By Larry Kline
Scores of Havreites journeyed to the bright lights of Las Vegas two weekends ago to witness a sport that is quickly becoming an American pastime: NASCAR. They joined a crowd of more than 140,000 people at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway to watch the UAW-DaimlerChrysler 400 and experience the power of stock cars traveling in excess of 170 mph.
"When you're in the stands you actually feel it. When 43 cars with that much horsepower all start their engines, your heart rate changes. You can actually feel the power. You're a part of it," Darran Boss said. Boss is one of a group of five friends who began traveling to Las Vegas six years ago to witness NASCAR firsthand. That group grew to 77 this year. Other groups of Havre residents made the trip as well.
Jimmie Johnson won the 400-mile race to earn his 15th career victory. He led the pack for 107 of the 267 laps.
Seeing a race in person is much different than watching one on television, Jim Rowlatt said. Rowlatt started traveling to Vegas with Boss and other members of the group six years ago. He had been interested in the sport for a few years, but really became hooked when he saw it live.
"You've got to experience one," he said. "You get a feel for what's going on. It's surprising how much you can get into it. It's a really tight competition, a big event."
Rowlatt and his friends sat right at the finish line this year, 28 rows up from the track. The first year he went, the group sat in row four, and the experience was a bit different.
"If you're sitting down in front, you have to hold onto your hat," he said.
The scent of fumes is heavy in the air, and fans are often pelted with small chunks of rubber coming off the hot tires, he added.
Gregg Carlson, who has watched the race with Boss and Rowlatt for the last six years, said he became a fan of the sport after going to his first race in Las Vegas. He said those who watch it on television are missing out on a lot.
"It's like a lot of things in sports, as far as I'm concerned," Carlson said. "It leaves a lot to be desired when you see it on TV. NASCAR is one you really have to be there to appreciate. Being on-site is altogether different."
Becky Wimmer agreed. She and her husband, Chuck, went to Las Vegas for their second year in a row with a group of about two dozen people. She said the couple are now hooked on the sport. They used to watch it every once in a while on television, but now they tape the races if they can't be home to watch them.
"You definitely have to go to get the whole NASCAR experience," she said. "It's so much different than watching it on TV."
It's easy to follow the race from the stands, Rowlatt said. Fans keep tabs on their favorite drivers by looking for the bright paint schemes. The audience is further assisted by two large television screens and two poles that list the position of the drivers.
Carlson said fans have a great chance of getting involved in the race by listening to the drivers talking to their crew chiefs. Fans can buy earphones or tune their radios to different frequencies to listen to individual drivers' communications.
"It's really helpful in that sometimes you can notice what car might be falling off or seeming to lose ground," Carlson said. "Quite often you'll hear he's got some kind of problem and he'll be talking to his pit chief. Also, every now and then, they get angry with each other. That's entertaining. It adds to the excitement."
The crowd is something to behold. Adorned with the colors and numbers of their favorite drivers, more than 140,000 crowded the bleachers for the event. Rowlatt said the race has been selling out year after year.
Wimmer said there were overflow bleachers built to accommodate the large number of people.
"I'm sure that when the stands are full, if it's not the biggest city in Montana, it's close to it," Boss said. "It's just amazing."
In fact, the crowd is so large that it often takes several hours to get out of the parking lot after the race, so many of the fans simply continue the tailgate parties that have been going on all weekend.
Wimmer said two people from their party actually got lost in the parking lot for several hours. They were able to enjoy the experience by chatting with strangers from as far away as Canada and Australia.
"They said that next year they plan on getting lost again," Wimmer said. "People are so nice, it's like a big family."
Rowlatt and his group tailgated Saturday afternoon and Sunday night, feasting on shrimp and pork. The group had a banner that read "NASCAR fans from Havre," which was provided by Kenny Myers.
Indeed, the camaraderie adds to the trip for many. Wives travel with their husbands and find that they enjoy the sport. Parents meet up with adult children. Rowlatt and his wife, Kelly, enjoy the trip because it gives them a chance to see their son Ric, who lives in Vegas and helped the group get their first tickets six years ago. This year, the Rowlatts went a month early to see their new grandson.
Carlson and his wife, Ruth, make the trip to Las Vegas together and meet with their son, who travels from Nebraska for the race.
Boss and his wife, Peggy, also make the trip together.
"It's just a wonderful time for us to get out there and enjoy ourselves in the middle of the winter," Boss said. "It's a good family sport, a good group thing."