I grew up watching NASCAR with my late father and we were able to watch a race at Martinsville Speedway in Virginia before he passed, but it was always on our bucket list to get behind-the-scenes access to the garages and to be able to meet the drivers. Of course, my dream was to report on a race and to be able to talk to the drivers I’ve grown up watching and admiring.

Like the legendary NASCAR commentator Darrell Waltrip would always say “Boogity, boogity, boogity let’s go racing boys and girls” and I sure saw some great racing at Kentucky Speedway over the past couple days.

I attended my first truck series race on Thursday in the Gander Truck Series Buckle Up in Your Truck 225. Going into the truck race I wasn’t really sure what to expect since I’ve only watched NASCAR for the most part, but I was still super excited to have the chance to cover it and talk to some drivers that are household names and if not, will be someday.

I had the chance to interview Louisville native Ben Rhodes that afternoon and that was easily one of the favorite interviews I’ve been a part of in my young journalism career. He was very easy to talk to and a really nice guy. He was an open book and probably could have talked for hours. I’ve watched him race on TV and seen him on the news many times, but to be in front of him and to be able to talk to a 2018 Kentucky Speedway Truck Series champ was an awesome experience.

I saw both sides of drivers on Thursday from confident and happy drivers like Rhodes, Cole Custer, Brett Moffitt and upset, well more angry, drivers like Xfinity racer, Justin Haley. He was upset about the conditions of the garage area that caused his car to be damaged.

I’ve seen athletes mad before, especially covering Eastern Kentucky University football games for the Eastern Progress newspaper, but it was a different experience for me seeing a professional driver that mad.

Before the race, we can’t forget about the free dinner for the media. That time also gave me the chance to meet other media members and to learn what they go through to cover races. I talked to many media members who travel to just about every race, which takes dedication. Local media was there too, like WLKY, WHAS11 and WAVE3. They are the definition of great people and even better journalists. It was neat to watch them work and to be elbow and elbow with them while we spoke to drivers.

Eighteen-year-old Tyler Ankrum won the truck race after Moffitt ran out of fuel with two laps remaining. This was Ankrum’s first truck series win so you know the post-race press conference was special for him and his team. He was very thankful and proud. It was good to see a young kid win and he was eligible for the playoffs after that win. Ankrum mentioned how this season has been a learning process for him and I can relate as a young journalist learning and learning how to cover a new sport like NASCAR.

Saturday’s Quaker State 400 had a lot of excitement surrounding it. After interviewing new Cincinnati Bengals coach Zac Taylor and Larry McReynolds I walked around the garages as the teams made any last-minute adjustments and started rolling the cars out on the track. I probably looked like a kid in a candy store. It was amazing to be in arm’s length of those expensive and stunning race cars.

As one team was pushing their car out of the garage area, I witnessed a few kids that were fans of the driver wave at the crew and a crew member waved them over to help push the car out to pit road. That’s what sports is all about. I love to see people be kind to others and sports can bring the best out of people. I bet that made the kids day and probably year.

The race was nothing short of thrilling from start to finish. The battle with 10 laps remaining was a lot of fun to cover as a journalist and on the final lap it came down to the Busch brothers. Kurt came out on top of his younger brother Kyle. As I ran through the underground tunnel that goes under the race track to the infield, I was hoping I could make it to victory lane on time. I made it and fought my way through the sea of media and cameramen to get pictures of Kurt celebrating and I even got sprayed with champagne but it was worth it for the video I got of the celebration.

The skills and teamwork that goes into NASCAR racing is unbelievable. Some people say all they do is take left turns, but it’s more than that. The strategy, communication between crew chiefs, spotters and the drivers are like clockwork. The aggressive and skillful driving is amazing to watch.

This was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and it was a great learning experience. I learned even more about the importance of deadlines as I had to write an article after the post-race press conference and send it in before our deadline. I also learned more about what it takes to be a sports journalist and to cover an event like NASCAR. I was able to meet some really good people and interview drivers, a professional football coach, legendary NASCAR commentator and Secretary of the Department of Transportation, Elaine Chao.

I believe it is important to take every opportunity that comes your way and especially once-in-a-lifetime opportunities like covering a big event like NASCAR in your home state.

NASCAR only comes to Kentucky once a year so next year make sure you make the trip to Sparta for at least one race and experience a thrilling night of racing.

Zachery Combest can be reached at 270-505-1754 or zcombest@thenewsenterprise.com.

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