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Cars, Collisions & Commercials

by Jonathan Metts - October 22, 2001, 8:36 pm EDT

Jonny and pals go to the EA Sports 500, watch fast cars, eat much junk food, film an Xbox commercial, and just generally create trouble.

I’ll be the first to tell you that I’m no follower of NASCAR racing, and much less an expert on it, but I did have quite an enjoyable adventure at the very first EA Sports 500. I expected the day to be something like my journalism experiences at E3 and the Cube Clubs, despite the obviously different environment. What I got was something totally different, yet memorable in its own way.

The night and morning before leaving were pretty stressful for me, since the entire trip was planned literally two days before it happened. I didn’t even know for sure if I had tickets until Saturday evening...and the race started at noon on Sunday. But, those came through, and I set to work rounding up traveling companions, getting directions to Talladega, figuring out what and what not to take, etc. It was a mess, but it all came together at the last minute, and we were off to the races, “we” being myself and two other guys from my dorm, Taylor and Kellen.

The Talladega SuperSpeedway is considered one of the fastest and toughest racing tracks in the world, and it happens to be an hour-and-a-half drive from where I go to college. After grabbing some cash from the ATM and breakfast from Burger King, we three kings were on our way to some good old-fashioned stock car fun.

The green flag was set to be waved at noon, and we left Auburn about nine o’clock. Surely three hours is enough to traverse about 75 miles, right? Wrong...well, almost wrong. True NASCAR fans show up at the track as much as a week ahead of time; losers like us who wait to the last minute get stuck with miles-long lines to the parking areas. We got the track vicinity about 11:00 AM, and didn’t get a parking place until 11:45. But it was all good, and we high-tailed it to the gates to pick up our tickets at the Will-Call counter, eventually making it to our (great) seats just in time to hear, “Gentlemen, start your engines!”

Thus, the race began and we didn’t miss a thing. I don’t know how it is elsewhere in the country, but probably 80% or more of the crowd at Talladega seemed to be rooting for Dale Earnhardt, Jr. Cheers of glee erupted whenever Dale Jr. passed a car, and anytime he was in the lead, everyone in our section stood up on their feet to soak up the sight.

After a few boring pace laps, the race began, and over forty metal monsters screamed by us...and that’s a pretty close description of what they really sound like. Even thirty-seven rows up above the track, the sound of a big pack going by is nothing short of astonishing. It drowns everything else out completely, and a lot of folks including myself had to cover their ears until they got used to the sensation. Our seats were at an excellent vantage point, and we could clearly see over half the track, including the finish line and all of the first and second turns. That gives you a sense of what’s going on in the race better than watching it on TV, where the camera angle is constantly switching around.

Well I’m no sports writer, so I won’t attempt to lay out the race happenings. We stuck around for the first ninety laps or so, eating a bit of stadium food and learning more about race strategies and such. Definitely a fun and very interesting experience, but my attention span for things I don’t understand is pretty slim. Eventually we got restless and decided to go exploring...

Other than watching and enjoying the race, I also hoped to meet some people from EA Sports and maybe net a quick interview or even just a comment. We weren’t sure where to look for such people, but I figured the NASCAR Thunder demo tent was a good place to start. It was located just outside the SuperSpeedway gates, and visitors before the race could stop by and test out the Xbox version of NASCAR Thunder. Unfortunately, a crew was taking down all the hardware by the time we arrived, since it was really a pre-race kind of thing. I asked one of the guys if he worked for EA or knew anyone that did, but he was clueless.

Disappointed, we walked on and kept exploring the area. Eventually we arrived at a huge group of truck trailers, each with a different driver’s logos and stuff on it. I initially thought they were the trucks used to transport the stock cars around, but it turns out that they’re for selling souvenirs to fans during race week. None of us was too interested in shelling out twenty bucks for a Jeff Gordon shirt, but I must admit that the $79 diecast Viagra 18-wheeler model was tempting. I did get a crappy strawberry smoothie from a coffee-shop vendor, and we decided to head back and catch the last part of the race.

On the way back we passed the Xbox tent again, and I stuck my head inside to see what was up. Surprisingly, there was one kiosk still intact, and two kids were playing the NASCAR game on it. A third kid was apparently giving a testimonial to a camera crew...I was interested in hearing what he would say, and I also wanted to check out the game, so we waited around until the kids cleared out of there.

Taylor and I went straight to the Xbox and picked up the race that those kids had left running. I spent a few seconds gawking at the enormous Xbox controller – I must admit that the joysticks and analog triggers feel great, but the button construction/placement is awful. Well, the guy in charge of that camera crew almost immediately approached Taylor and asked if they could interview him about the game. We both found this rather silly since we’d been playing for all of ten seconds, and this was Taylor’s first chance to even see an Xbox, but the guys seemed to not care. So, Taylor proceeded to talk at length about the game and system, while I played in the background and tried my best not to bust out laughing. You’ve never heard bullshit until you’ve heard Taylor’s Xbox bullshit...it was CLASSIC. Somehow he got into a theory that Bill Gates must be a NASCAR driver at heart or something like that, and the interview guy was eating it up with a spoon.

After a minute at most, they asked me to say a few words too. I started explaining that I hadn’t played the game enough to form impressions, and I almost mentioned that I’m a Nintendo journalist, but hell, why pass up a funny opportunity? Now, I’m not nearly as verbally stable as Taylor, especially under pressure, but they ended up talking to me for a lot longer. I was doing my best to be honest and optimistic about the game, citing such “exciting” features as the two-player mode and the ability to drive in a first-person view. There are surely lots of truly interesting aspects to the game that I could have talked about, but I’d only played long enough to figure out which trigger was gas and which was brake...so I pretty much had to BS my way through the interview.

The interview dude thanked me when it was over, and I figured that he owed me for my participation, so I tried to work the PR skills. Turns out that he doesn’t directly work for Microsoft or EA, but rather a video production company. The interviews they shot will be edited and made into a “video news release” tape, which will be sent out to local news stations and the like. Then it’s up to the individual news stations to take soundbytes from the tape and use them at their discretion. So who knows, you may see ol’ Jonny pimping the Xbox sometime in November on your local news broadcast. I felt kinda bad about doing something like that, since I’m such a big GameCube fan and all, but then I realized how terribly funny the whole situation was. Especially Taylor’s comments...wow, I’d love to have a copy of that.

Before leaving, I took a shot in the dark and asked the interviewer if he knew where EA’s people were located. He said Suite #16, and we immediately headed for the track to find the place. After walking forever, we came upon Suite #16, but the security guard wouldn’t let me in. Apparently you need a special pass to get in there, and no business card or negotiating would do the trick. Then the guard made some comment that number sixteen was the Pepsi suite, so I asked her which one housed the EA Sports folks. She pulled out a list, and not a single one of the suites on there was for EA Sports. So, slightly disappointed, we went back to our seats (which happened to be very close to #16) to watch the end of the race.

It was on lap 140 (out of 188 total) by then, and strangely, there hadn’t been any big crashes yet. Kellen and I didn’t have any trouble jumping back into the excitement...by this time I’d learned at least enough about the racing to enjoy it. I think Taylor was a bit bored, so it surprised me when he was the only one who wanted to stay for the end. You may think it pretty crazy to leave with less than twenty laps to go, but I’d heard plenty of horror stories about getting out of Talladega on race day...and sorry, being stuck in traffic for four hours just isn’t my idea of a good time. We said goodbye to the race and began the twenty-minute walk back to my car, and thankfully, we pulled out of there just as Dale Jr. won the race, so almost everyone else was still in the stands. The one-hour journey into the Talladega SuperSpeedway took all of five minutes going the other way, and soon we were on Highway 280 and headed back to Auburn.

Looking back, I must admit that EA’s overall presence was less than I’d expected. I did see at least one drunk fellow wearing an EA racing t-shirt, but we certainly didn’t see the level of mass gaming propaganda that I was hoping for. Still, I can’t help but think that EA Sports introduced the prospect of virtual NASCAR racing to a whole lot of people who wouldn’t have thought twice about it before, and that makes me happy. There are tons of the usual 18-34 male demographic at NASCAR events, but there are also massive numbers of older men, kids and teenagers, and even women who can be just as fanatical (if not more so) about the race, and I wish I knew to what extent they were all affected by the EA Sports sponsorship this year. Then again, I’m sure the Xbox tent was quite popular before the race, and there was definitely a hint of surreality in playing an unreleased system and game just 100 yards away from a true monument to redneck culture. NASCAR fans are known to be very highly receptive to advertising in their sport, and I think EA Sports is going to be quite a popular company in Alabama by the end of the company’s three-year contract with Talladega.

So that’s the story of how I went to the races and ended up making an Xbox commercial. We all three had a blast, and I highly recommend visiting one of these races to anyone who’s mildly curious about such things...once you start understanding the intricacies of racing at 185 miles per hour, NASCAR stops being a mindless circular chicken-run and starts becoming a complex, high-speed chess match. Anyway, I’m very glad I got to attend the event; it definitely changed the way I thought about racing and even about EA Sports.

Very special thanks go out to EA’s Scott Gamel for all his help!

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