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The Callahan Report: Race Fans: A Rare and Dedicated Breed

3 July 1997

"Hey Michael . . . You suck" was the shout from a race fan standing at the garage area entrance. Half the crowd showered the fan with four letter expletives of their own. The other half cheered in agreement. Andretti kept walking . . . smiling . . . disappearing behind the concrete structures.

Race fans exhibit the same behavior in every racing series. CART, IRL, WoO, F1, and NASCAR. Jeff Gordon, NASCAR's newest star, was hailed at every introduction two years ago. Today, the cheer to boo ratio is about 1 to 2, in favor of the boos.

What is it that causes these racing rebels to be so headstrong about the drivers? It could be the fact that they own the sport. Most fans spend a great deal of time and money following this sport they love. Their opinions of the stars is a natural byproduct.

Virtually none of the race fans know the drivers personally. All they know is what they have seen on television, read in print, or witness personally at the tracks. Still, the opinions are sure and strong.

Successful drivers become despised by many. An example: When I wear my Dale Earnhardt shirt, I am harassed all day. I proudly spout, "How many championships has (fill in your favorite driver) won?" Lesser known drivers are well liked by most. When I wear my Remington Racing hat, people comment, "I sure hope Rick gets a win soon . . . I like him."

The most successful drivers get the biggest reaction from the fans. It is not the reaction you would see at a Chicago Bulls game for Michael Jordon. Past champions like Dale Earnhardt and Rusty Wallace bring the massive crowds to their feet at any NASCAR event. The noise is an roaring mixture of jeers and applause. After the noise settles, the guy in the Earnhardt shirt turns to the fan dressed in the Rusty Wallace attire. The both smile because they have something very dear in common: the fraternity of racing.

Another individual that pegs the noise needle is "The Captain", Roger Penske. Just the mention of his name over the PA at any CART race will cause a thunderous sound in the grandstands. The 10 time Indy winner has earned the privilege of being loved and hated by the racing public. There are only a few who have attained such notoriety. In all forms of racing, the drivers are striving for the thrill of being hated by half the crowd every weekend. In racing, it's a true measure of achievement.

There are four fans at Indy who could be the "Race Fan Poster Children". The same kind of fans are present at EVERY racing event. These dedicated individuals are there for every practice and qualifying session--standing--all day, every day. They wait for the drivers and crews to enter/exit gasoline alley. These shirtless fanatics, armed with cigarettes and beer, have an opinion on every driver. They are not ashamed to express their feelings. If you are a driver and one of these guys calls out your name, you know you have hit the big time.

Racing is social. There are fans who go to only one or two races a season. They sit in the same seats year after year. They look forward to their big race weekend for months. Old friendships are rekindled. They bring the kids, preparing them for a lifelong addiction to the sport and guaranteeing its culture. Retired masters like Richard Petty and A.J. Foyt are cheered by young and old alike. The younger fans have never seen them race, but have heard stories from their parents of how these guys once ruled the oval asphalt. Today's young fans will do the same with their children . . . the cycle continues.

A.J. Foyt
Foyt: Cheered and Jeered by young and old alike.

Some of these racing loyalist make their vacation plans around the seasons racing schedule. Some even plan their wedding/honeymoon around racing events (yes, I'm guilty . . . Toronto, 1988). Youngsters save every penny for that one t-shirt or cap at the track. It is not uncommon for a family of four to spend $250 on souvenirs during a race weekend. It's hard to explain, this racing addiction.

To some people it seems silly . . . sitting in the hot sun watching loud cars go in circles. To a race fan, it is their lifeblood. Remember, to us race fans, the last four words of the National Anthem are: Gentlemen, Start Your Engines".

Terry Callahan -- The Auto Channel