Over the course of the past year I went from having seen just one car race in person, to sitting in the stands for very nearly ever major kind of four-wheeled motorsport in North America. Here's a brief guide to what they're all like in person.
As a little preface, let me say that I did not grow up in a car enthusiast family. I never went to any races when I was a kid. I took just about everything in over the course of 12 months, with as open a mind as I could manage.
I'm going to start with the big names and work down to the little local events, but that doesn't mean I'm going from best to worst for spectator experience.
The first major car race I ever saw was the 2013 Montreal GP. I was a guest of Red Bull, so I didn't ever have to pay the painfully expensive ticket prices that the world's top car racing series asks. I did nearly get my ass kicked by some rich asshole, and I also got much more access than the average shmoe.
I vividly remember wandering around the back of the pit garages sometime three quarters of the way through the race and bumping into one of the mechanics for backmarker Caterham. I asked him what it was like running with the circus of the sport, travelling the world from one race to the next.
I am of the belief that the best part of Formula One is the British humor.
Actually, you meet all kinds of crazy bastards at an F1 race, and the sheer spectacle of the cars is hard to beat. When I went, it was the last year of the (fairly restricted) V8s, and the way the cars peeled through turns and pierced deep, deep into your ear drums is something you can't forget.
What did I say about meeting interesting people?
It's good that the cars and the fans are so entertaining, because the race itself is impossible to follow in person, and you seem to spend most of your time stuck in a in a crowd or a giant line of people near F1 cars rather than actually watching anything.
I went to this year's short track race at Martinsville and holy shit was it hilarious. I am not part of the NASCAR demographic. I have never been inside a Waffle House. I eat kale and I like it (sauté whole leaves with garlic at high temperature until charred, turn down to low heat for about an hour or two). I didn't think I would fit in, and I didn't think I would have a particularly good time.
Ambling down into the front row, beer in hand, right as the cars come out of the low, 12-degree banking of the final turn. Wind from the cars tears at your eyes, flecks of rubber peck at your face, and the collective roar of dozens of earth-ripping V8s submerge you in a hot, placid calm.
I have never wanted to pick up smoking more than at that race.
Basically, outside the track is a gigantic party where everyone camps out to get trashed, and inside you have surprisingly engaging on-track battles. I recommend you go with someone who's a real expert. I hung out with a huge Dale Jr. fan, tuned in with his radio to overhear the spotter calls, and got to listen in as Dale and his team planned all of his passes turn after immediate turn.
It's so much more fun than you'd imagine.
Buy your tickets at NASCAR's website right here.
I managed to get myself a press pass for the Baltimore GP last year and man, the contrast between Indy and F1 could not be more clear than when you go to a race in person. At F1, you're going to have a good time, but the organizers will always hold you at arm's length from the cars, the mechanics, the drivers and the racing. IndyCar? You'll be walking from one side of the track to the other and you'll just bump into the reigning champion walking through the crowd.
On top of that, the racing itself is hugely engaging. Sit yourself near a tight corner and you'll be able to watch out-braking passes all day long. The atmosphere is completely fan-oriented, almost as much as your local circle track.
The crowd is remarkably diverse, and you can tell that there are lots of dads who brought their kids to the race, who years later brought their kids to the race, who brought their kids to the race... the point is, everyone has a sense of camaraderie, and kindness, and interest.
The only problem is that it reminded me a bit of fat-free ice cream or something. It tasted good, but it didn't feel like the real thing. It didn't feel like it mattered. Maybe because the cars are kinda hideous.
You can get yourself tickets on the IndyCar website right here. They should be over on the right-side column on the page.
Sports Car Endurance Racing
I watched what was then called the American Le Mans Series (part of a double-header with the IndyCar Baltimore GP). Now it's called TUSC and who knows what it will be called in a few years. When you go, however, none of that matters. Only one thing is important; only one thing will fill your brain and ooze out of your eyeballs.
There is one reason to go to American sports car racing, and that's for the Corvettes that have raced there for years and continue to do so with the new C7R. When I close my eyes, I can still hear those Vettes. I may actually still physically feel the thunder from those side pipes, but that's something between me and my doctor.
Like F1 and unlike NASCAR, you will have no clue what car is in the lead, since all the classes are jumbled up, and that leading prototype car you're watching may be battling to overtake a car a lap or two behind in the standings. This is all irrelevant. Go for the Corvettes, they are worth it.
Get yourself tickets on the IMSA website right here.
24 Hours Of LeMons
I bummed a ride with a tech inspector for the 2009 Reno Fernley race and found out that there is one thing that LeMons does better than any other racing series in the country: food.
Like all other multi-class sports car racing, it's impossible to tell who is winning. Since all the cars are built in peoples' sheds, however, there are huge differences in speed between the top cars (possibly some crapcan '80s Alfa Romeo with a donkey welded onto the roof) and the slowpokes (likely some Renault Dauphine pulled out of a field ten minutes before the green flag dropped). What you will watch on track will be entertaining, but meaningless.
The real reason for going is once night falls, and all the teams retreat to their pits. Welding torches cast light on huge cauldrons of chili or steaming pasta or thick slabs of barbecue. Wander around, watch a bunch of other people sweat through their third junkyard engine swap of the day, and trade beer for a delicious meal.
LeMons also has uh, creative penalties for miscreant drivers (see above), though their ritual crushing of the most hated team's car is no more. Below is the final crushing, that of the organizer's awful VW Bus.
Get yourself all-access passes for just $30 at the gate, at least according to the LeMons website right here.
If you like the outdoors, this is just about perfect for you. Basically, watching rallying means going on a really pretty hike, and when you get to the end of the trail, there are a bunch of race cars sliding sideways past you. It is a good excuse to haul out your grill and buy some bug spray.
I've been to Pennsylvania's STPR forest rally and most recently I dragged myself up to the Mount Washington Hillclimb.
Not only did I somehow find myself eye-to-eye with a chase helicopter pilot, but I ended up putting my feet up on a rocky outcropping literally over the road and watched as cars slithered along the bumpy pavement directly beneath me. I looked out and could count thirteen ridges of mountains stretching into the distance.
For most car fans, watching rally seems kind of backwards, given how much you have to work to see only a few dozen cars scream past you, gone in a matter of seconds each. If you enjoy being out in the woods or hiking in the mountains, it's basically a really great way to spend a day.
And the pure sensations of watching the cars go by matches everything short of F1, from hugely tuned four-wheel-drive Subaru front runners to the ultra-sideways rear-drive classics at the slow side of things.
Tickets? Just show up and hang out in the woods! Watching a rally is free, but getting to a spectator zone (or hiking out into the wilderness) can be a challenge. Check the Rally America website for information right here.
Like Rally America, but easier to get to. I recommend that you actually volunteer rather than spectate. You get even closer to the cars than otherwise, all you have to do is get up early. Ok, really early. Like, before dawn early.
At the tarmac Empire State Performance Rally this year (just 90 minutes from NYC), I was sitting up a tree overlooking a lazy river on one side, and Mitsubishi Evos screaming past ten feet from me at 100 miles an hour on the other.
I finally got myself to my first pro-drifting event just a few weeks ago at the sold-out Wall Speedway, about an hour south of NYC in central Jersey. I expected to not have a very good time. I figured everything would be overly serious, particularly for something as inherently pointless as drifting.
The reason why most people are apprehensive about drifting is because everything is judged. There are points that are quantifiable during the one-on-one tandem battles, like speed and proximity to certain video game-esque 'clipping points,' but it all comes down to subjective judgement about how a driver melted tires.
This is exactly what makes watching pro drifting so much fun. Like when you watch diving in the summer Olympics, or figure skating in the winter Olympics, you immediately become an expert on drifting style the moment you start watching. You start to blend in with the other tattoo'd kids milling around swilling cheap beer and applejack, rooting for, I don't know, the rear-drive Scion tC with a turbo minivan engine with over a thousand horsepower, versus the Nissan with the nitrous-shot V8 pulled from a truck.
It is much more fun to watch than you'd imagine.
Find schedules and tickets (and full event livestreams) at the FD website right here.
The competitive aspect is what makes Formula D so engaging, and that's exactly what you don't have in amateur drifting. But the drifting at amateur drifting is mostly for the competitors. You, the spectator, will mostly have a good time camping out, getting plastered at the end-of-the-night fest, and possibly [REDACTED] some [VERY REDACTED] in the trackside bathroom.
Note the beer cans in this Nissan's deep-dish wheels. Kind of tells the whole story.
Basically, you're going to a party that happens to have a bunch of nutty cars around also.
If you're on the East Coast, get yourself to a Club Loose event. Check their schedule right here. If you can only go to one event, East Coast Bash at Englishtown, New Jersey is the one.
Professional Drag Racing
I haven't made it out to any pro drags yet. Will update when I get myself there. From what I've heard, you don't watch Top Fuel cars so much as you physically experience them. It's on my to-do list.
Local Drag Racing
Like other amateur racing (weird cars, cheap entry) but with more opportunities for betting. Watching a '96 Caprice run a quarter mile as fast as a new Viper is oddly entrancing.
Local Circle Track Racing
You don't watch Formula One; you witness it. By the same token, you don't watch your local circle track racing; you practically participate in it.
There's something about the announcer's accent, the nearby garage sponsorships on the cars, and the country drive to the track itself that make going to a Sportsman or Modified or Late Model race nearby different from just about any other racing.
You pick a driver or two and follow 'em through their heat races, gasp when they crash, cheer when they slide a pass on the outside, and meet them in person in the pits after the race. At big races, you can feel an obligation to pay attention, to focus, to work to appreciate what's going on. Your local circle track is just a good time.
Bring your own beer and try the funnel cake.
If you're nearby, check out Wall Speedway right here, but just go to what's close.
I still haven't made it out to a dirt track race in person yet, but I'll be heading to the NASCAR truck race at Eldora in a couple of weeks, and I should make it out to a local race some time this summer. I can't speak from experience, but it sounds just like a local paved oval experience, only with more powerful V8s, more oversteer, and more Dickies overalls worn in the pits.
I somehow missed this at the Yolo County Fair when I was growing up, but it sounds like it's as close to a rodeo as you can get with car racing. If you go to your county fair and check out the blue ribbon pigs, or if you've ever been to a county fair at all, you will probably like a demolition derby.
Everyone who competes in autocross (it's cheap and it's fun and you should run it at least once) has to spectate. You spend half your time picking up cones knocked over by your competitors. The way to have fun is to try and get gossip from your fellow corner-workers as to who is cheating how.
Find your local autocross by going to the SCCA website right here and figuring out what region you're in. Then you probably want to check your region's individual website for the best info.
Like autocross, but more fun. And dirtier. You will probably find yourself pushing some dude's front-drive Subaru out of a snow bank/mud patch depending on the season.
You find out where to go in much the same way as autocross. Check the SCCA website right here, figure out your region, then look up their individual website.
So that's car racing in America. Get out there. The smell of racing gas is good for the soul.
Have you gone to any racing series that I haven't? Let the world know what it was like, and write up your own experience below.
Photo Credits: Raphael Orlove