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Fans sits atop trailer infield watch GEICO 400 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race ChicagolSpeedway Joliet Sunday September 16 2012. |

Fans sits atop a trailer in the infield and watch the GEICO 400 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Chicagoland Speedway in Joliet Sunday, September 16, 2012. | Brett Roseman~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: October 18, 2012 6:18AM



JOLIET — The first trip to Chicagoland Speedway truly was awesome for NASCAR fans seeing their first race in person.

Just ask Richard Lakes of Hamilton, Ohio.

“Just to be up this close and see the drivers and the pit crews, it’s just an awesome experience,” Lakes said Sunday before the start of the Geico 400.

Chicagoland Speedway has been running NASCAR races since 2001, but many longtime NASCAR fans still find their way to the track for the first time.

Like Dave Jones of Green Bay, Wis., who has been watching the races on TV for 15 years, but got a big treat for his 40th birthday when his wife, Kristie, bought him tickets to the races in Joliet.

“This is my first one,” said Jones, never having seen a NASCAR race live before. “I would go to all kinds of races if it wasn’t so far away.”

It’s a four-hour drive from Green Bay, and Jones was enjoying his birthday gift.

“Taking the pictures, shaking the drivers’ hands, seeing the cars up close in person,” Jones said, are some of the things you don’t get on TV.

“Awesome” was the word used as well by Stephanie Roof of Bloomington, who became a NASCAR fan three years ago when she met her boyfriend, Alexander Tutt, who brought her to Joliet.

“I’m really excited,” said Roof, noting it’s her first race live. “It’s like surreal. You see it on TV. But here it’s real.”

Real right up to the ear-splitting, roar of the engines.

“You better put some ear plugs in. It’s going to get really loud here soon,” said Scott Martin of Oak Forest minutes before the race started.

Martin has become a regular at Chicagoland Speedway. He’s one of the volunteers who work at the track to help raise money for organizations. Martin’s efforts help his daughter’s school, St. Damian’s in Oak Forest.

This year’s Geico 400 offered some new features for race fans, said Martin, who leads tours through the pit areas. The pre-race pit scene this year was more hectic than the past, Martin said, because Chicagoland Speedway gave fans greater access this year.

It was much appreciated by fans like Timmy Monroe of Peoria, who was brought to the race by his father, Dave.

Timmy, too, has become a regular race-goer. It’s his sixth race at Chicagoland Speedway. His dad, Dave, has been coming since the track opened.

If you think watching the race on TV isn’t quite like being there, imagine Dave Monroe’s introduction to the sport when he was a kid. Asked if he’s been a longtime NASCAR fan, Monroe answered, “Have been since Dad listened to it on the radio.”

That was the only way to get the races before they started being televised sometime in the 1970s, Monroe said. Maybe that’s why his dad took him to Daytona to see the races live back then.

Lee Stapel of Hinsdale also has been coming to Chicagoland Speedway since it opened.

If people noticed that the Chicagoland Speedway grandstands were not filled Sunday, Stapel said it’s been that where everywhere he’s been — including Daytona.

“You can tell that the economy has affected racing,” Stapel said. High gas prices, too, he said, make it a bigger financial challenge to drive the distances that NASCAR fans may travel to see races around the country.

Still, there’s nothing like being there.

Coming to Chicagoland Speedway “has always been a great experience and a good time,” Stapel said. “The grandstands don’t have a bad seat in them.”



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