A day at the races

Tired of being a dollar ($) sign in the eyes of sports owners? Frustrated at the rising tide of greed, apathy, selfishness and lack of character among the so-called "sports heroes?"

Remember, these are celebrities your children look up to.

Now, would you like to see a sport that, despite all the monetary and technological advancements, still treats fans as though they're important to the sport?

I'm talking about a sport where autographs are given free of charge, and accompanied by a genuine smile. And athletes, who earn millions of dollars, yet will still lift your kid up on their shoulders to pose for a photograph, again, free of charge.

Impossible, you say? So did I, until I began to attend National Hot Rod Association (NHRA) events a couple of years ago, including a trip to the Fram Autolite Nationals earlier this month at Sears Point in the north end of the Bay Area.

I began watching old fashioned, legalized drag racing years ago when I was a kid out at Orange County Raceway, Lion's Dragstrip and even the fields at old Irvine Ranch (like on Happy Days). It was a place where you could go to enjoy drag racing and not worry about being chased by police and highway patrolmen. Instead, the law enforcement agencies were happy to see you at the track.

Restrictions? Compare the following to the major sports as we know them today:

-- Pit row: You can stand five feet from the crews, drivers, owners and their cars at all times. I've never seen a fan or participant violate this trust, either.

-- Autographs and pictures: The drivers come to you. Three or four times a day, at least, they'll come to the crowd to sign free 8x10, two-sided photo/information placards. All you have to do is go to pit row, each driver has boxes full of these placards located right next to their trailer where you can reach down and pick them up - close enough that you can smell the fumes of the cars as they test their calculations. These athletes will sign almost anything ... your hat, chest, shirt, even babies' diapers. They even bring their own pens, just in case you don't have one.

Down at Sears Point, it was no surprise to see my heroes - nine-time Funny Car champion John Force and Top Fuel contender Tony Schumacher - make their way through thousands of fans to give autographs and have photos taken. They even seemed disappointed when they had to break off to leave for their race. Two years ago, not more than 10 minutes after a huge loss, I saw Force take his cap off (I've never seen him do that), sign the cap, put it on the head of a small child seated in a wheel chair and then pose with the kid for a picture.

All the drivers are like this. That's what makes it hard to pick any one guy and root for him. They're all so wonderful.

By the way, can you picture Ken Griffey Jr. or Mark McGwire going into the stands signing autographs after an at-bat or after a game?

-- Alcohol free: At any track, one entire side of the grandstands and pits are totally alcohol free, which is really nice. Those of you with children will understand the benefits of this policy. You may find a Budweiser trailer on the non-alcohol side, but you won't find any beer being sold, just food and non-alcoholic beverages.

I could go on forever, remembering all the things about an NHRA meet that reminded me of the pure days of sports. Being a school teacher, these people won my heart by their incredible treatment of all the kids who attended. Of the approximately 120,000 fans who were at Sears Point for three days of the Fram Autolite Nationals, I'd say at least one-third were kids, which is something I see less and less of at other sporting events anymore.

So, if you long for the days when you left an event and took home memories of smiling kids and a real feeling for actually being part of the sport, get down to Sears Point next summer and spend the weekend sucking up all the nitro fumes, smell of burning rubber, and neck aches from watching these folks running the quarter-mile in less than five seconds at 300-plus mph.

P.S. I just let me pass on one warning. Unfortunately, the NHRA doesn't run Sears Point, so a small bottle of water costs $3, and you're not considered a handicapped person unless, you're in a wheel chair. But, that's a whole different story.

Ralph Myrehn is the Nevada Appeal Skinny Page editor

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