Sunday, June 23, 2019

NASCAR race and Sears Point now a lovefest


When NASCAR stock car drivers came to Sears Point for the first time 30 years ago this past week, I don’t remember Ricky Rudd for being the winner, but recall pretty much everyone around him being whiners in the Wine Country.

These Bud-loving, red meat-eating, no right-turning Oval Track Wonders were asked to make a severe pit stop and haul their trailors and asses 2,500 miles across the country to compete on a road course most had never driven before on a track that had an antiquated eye-sore double deck wooden press box stuffed to the rafters. They encountered an elevated 12-turn track featuring something called the Carousal, which was far from a merry-go-round given drivers in practice were slipping and sliding and going off course like ping pong balls in a hurricane.

Most of the drivers were cursing and complaining. There would have been plenty of mean tweets had there been Twitter in that age. Sears Point was hell on wheels.

“For some guys it was just a pain in the ass,” Rusty Wallace said.

I know for a fact that the legendary Dale Earnhardt wasn’t enamored with having to come to the San Francisco Bay Area to race. It was NASCAR’s first time racing here and they held a big press junket to promote it, meaning Dale was required to attend a press conference at PIER 39. It was held in a private room in the Nepture's Restaurant (now the Chart House) and Dale was sitting at a table leaning against a floor to ceiling plate window that overlooked the iconic PIER 39 sea lions docked below.

A bunch of reporters sat at Dale’s table. Mind you, Dale enjoyed talking to the media about as much as anyone in the Trump cabinet. Well, Dale answered questions at that inaugural press conference, but I don’t remember him having eye contact with any reporters. He eyes were fixated on the sea lions below the whole time. My guess is he was counting sea lions like we count sheep trying to go to sleep. Dale was ready to move on and the sea lions were merely a tourist distraction for him.

In fact, Dale was always in a hurry to leave Sears Point. I recall being in the garage area as soon as the race finished and I swear no sooner than Dale parked his race car that he stripped out of his race uniform and jumped into a waiting car to beat post-race traffic. It was his fastest pit stop of the day. On more than one occasion I spotted him passing me in the garage area as a passenger in the front seat before the race winner had even made it into Victory Lane.

I chuckled in 1995 when Dale actually won the NASCAR race at Sears Point and had to stick around.  He was in a great mood with media, having finally won the road course version of the Daytona 500.

“Well I won a road course. Maybe I’ll break the ice and win Daytona next year,” said Earnhardt, who had to wait three years to win his first Daytona 500 in 1998.

Sears Point has changed dramatically in 30 years. NASCAR then raced for the Winston Cup and handed out free cigarettes. In 1989 Rudd won in a Buick and there were 10 Pontiacs yet not a single Toyota in the race field.

On Sunday, Martin Truex Jr. and Kyle Busch finished 1-2 in Toyotas, the NASCAR race was once again co-sponsored by Toyota and the race’s Grand Marshall was David Wilson, president of Toyota Racing Development.

The double-deck wooden press box was destroyed and replaced by an air-conditioned Media Center. Where the wooden press box once stood now stands a humongous 47,000-seat metal grandstand with individual seats and suites, built in 2001 as part of a $50 million modernization plan.

Once a dread, the NASCAR race at Sears Point has become almost like a vacation destination. The sponsors love it and the drivers tolerate it.

“Through the years you’ve seen guys figure things out,” Truex said after winning at Sears Point for the third time in a race that didn’t have a single on track caution.

Sounds like when it comes to NASCAR and Sears Point, no one’s whining now.

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