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Chance to attend the Toyota/Savemart 350 at Sonoma, with a press pass was a great experience

LON AUSTIN/CENTRAL OREGONIAN - Bill Kann, of Scottsdale, Arizona, looks at the damage to his race car late in the K&N Pro Series West race that took place at Sonoma International Raceway on Saturday, June 22. Kann was involved in a one car accident on the way into turn two with just three laps remaining in the race. The K&N series is a feeder program for NASCAR.A question I have heard a lot lately is 'Since when does the Central Oregonian cover NASCAR racing?'

The answer is that we don't, at least not normally.

However, ever since I was a kid, auto racing was something that our family watched.

Then in 1979, in the spring right before I graduated from college, came an event that got me hooked on racing.

Prior to 1979, the only auto racing shown live was the Indianapolis 500. Then in 79, CBS signed a deal to take the rights to NASCAR racing from ABC.

For those who don't know, on Feb. 18, 1979, in the second race of the NASCAR season, Cale Yarborough and Donnie Allison were fighting for first place in the Daytona 500.

Earlier in the race, Allison had lost a lap to the leaders, while Yarborough and Allison's brother, Bobby, had both lost two laps.

Donnie Allison had gotten back on the lead lap halfway through the race, while Yarborough did not get back on the lead lap until late in the race. In any case, the two cars eventually separated themselves from the rest of the pack and were guaranteed to finish first and second in the race.

That is until Yarborough went to the bottom of the track on the backstretch, attempting to pass. Allsion decided to block him and the two cars hit each other.

As they sailed down the backstretch, the two cars collided three more times before finally hitting the outside wall and sliding down into the infield grass.

Richard Petty, Darrel Waltrip and A.J. Foyt were 20 seconds behind, battling for third place, and did not see the wreck.

All three assumed the race was over until they entered the third turn.

Waltrip, who later became an analyst for Fox Sports, saw the two cars in the mud and noted that something crazy was going on.

"It was hilarious; we were going for the win," he said, after the race.

Petty won, Waltrip finished second and Foyt was third, but the action wasn't done.

Bobby Allison finished and drove around, in his words, to see "if Donnie needed a ride back to the pits."

An argument ensued with Yarborough blaming Bobby Allison for the wreck, in spite of the fact that he was more than half a lap behind.

The two drivers then duked it out in front of an audience of nearly 100,000, plus a national television audience.

Following the fight, Yarborough said, "It was great racing, great fighting and a great time."

I don't really know that it was the fight that got my attention, or if it was just that it was an interesting race.

In any case, since then I have followed NASCAR racing, watching as many races as possible on television.

So last fall, when I learned that Waltrip was planning on retiring as an announcer and that his last race would be at Sonoma in late June, I thought, shoot, that is in driving distance, I have some vacation time coming ... why don't I apply for a press pass?

So I did, and my request was granted.

Granted, NASCAR is not everyone's cup of tea. However, it is bigtime professional sports, and what self-respecting sports reporter wouldn't jump at the chance to go to a major sporting event?

Once you have a pass, you are kind of obligated to cover the event, so that's what happened.

Friday, June 21, my wife and I left early in the morning for the 500-plus-mile drive.

Friday afternoon, I picked up my press credentials and found out where I had to go Saturday morning for a safety briefing.

Saturday I got up early and left my motel, which was approximately 40 miles from the race track, at 7:15 a.m. Thirty minutes later I was in the parking lot, killing time while waiting for the 9 a.m. meeting.

The safety meeting was uneventful except for Fox Sports interrupting to explain that they would have a drone flying about six feet off the ground at speeds up to 75 miles an hour over a series of corners. It was strongly suggested that we do not photograph from that area for obvious safety reasons.

During the meeting, the race organizers asked who had not been to the Sonoma track before and I foolishly raised my hand.

My reward for being a first-timer was a private safety meeting after everyone else left.

Basically that meeting put forth, 'Race cars go really fast and weigh 3,000 pounds. Don't get in front of them.'

I thought, "Well duh," but kept my mouth shut and thanked the safety officer for his tips.

The rest of Saturday morning was spent wandering through the pit and garage area and watching the rabid fans.

Saturday afternoon was qualifying for Sunday's race as well as the K & N Pro Series West race.

The series is a feeder program for NASCAR, and included both potential up-and-coming stars as well as seasoned veterans. A few better known drivers who were driving in Sunday's race also entered the race to prepare for Sunday.

Saturday's race was a wreckfest. There were multiple yellow flags due to wrecks, mostly minor. However, I managed to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, seeing only one minor fender bender.

With a 2.52-mile long road course, it was easy to be in the wrong place, something that became even more apparent later in the race.

I watched as Ryan Preece took the checkered flag.

Well, it turns out that I was wrong. After a series of restarts late in the race, Preece was black-flagged for jumping the start on the final restart of the race. Believing that he had done nothing wrong, Preece remained in front to the end of the race before being reassigned to the last place on the lead lap.

Had I been in the right place, I would have known that happened, but I was oblivious.

Following the race, I made a mistake, heading to the photographers room in the media center. In hindsight, I should have gone to victory lane and then the media room.

Had I done so, I would have gotten the results right and been familiar with the process for Sunday.

Instead, I downloaded my photos before leaving the track.

That night after I got back to our motel, I told my wife Preece had won.

Lon AustinLater that evening, I looked at my watch, which said that I had walked 6.5 miles over the course of the day.

Because of how quickly I reached the track on Saturday, I didn't leave the motel until 7:30 a.m. Sunday morning. That was a huge mistake.

Unlike Saturday's event, Sunday was well attended and the traffic was terrible.

By the time I reached the track at 10:30 a.m., the media parking lot was full, as was the media overflow parking lot. I was directed to the go-cart race track high on a hill more than a half-mile from the track.

Sunday's race was a blur.

After watching cars average about 90 miles an hour on the road course on Saturday, the big boys averaged more like 130 miles an hour. Pretty impressive considering the course had three hairpin corners, 11 corners total, and limited straight stretches.

Once again I walked for miles up and down the hills, and once again, I managed to be in the wrong place at the wrong time throughout the race.

I left the track five laps from the finish to make my way to victory lane. It turns out that wasn't enough time. My photo of the victory celebration was taken from behind thousands of fans by holding my camera high over my head.

Meanwhile, the more experienced photographers were standing on a set of risers less than 20 feet from the celebration.

I jotted down a few notes concerning what race winner Martin Truex Jr. said, then rushed to the media center to pick up a few more interviews. Once in the interview room, I sat in the back and kept my mouth shut while others questioned the steady stream of drivers who stopped at the podium to answer questions.

Then I headed to the photo room to pick up a free drink from the cooler before heading back to the motel.

Once in the photo room, I saw just how poor my photography was.

Sure, I had in-focus photos of race cars on the track. However, other photographers had photos of lug nuts in midair as pit crew members changed tires, pictures of a burn out celebration in front of the grand stands, and perfectly composed photos of the celebration in victory lane.

I have no idea how some of the photographers managed to get photos of both the burn out celebration and the victory lane celebration. The two photo areas were about 500 yards apart and there were crowds of people to fight through to get from one to the other.

What I do know is that not only did I not get to both places, I failed to get to either.

Looking at photos that I could only dream about taking, I decided not to download my photos in the media room.

Instead, I opted to head for the motel and take care of both the photography and writing a story later that evening.

That turned out to be another big mistake.

You see, results were posted on a series of giant screens in the media room.

They had every single piece of information that you could want available to use in your story, including a series of quotes from most of the drivers.

By the time I climbed the hill back to my car and drove to the motel, I was pretty shot.

This time my watch said I had walked a little over seven miles. Both days were in the 90s, and there isn't a single spot of shade in the photographers' areas.

As a result, I was not only dehydrated, I badly dried out my contact lenses.

Late that evening, when I tried to look at results on my laptop computer, I misspelled several names.

Fortunately, Holly Scholz, who recently left the Central Oregonian to take a job with the Crook County School District, fixed my mistakes.

That is something that she has done more than once since she started working for the paper.

Holly has edited my work for the past couple of years, and she is very thorough, looking up spellings of names on the internet and catching a multitude of mistakes that might otherwise go unnoticed.

Anyway, Holly fixed my mistakes, and we ran a NASCAR story in the Central Oregonian.

Hopefully that answers everyone's questions about why we covered a NASCAR race.

So, what did I learn? First, that NASCAR fans are crazy. I saw such notable things as three men, including one huge bubba, who were clad in red, white and blue overalls cut offs with no shirts and no shoes wandering around the souvenir area.

I also saw why NASCAR fans are so rabid.

Following Sunday's race, Truex spent at least 45 minutes signing autographs for kids. Probably a lot longer because there was still a long line when I left.

I also saw Michael Waltrip take a photo of a kid with Darrel Waltrip, so the kid could have a souvenir photo.

Spectators get unprecedented access to the pit area and garages. They have virtually unfettered access until the pit and garage area are closed approximately 15 minutes before race time.

That includes posing for photos in front of cars, talking to pit crew members, and occasionally picking up autographs from drivers.

Even during the frenzy, while cars were being taken for prerace inspections, crews took the time to stop cars so that kids could get their picture taken in front of their favorite car.

The spectator area also had a free virtual reality area where fans could see what it looks like to take a hot lap around the track in a race.

On Saturday, spectators were allowed to stand in front of the garages where they stared intently inside as crews feverishly worked on cars.

Several pit crews had galvanized buckets with used lug nuts sitting on the pit wall along with a box for donations for a variety of charities. For a dollar, a spectator could pick up a lug not and take it home for a souvenir.

I saw numerous fans pick up lug nuts, put a dollar into the box, then immediately get out a sharpie and write the driver's name, and the date on the lug nut before slipping it into a case for safe keeping.

I also watched other fans look to see if anyone was looking before grabbing a lug nut and stuffing it in their pocket without paying.

It amazed me that someone would pay big bucks for access to the pits, then be too cheap to pay for a used lug nut.

The whole experience was fascinating.

It was a tiring and somewhat humbling weekend, but I've got to tell you, I would do it again in a heartbeat if given the chance.

It was absolutely worth the experience.

Who knows, maybe next time I can even figure out how to get to victory lane in time, or at least get a couple of good shots of a wreck.

Lon Austin is the sports editor for the Central Oregonian. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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