Wide Open Spaces headed to Alabama to take in the GEICO 500 at Talladega, and had a wild good time seeing the Busch fish car up close and personal.
Not long ago we were contacted by the fine folks at Busch Beer with an invite of unlikely proportions, at least for us. They wanted us to head to Talladega for the 2016 GEICO 500, and we wondered what the connection for our fans would be.
But it quickly became apparent that we needed to be there, and for good reason. Busch was making their triumphant return to a NASCAR track, and with it came a unique twist that was right up our alley: a paint scheme featuring two of American angler's favorite game fish, a smallmouth bass and a cutthroat trout.
On top of that, we gained a new perspective on the type of person who takes in NASCAR events like this one: they share many of the same attitudes that outdoorsman exhibit, and the crossover is clear.
Kevin Harvick, an avid outdoorsman himself, would be the one to fly down the track in the car, and the anticipation building up to the 188 laps on May 1 was palpable. Speaking to him before the race, he admitted there was an obvious overlap between NASCAR and outdoors fans, himself being a good example.
"It's great to have a sponsor like Busch that's so into the fishing and racing," said Harvick. "To see it on the racetrack is a lot of fun. And that's a big ass fish on both sides."
It was hard not to notice Harvick's Realtree camo hat; they're another sponsor of his, and he was actually turkey hunting the day before the race with his son.
We headed to the track early on Sunday morning, and before any engines were started, we gained exclusive access behind the scenes of Busch's fan engagement tent. There, a replica of the new car was on display, and fans were treated to an appearance by both Harvick and Kevin VanDam, who is also sponsored by Busch and was there to soak up the atmosphere of one of his favorite things outside of fishing.
"I've followed NASCAR for about 20 years," said VanDam, "and I know several of these guys. I've fished with some of them, and have become a big fan. A lot of guys in NASCAR love the outdoors. Kevin [Harvick's] a big hunter, and he's becoming a bigger fisherman. I sent him some equipment this week," VanDam said. "he's got a big job to do, but we're going to get him out bass fishing soon."
VanDam said he'd been out fishing the day before with Ryan Newman and Martin Truex, Jr., so we can comfirm there were at least three NASCAR drivers participating in outdoor sports the day before Talladega.
Our guide for race day, Joe Glynn, gave us the kind of perspective very few get to see, and we quickly learned how respected and experienced he is. Glynn filled us in on what it took to not only put a driver in a car, but work with a brand that's making a move to satisfy and grab the attention of the race fans who go to Talladega. He's worked NASCAR events for 40 years, and has been with Busch for 32. Find yourself a guy like Glynn to show you around a track, and you're in for an experience of a lifetime. If you can keep up with him, that is.
Watching the driver introductions, then seeing Harvick hop into the fish car, give his young son a fist bump, and prepare for one of the biggest races of the season was something that can't be soon forgotten.
After that we took a seat in the pit tower, directly above the "over the wall" crew who expertly orchestrated what seems impossible, and threw on some headsets to hear the back-and-forth between Harvick and his crew chief. Amazing stuff; hearing and seeing things from that perspective made NASCAR look like an entirely different ballgame.
Harvick and the Trophy Can fish car stood strong avoiding a number of crashes, and lo and behold led nine laps of a cloudy, rain-threatened race. As the anticipation built to the last lap, we saw something you rarely get to see in sports, in life, and in the outdoors. Or was it something all too common? Defeat can seem like a little bit of both.
We watched as Harvick was bumped into an unavoidable wreck, slamming the exterior wall and sliding to a stop just past the finish line on the last lap, the fish car having been destroyed to an almost-unrecognizable state. What we stared at, snapped photos of, and admired as a symbol of the major, mainstream exposure fishing was receiving in one of the country's leading sports, was reduced to a smashed up Chevy that was still running, but certainly didn't look the same.
No injuries, and essentially no worries, as Harvick will be hopping into another Busch car for the following race, and still leads the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series standings as the season rolls on into the summer. Once you know all the work, organization, and time that goes into preparing for that, you don't look at racing the same.
And at the end of the day, the largemouth and cutty on the sides of that car got in front of more eyes than they could have under different circumstances, and that was pretty cool to see.