A passion for speed and fun

DOVER — It might not be quite as crazy or on such a grand scale as it was in the early 2000s.

But NASCAR still draws a hardcore group of fans who love to come to Dover International Speedway and camp out with family and friends all weekend.

They enjoy absorbing the sights, sounds and tastes both on and off the racetrack.
It doesn’t matter to them that NASCAR doesn’t draw the massive number of fanatical fans as it did at its peak — around 140,000 in 2001. They just enjoy the chance to get together twice a year in the state capital to fuel their passion for speed and fun.

This weekend those fans are happy to “be a part of history” — as the signs outside of the speedway say – as the track affectionately known as the Monster Mile celebrates its 50th anniversary with the running of the Gander RV 400 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race on Sunday afternoon.

Mark Ladu, from Lake George, New York, said nothing can beat the view from his recreational vehicle parked in Lot 2 just off Leipsic Road behind the speedway. He has a first-hand look at all of the revelry and people as they walk around the perimeter of the track.

“We’ve been coming to Dover for 25 years and it’s tradition for us,” Mr. Ladu said. “We have some other friends that come down and we enjoy it. I’ve been to a lot of difference races over the years and just keep coming back here.

“It’s changed a lot, especially here in Dover. When we first came here, we pulled into the main gate and there was no casino. You parked wherever you wanted in your camper and that was it. The other stuff developed. I’ve seen grandstands get built, grandstands torn down.”

He admitted the interest in NASCAR has waned over the years and said it’s just a combination of factors.

Overall, the racing and the rules keep changing back and forth and some people aren’t happy about that,” said Mr. Ladu. “Myself, I’ll keep coming forever. Why other people aren’t coming? Maybe it’s the age groups, people are getting older and the younger kids aren’t as interested, so you’re not getting as big a crowd.”

Denis McGlynn, the president and CEO of Dover Motorsports, said attracting fans to attend sporting events is not just an issue facing NASCAR.

At its peak in the early 2000s, Dover routinely sold out its grandstands and attracted a crowd of around 140,000 people when it hosted the first major sporting event after 9/11. That was the day that the ever-popular Dale Earnhardt Jr. put a cap on an unforgettable day by winning and taking a victory lap around Dover’s high-banked, one-mile oval with a large American flag waving in the wind out of his window.
In recent years, like many other tracks on the NASCAR circuit, Dover has removed several sections of its grandstands and currently seats around 85,000 people, drawing crowds of around 60,000 for NASCAR Cup Series races in recent years.

Marching with the times
As it has for 50 years, Dover International Speedway continues to march along with the times.

“As you can imagine, no company makes it 50 years without a little bit of luck and a lot of hard work on the part of a lot of people,” Mr. McGlynn said. “We were just talking about how everything’s changing these days and nobody in this industry, and I mean the whole sports industry, not just NASCAR, really knows what the next 10 years are going to bring. Hopefully, we’ll be ready for it, whatever it is, and we want to be part of it.

“We hope (the fans) all show up this weekend. We’re looking forward to having a great year.”

Dover International Speedway officials have certainly gone out of their way to make a lot of free entertainment options available during this milestone year of racing at the track.

While the main focus of the weekend will remain on Monster Energy Series standouts such as Jimmie Johnson, Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch and Chase Elliott, fans will also get the opportunity to take in a free concert by the Charlie Daniels Band on Sunday as well as performances by the legendary Harlem Globetrotters, with many other things to see and do in the FanZone near the Monster Monument.

Entertainment options
“During our 50th anniversary celebration, the entertainment options in our FanZone will be bigger and better than ever,” said Dover International Speedway President and CEO Mike Tatoian.

“Before the green flag drops on the excitement on the track, fans will have the chance to enjoy plenty of free entertainment outside the grandstands.”
Jack Dobrint, from St. Catherine’s, Ontario, Canada, said he appreciates everything the track has done to make this a special year for the race fans.

“We love the track, we love the venue and we’ve got a lot of friends here,” said Mr. Dobrint, who camps with a group of 12 different people across three campsites.

“We have the same campsite every time since 2005 and we really enjoy the racing.

“Everybody’s got their own driver they pull for and that kind of stuff. The 50th anniversary stuff that’s going on is fantastic here with the Harlem Globetrotters, the wrestling and everything else.”
Continuing a tradition

tour through the camping grounds at the speedway on a misty Friday morning showed that things haven’t really changed all that much over the years.

People gathered around firepits and grills cooking breakfast and debated the plusses and minuses of various race drivers, while J.R. Snyder and Dan Noonan, of Fort Monmouth, New Jersey, had a power saw and level out as they constructed a 12-foot bar at their campsite.

“I just love the people,” Mr. Noonan said. “We meet a lot of great people down here and we all work together, we’ve all got families and kids now, and it’s a good time to spend together for three days.”
As for the empty spaces scattered around both the campgrounds and grandstands, he said it doesn’t bother him.

“I feel like there’s too many drivers retiring at once – key guys like Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr.,” he said. “It’s a great sport, but I still come to meet with the people and party with everybody.”

Terri Goutermout, from Fulton, New York, is a long-time Jeff Gordon fan but is gravitating towards Chase Elliott since her favorite driver retired.

Bi-annual trips to Dover
She said she still cherishes her bi-annual trips to the Monster Mile.
“We’ve been coming for 25 years and just enjoy it, enjoy the camaraderie here,” she said.

“I just think it’s gotten very expensive for families to come. It’s like a vacation, you have to save up for it.

“It would be nice to be able to go from one track to the next, but it’s not realistic anymore. I’m happy here at Dover.”

Mark Bedford, from New Jersey, said he misses being able to walk among the souvenir haulers at Dover International Speedway.

“We used to spend the day over there shopping and looking around, but there’s nothing to do over there now,” he said. “That’s why we’re building bars (in the campground).”

Tobias Johnson, of Havre de Grace, Maryland, said nothing could keep him away from Dover this weekend.

“To be around for 50 years says something about the racetrack,” Mr. Johnson said. “They must be doing something right. When it comes down to it, it’s really not about how many fans are crammed into the grandstands, it’s about how good the racing is, how fun of a time you are having and are you getting your money’s worth.

“I feel like I always do when I come to Dover.”

Delaware State News staff writer Mike Finney can be reached at mfinney@newszap.com.

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