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NASCAR Fanfest celebrates champions

It was just before 2 p.m. Wednesday, and Fremont Street was looking a bit rough because there were cranes and heavy equipment where they are putting in that new mega-zip line thing.

But a huge throng had formed in front of the Third Street stage, which could mean one of only two things: Either Bachman-Turner Overdrive had gotten back together and was playing a free concert, or the NASCAR Chase for the Sprint Cup drivers soon would be yukking it up in another send-up of a TV game show at Las Vegas Motor Speedway’s Fanfest, part of NASCAR Champions Week.

Last year it was "The Newlywed Game," and Bob Eubanks was a big hit; this year it was "Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader?" and Carrot Top was supposed to host. But the Redheaded One canceled at short notice because he was shooting a movie or being investigated for comedy-enhancing drugs, take your pick.

A guy wearing a 51s cap and a black Discount Tires pullover standing in front of me predicted they would get Jeff Foxworthy to take his place. It seemed like a good fit, he said. Alas, they got some guy named Kevin Burke, who does a comedy bit at The Fitz – I mean the D Las Vegas, which is a gussied-up version of The Fitz minus the cheap Pabst Blue Ribbon – next door.

But the guy with the 51s cap didn’t look too disappointed, certainly not as disappointed as the fan who stood in line hoping for Tony Stewart’s autograph, only to settle for Martin Truex Jr.’s instead.

Still, all the ingredients were on hand for another green-white-checker finish, if you knew where to look.

GREEN

At 1:55 p.m., a black minibus, the kind that takes you to and from the long-term parking lot at the airport, rolled to a stop at the north end of Third Street. Inside were the 12 NASCAR Chase for the Sprint Cup championship drivers. But you couldn’t see them, because the windows were dark.

The Sprint Cup drivers slowly got out, and then you could see them, but only sort of, because nearly all of them were wearing dark sunglasses.

And when they all were out and signing autographs, I tapped on the window, and the bus driver obliged by rolling it down – which surprised me, because sometimes people who drive important people from here to there are reluctant to talk about it.

But the bus driver, a fellow named Bob Keck, was friendly like Ned Jarrett. He said the Sprint Cup drivers did not hassle him about driving slowly and carefully because traffic was light, and he was told to be at the Fremont Street Experience at exactly 1:55, and not a second before.

Had they wanted him to pass a taxi on the high side, he would have been up for it, because Keck used to drive dirt modifieds in the Midwest, mostly around St. Louis.

Keck told me that Jeff Gordon sat on one side of the bus; Clint Bowyer on the other side. He said they behaved themselves.

WHITE

Brad! Keselowski! NASCAR! Woo! Brad! Keselowski! NASCAR! Woo!

The big guy wearing black horn-rimmed glasses, a gray Jeff Gordon T-shirt and plaid Bermuda shorts kept shouting the same thing. This was mostly because the big guy, 22-year-old Ryan Fisher of Lakeside, Calif., is a huge NASCAR fan; he knows all the drivers, even when they are wearing dark sunglasses. And this also was because Ryan Fisher is autistic.

His mother, Sandra, said she took Ryan to the Sprint Cup race at Fontana, but it proved to be a bit overwhelming. If it’s any consolation, I told her, I have been to the race at Fontana, and it was a bit overwhelming for me, too, especially after a bunch of guys from Kentucky sitting in my section were lapping the field with their ninth or 10th Budweiser, and one of the Busch brothers had taken the lead.

Sandra said NASCAR was Ryan’s "whole life," that he watched all the races on TV, even the truck races, and that when a race isn’t on TV, he plays his NASCAR video game on PlayStation.

Ryan excitedly told me that he had his picture taken with Brad! Keselowski! And when I asked if he watched all the races on TV, he said that he did.

Even the truck races.

CHECKER

Gary Downe, 57, is a character on Fremont Street. There are a lot of those. In his case, it’s literal.

Sometimes Downe impersonates Gene Simmons of Kiss and poses for photos for tips; sometimes he impersonates Slash of Guns N’ Roses.

On Wednesday, he was impersonating The King – not Elvis, but Richard Petty. And you could see the resemblance, especially if you were like one of those guys from Kentucky at Fontana on his ninth or 10th beer, and you didn’t notice the ponytail sticking out from under his hat. Which sort of made Gary Downe look like an older Kyle Petty, if Kyle Petty walked with a limp.

Downe said he had made only $3 in tips so far, and that his Richard Petty costume cost about $25.

He had stapled a NASCAR logo onto his denim shirt, as if he might carefully remove the staples and wear the shirt somewhere else. But he had spray-painted an STP logo on the back. So unless he planned to apply for work at Pep Boys, it seemed that shirt pretty much was toast.

Downe, also a friendly fellow, told me his father used to race against Petty’s dad, Lee, and Junior Johnson on the beach at Daytona. When I asked if he too drove fast, he said that he used to, when he owned a car.

Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ron Kantowski can be reached at rkantowski@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0352. Follow him on Twitter: @ronkantowski.

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