Do you like watching racing? One of the most awesome things you could do—ever—is go to a race in person. Meet your heroes, watch the cars and marvel in awe. Here’s how to avoid coming back an exhausted, sunburnt-to-a-crisp sad shell of your former being and actually have a good time, as you absolutely should.
When we spoke with Don Panoz at Sebring, the American Le Mans Series founder explained that he hopes one of his biggest legacies from ALMS was the increased access the series gave fans to the teams and drivers. Sure enough, many endurance races today have an extraordinarily open paddock, complete with the ability for the average yahoo to stand outside (and often inside, if you show up for practice day) their favorite car’s garage and watch a full race crew at work.
Nearly every race I’ve been to except Formula One gives you the opportunity to get up close and personal with your favorite teams and drivers at some point during the weekend, and even F1 has autograph sessions despite the fact that the paddock is locked down more than Fort Knox. It’s a great time to be a motorsports fan.
Sure, television usually does a good enough job of covering motorsports (key word: usually), but it’s hard to appreciate the roar of the cars and the sheer scale of many of these events until you see them for yourself. Plus, in person, there’s no commercials. Zero. Zilch. Nada. None. It’s fantastic.
Thing is, you want to enjoy the race, not complain that you’re too hot, get sick, realize you forgot extra underwear at home, and miss out on anything really cool. It’s a race! There are race cars everywhere! You should have a good time.
With Circuit of the Americas only 20 minutes away from my Hoarders*-inspired abode and Jalopnik sending me to cover all kinds of things farther away, I’ve gone to a little bit of everything that happens on a road course. Most of these tips are from years of accidentally hurting myself in creative ways around a road course, but many of the same tips apply to ovals and drag strips, too. So, without further ado, here’s how you can learn from my various mistakes.
Unless you’re watching indoor karting, you’re going to be outdoors. It doesn’t matter if you scored suite access—you’re going to be outside for quite a while just getting there. Even the smallest ovals are pretty big facilities, and parking is always a little bit of a hike.
If you’re not going to a local event, chances are, you’ll have to pack for the weekend. Practice, qualifying and race day are usually spread out over several days. Even if the weather says it’s going to be sunny and 80 the entire weekend, Mother Nature has a tendency to get PMS at the most inopportune time.
Pack for multiple kinds of weather. You can get a good idea of the climate you’re going to by checking the weather as you’re packing, but within that basic idea of where the weather should be temperature-wise for that time of year, you should pack at least a rain shell or a poncho, plus shoes you don’t mind getting wet and gross (bonus points if those shoes are waterproof). Don’t pack an umbrella unless you’re only planning on using it to walk places and/or want a punch in the face. Nobody likes a person who whips out an umbrella in the stands and secondly, umbrellas are for wimps who don’t understand magical falling sky-water. A good hat and a poncho won’t enrage the people trying to see over you from behind.
Secondly, overpack a little, but not too much. Throw in an extra day’s worth of clothes in case you decide to slide down a mud-soaked hill in the middle of the day, shotgun an overpriced track beer and feel sticky all over, cool off in Circuit of the Americas’ gross black fountain pond for reasons unbeknownst to God and man, miss a flight or otherwise get dirty. You’re probably going to want to grab better food after you’re done at the track, and you probably don’t want to get anything nicer than Tim Hortons if you’re soaked from head to toe and smell like yak offal. Hey, it happens.
Other suggestions? After hitting my own eyeball (ouch) at Daytona, I learned that throwing an extra set of contact lenses in my bag isn’t a bad idea, either, if you tend to wear contacts. I don’t like to have a lot of valuables on me in crowded venues, so I tend to take a small container for the jewelry on my person (should I need to take it off to shower), and wear minimal jewelry. It’s a race, not a fashion show. Are you taking photos? Take a laptop and an external hard drive to off-load your pics at night, even if you don’t expect to fill your card. You’ll take more photos than you think, hence the external HD. Want to listen in to marshal, team or race control chat? Look in to various scanner and radio options. They’ll talk about what’s going on before the announcers even get to it. Also, does your hotel/campsite/El Camino have a pool? Take a swimsuit. Pools are great.
If you tend to forget things, pack in the morning, as you’re walking through your morning routine. That way, you’ll pack your shower gear, your bathroom gear, your clothes and everything in the order that you’d need them in the morning. Make a list of the other stuff you may need that’s outside of your morning routine (camera gear, model cars that need signing, 944 factory service manual volume to read on the plane) well ahead of when you pack so that you don’t forget any of that, either, and can knock it out right afterwards. Tape the list to your bag if you must, depending on how SQUIRREL! you get with menial, boring tasks.
Speaking of showers: shower right before you leave, especially if you’re camping on-site. There are unspeakable horrors in this world, and a good half of them are public restrooms at race tracks. If the restrooms are sketchy, it’s easier to power through being smelly for longer periods of time (like most of the other people there) if you show up clean for the first day.
Even if you’re going to a local event, it’s wise to at least toss your wet weather options in your car so they’re at least on the premises. Good things to take:
- Water - and munchies, if you want
- Bug spray
- A hat
- Phone and charger or extra battery pack - everyone overloads the phone towers on busy race weekends, so you will nuke through your battery extra fast.
- Camera - with batteries charged overnight plus extra storage cards (or film, if that’s your thing)
- Cash - not too much, but enough to buy food, drinks and possible souvenirs for the day, fully expecting that water can be up to $8 and a simple sandwich can be as high as $13 in the U.S.—and even worse if you splurge for a fancier meal at somewhere like Le Mans. Many vendors now have card readers on them, but many still don’t.
- Weekend schedule and/or map - many tracks and series have apps that help with this, however, sometimes it’s nice to have a hard copy for when your phone dies.
Always double-check what’s allowed and what’s not allowed with the track website before packing a bag to take with you. Some tracks really don’t like you bringing in your own food and drink. Others encourage it. People smuggle munchies in regardless under false bottoms and other stuff, but don’t be shocked when and if COTA steals your delicious homemade pimiento cheese sandwich (with no crusts, because it’s pimiento cheese).
Tracks are heinous on a purse or a bag, so the ideal options are washable and waterproof, given the tendency to rain when you don’t want it. I wasn’t sure if I had WaterWetter, wine or Juicy Juice on my purse from Sebring, but it didn’t matter: I put it in the wash, and done. Clean again. I used to carry a nice leather purse that was caked with so much sunscreen and grime from over the years that I had to have it professionally cleaned after I gave up on that idea and moved to a cotton bag for track use. Again: washable is great. Washable is your friend. Don’t bring anything to an outdoor event that you don’t want to carry away looking like it’s been outdoors all weekend.
I’m titling this section as “don’t be an idiot” because I’ve frequently been an idiot, and then my skin peels away for the next couple weeks, I feel like crap by mid-day and just want a nap after the race is done.
Don’t. Be. An. Idiot.
Wear sunscreen. Reapply every few hours throughout the day, even if you tend to tan pretty easily. You, too, will burn. Races towards the equator (like Sebring) are far more brutal sun and heat wise than races farther away (like New Jersey). Err on the side of overkill. If you know you tend to get distracted by HOLY CRAP, IT’S PATRICK LONG ON A SCOOTER ZOMG FERRARIS ON TRACK LOL N00B SPIN IN T1, spray-can sunscreen is a Godsend. I’m guilty of not making the time to
re-baste myself for the cooking re-rub sunscreen all over, so when it’s in a spray can, I can just spray it all over and keep going.
Bring a hat. Nothing is more miserable and gross than weeping, oozing sunburnt scalp blisters. Nothing. The worst thing ever is having to scratch an itch on a raw, peeling scalp only to find crusty yellowish whatever that’s oozed out of your head. Avoid this. I don’t care how silly you think you look in a hat. Wear an extremely awesome hat if it helps. You will look much sillier with giant peeling flakes of head-flesh that make you look like you’ve got the worst dandruff ever.
Find shade when you can if it’s a particularly brutal event, like the Austin X Games in June. Great event! Everything’s awesome! Except the brutal heat. There were shade canopies and mister fans out this year for a reason, though, and that reason is “you not passing out.” Use them when you see them, or find shade on your own to rest every once in a while.
Hydrate. Hydrate. Hydrate. Keep drinking water. I had an incredibly blunt BMWCCA instructor mention this piece of advice for a June date in Texas, and it stuck with me because it’s so simple. Are you peeing yellow? Then you should be drinking more water. Aim for clear. Dark yellow whiz means you’re dehydrated.
Drink in moderation, not only because you want to actually remember and experience the race, and not just because you don’t want to be That Guy who’s just sloppy and ridiculous, but because alcohol will dehydrate you. That’s when you get gravely ill. If it’s hot and you’re sweating buckets to begin with, drink a little extra water with or after your beer. Your body (and your continued ability to stay outside without feeling terrible) will thank you. Caffeine also dehydrates you a bit, so the same thing goes with coffee and all the eighty million free Red Bulls that float around the Global Rallycross paddock. Caffeine is good! Really, though, water is king if you’re outside all day. As in, most of what you put in your facehole should be water.
I’ve also been a moron.
Peeling, blistered sunburn and heat exhaustion is probably the worst-case scenario of motorsports fandom, however, other events in colder months can often leave you with a terrible cold if you’re not smart about staying warm and dry.
Layer. It’s easier to take off layers than it is to wear one thing that’s either too hot, or too cold. If it’s wet, the outer layer should be waterproof if possible.
If it’s cold, don’t just sit in it. Find warmth. Put on another layer. Do something about it, but don’t just sit there. It’s one thing to miss part of the race, sure. It’s another thing to get sick in the process. Getting sick will make you miserable for the rest of the weekend.
Umbrellas are for the weak, as mentioned, although they’re okay while you’re just walking around. It will end poorly for you if you try to use a golf umbrella in a crowded grandstand, so ponchos and waterproof shells are far more ideal options.
If you’re bringing a nice camera, bring some means of covering it from the rain. Waterlogging a DSLR is not fun, especially when GT3 Cup’s last race of the day ends right as the local camera gurus close. (That was not fun.) Pros often whip out zoom lens camera condoms for this purpose. If you’re there on the cheap, a clear plastic bag works just as well as any purpose-built fancy-schmancy camera store solution. Toss one in your camera bag if you think it might be an issue.
Soggy feet are terrible. In warmer rains, I cheat by wearing sandals because feet don’t absorb water like shoes do. Sandals aren’t the best footwear for a race (closed toes are ideal around heavy machinery), but I will say that years of miserable living in Seattle proved my “feet dry pretty fast in sandals” theory. In colder rains, waterproof shoes are your best bet. Get a nice pair of hiking boots that are made for mud and muck, and then it won’t even matter when it’s muddy and mucky. You’re a grown-up now. No one’s going to stop you from playing in the mud. Make a mud-castle next to the track, and we’ll probably put it on the site.
Let me tell you my favorite story of misery and woe. There once was a fancy lady, trying to get to the suites off COTA’s Turn 1. She was wearing stiletto heels as tall as my face, all shiny and new. These heels weren’t made to handle the gravel beneath her, however. She fell face-first into the dirt, to much concern and amusement.
Moral of the story? Even if you’re in a suite all day long, you still have to get there. Track sites are huge. Wear sensible footwear. You’re going to be doing a lot of walking, so make sure your shoes are up to the task.
I always used to joke that I was going to a nice hike with a motor race in the middle when I was heading to a race weekend. This is a pretty accurate description, especially with longer road courses. Not every course has nice, defined paths everywhere, either, and often the grass is somewhat rough (or has random holes in it, in the case of Watkins Glen). Watch where you step. The best views are often beyond that lumpy, rough ground, though, so it’s worth it to hike out to the father edges of the track.
I don’t recommend staying put in your suite or seat all weekend. Walk everywhere. Everywhere! Think about it: the TV cameras never stay at one turn for a whole race, and neither should you. Walking around lets you discover the most interesting turns, the best vantage points, and the biggest parties. Did you win the seat jackpot with Turn 15, or is Turn 3 a better view? Go to turn 3 and find out.
Slow corners are the best for easy panning photos of cars coming by. Esses are fun to watch cars throw their weight around in, too. Runoff areas are placed at the likely scenes of wipeouts, so it’s worth pausing near many of those to see if anything will happen.
Races often have a ton of interesting fan activities set up in the vendor and fan zones, too. You could even test drive a car at the 12 Hours of Sebring this year, for Pete’s sake. Ford revealed their new GT race car in the infield at Le Mans and whipped out several cool historic race cars in the fan zone between the pit straight and the Dunlop curves. Torchy’s Tacos gave out free queso at the X Games, too, and their queso is some of the best in Austin. There is all manner of ridiculousness set up to interest fans in between the races they want to see. Go find the interesting exhibits and have fun with it.
Explore whatever you can to get the most out of a race weekend. Want to get in somewhere? You can often just act like you know where you’re going and get into a lot of places without getting asked for a credential. If it’s marked and there’s a person manning the gate, this often doesn’t work, but it’s worth a shot when it’s not as clear. Besides, more places are open to the public than many fans think on race weekends, so go find and see them. This is, of course, where you’re most likely to see Patrick Long on a scooter with a squirrel. SQUIRREL!
Unfortunately, race weekends favor the able-bodied. If you need assistance getting around from place to place, call the track and ask about shuttles and other accessibility concerns beforehand. I have no experience doing this, but it can’t hurt. They’re legally required to make things as accessible as they can (at least in the U.S.), and you should enjoy the weekend, too.
Is there anything worse than falling asleep for the last hour of the Rolex 24 at Daytona? No. Plan adequate sleep around race hours, or for a race that lasts an entire day like Daytona or Le Mans, I recommend taking a nap early on once the race gets going, but before drivers start to fade and make a bunch of mistakes.
Staying as close as you can to the track itself always helps, too. If you’re in a smaller town, check out less conventional options like vacation rentals (Airbnb, HomeAway, and the like) or bed and breakfasts. The B&B I’m staying at with Watkins Glen isn’t just a favorite of a couple drivers, but it’s owned by a couple who’s used to race crowds coming in for big weekends. They know all the good restaurants and sights to see when the track goes cold. Driving twenty minutes away to a big-name hotel would have been way worse.
Camping at the track is perhaps the best option, depending on your tolerance for roughing it. Sometimes this is one of the most reasonable options, and other times, one of the most expensive.
You know the phrase “act like you’ve been there before?” Yes. Do that. It’s easy to become overwhelmed with adoration for a particular hero, but it’s a whole lot easier to get them to give a great answer to an honest question when you keep your cool.
Do not mob Patrick Dempsey’s pit stall. Please do not mob Patrick Dempsey’s pit stall. He’s a famous dude, we know! But he’s a dude. A normal dude. A dude like all the other dudes. Rather, if you do mob Patrick Dempsey’s pit stall, you must promise to fall asleep next to Jordan Taylor on a plane on the way home. I think that’s fair. (Yes, this should apply to press, too. Staaaahp.)
Again, we live in a golden age of fan access to cool stuff on race weekends. Keeping your cool gets easier with time and experience. Try it out, though. I know getting your chunk of Beetle dash signed by Tanner Foust is very important, however, it will be a much better autograph session if you ask cool questions you’ve always wondered the answer to as opposed to simply squealing “EEEEEEEEE!!!” because TANNER FOUST IS SIGNING YOUR VW DASH.
Race weekends are okay if you’re by yourself, but they’re kind of lonely. Sure, there’s a million crazy people around you who are the same kind of nuts you are, but striking up a conversation can be hard when everyone travels in small herds. You should really bring a friend, if not a small group. Not only can you discuss how tired you are of Crashtor Maldonado jokes, or how rad the pink shiny Ferrari is, but you can often share essentials like sunscreen and bug spray. Taking turns with a backpack makes lugging it around a bit easier. There’s less of a chance of you collectively forgetting something like sunscreen or chairs if you’re all on it, too. You can carpool and split up exorbitant parking fees (as race weekend parking is usually quite silly). Bringing someone with you is a good idea in every conceivable way.
Here’s a dirty little secret: General Admission tickets on a lot of road courses are quite good. You’re already walking around a lot to scope out all the views. Stands really just get you a view up and over the fence, and it’s hard to take good panning photos over the other heads in the stands, anyway. Some sections of track, like COTA’s T12-15 complex, bring you a good expansive view over the terrain and across the track, and they don’t have a good GA berm nearby, hence the cost. Suites get you food, shade and often some form of climate control. If you’re on a shoestring budget and want to go, though, GA is a great option.
StubHub, Craigslist and other reseller venues are good places to find cheap tickets for sale closer to race weekends, too. Life happens, and sometimes pit straight tickets have to be dropped at the last minute for work. This works to your advantage.
Carpool, or park in a free or low-cost lot that has a shuttle over to the racetrack. Unofficial lots hosted by locals by the track are often considerably less expensive and usually not too far off-site.
Track food is pricey and not always good, or good for you. If you can bring in your own food and drinks, you can save a ton of moolah. (This is also a great solution if you have specific dietary needs or wishes.) If the track doesn’t allow outside food or drink in the gates, there’s no shame in having a tailgate-style picnic out in the parking lot. You’re eating better for less money. It’s just smart.
Some tracks have gotten smart about the heat and hydration issue and have refill stations for water bottles. If that’s the case where you’re going, bringing a big bottle for water isn’t a bad idea.
Can’t afford a hotel room for the weekend at $$$Formula Price Gouge? Stay at a friend’s place. While that won’t work for every race, it makes the weekend much cheaper if you can buy a friend dinner in exchange for their couch. Need a cheap race weekend? Plan around where your friends live. Yes, it’s good etiquette to pay back the person you’re couch-surfing with somehow, however, it’s a whole lot less than paying for a hotel on particularly busy weekends where prices are jacked up accordingly.
We give American motorsports coverage its fair share of grief for good reason, but this is the one downside of being physically there at the track: sometimes you miss stuff that happens at the other end of the circuit. It’s always fun to try and spot yourself on TV, anyway, but if you want the full picture of what’s going on (as well as answers to such burning questions as “why did the race go yellow for 15 minutes after the start?”), your best bet is still to acquire a recording of the race to watch afterwards, or at least to have a running live-blog to read through afterwards. (The guys over at Rennsport do a great job with the latter.)
Besides, you might show up on TV. You were there, dude.
Why else would you be there? Motorsports weekends aren’t just about the cars on track. They’re about the fans as well, and the fans are great. I’ve run into everyone from fellow Puffalump fans to Europeans dressed like luchadores. This isn’t just the teams’ weekend. It’s your weekend. You should go, and enjoy.
Photo credits: Random Le Mans gate worker (Porsche 919), Matt Rhoads (Stevenson garage, green Porsche 911, dude running in front of an Audi, signed helmet), Getty Images (F1 in the rain)
*If there isn’t an intervention episode about 944 parts, please don’t nominate my space for it. I need those parts, man.
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