Feature writing: A day at NASCAR

For other portfolio pieces, go to the links on my home page.

The NASCAR fan atmosphere feature, published June 22, 2014, in The Monroe News, was more than a year in the making.

I knew about the festival scene because my husband and I would assemble a group of friends to attend one of the NASCAR races each year at Michigan International Speedway.

The venue is about an hour’s drive, actually in the local coverage area of The Daily  Telegram in Adrian. That’s not quite close enough for The Monroe News to call it a local story; but close enough that when attendance at the track peaked in the 2000s, spillover tourist traffic in Monroe County was noticeable. For four or five years, our newsroom had quite a few local angles to write about as race weekend preview stories.

However, we had never actually staffed a race. We left that coverage to the Associated Press.

In 2013, I suggested doing this story. But we waited too long to request press credentials and the opportunity was list. I pitched it again in 2014. As my column below the story relates, it became my project in more ways than one.

Since the online archives at Monroe News don’t go this far back, here are some of the pictures I took that day along with the text of the articles.

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A Day at the Races

By Paula Wethington / paula@monroenews.com

BROOKLYN — If you think the waving of the green flag is the start of NASCAR action at Michigan International Speedway, you’re missing half the show.

On the morning of a Sprint Cup race day like the Quicken Loans 400 on Father’s Day, the New Holland Fan Plaza just outside the main grandstand gates, along with the infield pit and paddock areas, becomes a beehive of fans enjoying celebrity sightings, contests, games and photo opportunities.

This festival-like scene starts packing in the fans more than four hours before the race begins.

MIS has made numerous efforts in recent years to beef up fan hospitality, in part through suggestions by the Fan Advisory Board and in part through the staff picking up ideas from other tracks and sports venues. This year’s plaza updates alone include an all-new Welcome Center and more free WiFi spots.

“This year, we really bumped it up,” said Brad Kuhbander, MIS manager of media relations, about the amenities. “The fans make the choice to spend their money here. We want to create memories for them.”

MIS hosted its first NASCAR race in 1969. The season now features two NASCAR Sprint Cup races, one in June and in August. This year’s schedule also includes NASCAR Nationwide Series, NASCAR Camping World Truck Series and ARCA series races.

The track is known for some of the fastest speeds under today’s Sprint Cup format. Kevin Harvick posted the fastest pole-winning qualifying speed since 1987 with a blistering 204.557 mph in Brooklyn. The winner of the Quicken Loans 400 was Jimmie Johnson, a multiple Sprint Cup champion who had yet to claim a trophy at MIS.

But as Mr. Kuhbander explained, track officials know those attending aren’t just serious fans who can quote the latest statistics and headlines about NASCAR’s top circuit. There are many casual fans as well, and when MIS analyzed its 2013 ticket sales they learned about 30 percent of MIS fans brought children younger than 18.

That’s why the Welcome Center, hosted by Fan Advisory Board members and other volunteers, was updated again this year with rookie and younger fans specifically in mind.

The free activities and displays are in addition to whatever the race sponsors and teams host on the plaza and are meant to explain the basics of racing and the NASCAR scene.

“If they know the sport, more than likely, they’ll come back,” Mr. Kuhbander said.

KID-FRIENDLY AREA

Fans who spent their morning on the plaza had a wide range of choices for entertainment, merchandise purchases and food concessions.

“I would say that it is very kid-friendly,” said Amanda Hertel of Mishawaka, Ind. She and her husband, Jason, were among a group of families who brought teens and kids to the track for the day, after having made a previous visit.

Their daughter, Riley, 6, and son, Evan, wore Superman capes that they had picked up at a sponsor booth for driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. as they waited in a line for other freebies and an older sibling was exploring the plaza with Dad.

The younger ones also were signed up that weekend for the MIS Kids’ Club.

Logan Jones, 7, and his brother, Quinton Jones, 9, of Evansdale, Iowa, got their photo taken at a mockup of Jimmie John- son’s car in the Chevrolet display.

Their mom, Brenda Jones, said this was the family’s first time at MIS or a Sprint Cup race although they had seen other race series in action.

And Conner French, 6, of Camden had his picture taken at the photo booth featuring the Sprint Cup championship trophy in the Sprint display area.

In the meantime, the emcee on the Sprint stage kept the fans happy with dance music and by flinging hats as prizes toward the crowd.

Elsewhere on the plaza, the Ford display emcee shouted “Greg Biffle is the house!” encouraging fans to come and visit its stage for driver appearances.

Souvenirs available in the Ford area included T-shirts that Kayla Manson and her fiancé, Kaleb Hardin, both of Circleville, were happy to stand in line for. Mr. Hardin said he has been a NASCAR fan since his preschool years and this was his first time at MIS.

Another first-time visitor honestly had no idea where she’d spend Father’s Day. Madison Ranges, 12, of New Jersey told her dad, Eric, that it was his choice what to do for the day but was under the impression he would be in Brooklyn, N.Y.

She was surprised to realize they were still on the road when she woke up in the car. It was a 10-hour drive from New Jersey to Michigan.

Mr. Ranges laughed while he told the story, “I just didn’t volunteer all the information.” He just said he wanted “to go to Brooklyn.”

CATCH THE ACTION

In keeping with NASCAR’s social media-friendly culture, MIS interacts with fans on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest and YouTube. MIS was the first NASCAR track to install free WiFi spots for fan use in 2013, and additional spots were installed this year.

Track President Roger Curtis also hosts a race day tradition called a Tweet Up. Fans watch for the announcement on Twitter to find out where and when to show up for a chance to meet special guests and giveways.

The event began about 10:15 a.m. Crew members from Quicken Loans Chevrolet driver Ryan Newman’s team were among the VIPs attending, and giveaways included pre-race ceremony passes, hats and T-shirts.

Dorie McArthur of Jackson, an MIS Fan Advisory Board member, showed she was a veteran of the Tweet Up tradition by wearing her 2013 shirt to the gathering. She attended the race with her boyfriend, Larry Blanchard of Brighton.

MIS fans also can upgrade grandstand ticket purchases for extras that include Pre-Race Pit and Paddock passes. That ticket allows fans in special infield areas such as the walkway just behind pit boxes before the race and a view of the Red Carpet Walk.

The Red Carpet Walk started in 2012 at MIS and happens as the crews make their way to the driver meeting. Madison Martin, who is one of three Miss Sprint Cup fan ambassadors, was among the media personalities seeking comments from the drivers on the red carpet, and driver Brian Vickers was among those willing to sign a hat for a young fan.

But there’s one more time time fans press close for views of their favorite drivers. The pre-race ceremony for a 1 p.m. green flag starts at 12:30 and drivers walk past fans who are standing trackside to take their waves from the stage.

Shouts for a quick photo or autograph kept coming from the crowds, nearly always by the drivers’ first names: “Jimmie!” “Danica! “Ryan!”

Then as the Canadian and American national anthems were sung and a military flyover took place, it would be time for fans to find their seats or viewing spots and wait for the call:

“Drivers, start your engines!”

Rookie photographer gets tips from veteran — and the pictures

By Paula Wethington

A feature story about NASCAR fan activities on race day at Michigan International Speedway was my idea, but to make it happen during the Quicken Loans 400 Sprint Cup race June 15, I needed to be the photographer in addition to the reporter.

I knew I could get the shots I wanted. I have taken terrific photos at previous MIS races with my Olympus E-520 DSLR, packing a 14-42 lens and a 50- 150 lens.

But it’s a big jump from race fan photographer to news media photographer, and I hadn’t used that camera much in the past year. To be honest, I spent most of my free time for several days on practice shoots and reviewing the instruction manual.

The other preparation involved attending an MIS photographer meeting two days before the race. That’s when I was assigned a light blue photographer vest, learned where we could go and the safety rules the media were to follow.

After orientation, a veteran photographer invited any rookies to meet with him for “best picture” tips. Three of us listened to his suggestions that included getting scenic views from the rooftop of the infield media center and hospitality building and getting close-ups of the cars in the garage area.

Because I paid attention to the instructions and tips, I happened to be among the news media at Victory Circle.

Toward the end of the race, I noticed the crew of Ricky Stenhouse Jr. was packing up. The photographers were told at orientation that if a pit box became empty, we could use it as our staging spot. I stepped in and that’s how I got photos of Greg Biffle’s pit crew at work.

Other photographers who gathered in that space included the veteran who spoke with us rookies. I kept a close watch on him, as he knew the cue and where to go after the race.

When the veteran gave a wave and jumped over the pit wall, the rest of us with photo vests followed. I quickly snapped photos of Jimmie Johnson doing a burnout on his tires. Then I wiggled my way into a set of risers that had become quickly packed with news and publicity photographers to witness the trophy presentation.

NASCAR victory ceremonies are carefully choreographed, but the scene was still fun to watch. Confetti flew everywhere, the race crew chanted “One, two, three, woo!” as they posed for a series of pictures, and a photographer near me and I laughed when Mr. Johnson’s crew chief Chad Knaus and others sprayed each other with champagne.

It was about a half hour later when I searched through my camera’s memory card and realized how terrific the victory photos turned out. One of those images became my first sports photo credit in The Monroe News.