we go," Gordon tells me.

I clench my fists and jaw and brace my legs against the floor. We spin in circles, and the smoke grows so thick I can’t see the crowd anymore. For a second, I am frightened. I don’t have a fire suit on. What if this thing catches on fire? And where’s my seat belt? I’m going to have to bail out of this window if we blow up.

Four doughnuts later, Gordon fishtails the car down the Strip.

The rest of the parade passes in a blur. We do another burnout at Harmon Avenue, and I want to do more, but the parade is coming to an end. At the hotel, I bust my knuckles getting out of the car. But I don’t care.

I love NASCAR. This is what I’m thinking as I stumble around the hotel’s driveway. Also, when can I do this again?

Contact reporter Sonya Padgett at spadgett@reviewjournal.com or 702-380-4564. Follow @StripSonya on Twitter.

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