By Brian Smith
When fans come to a race at Dover International Speedway, they leave having seen a great show on what’s traditionally one of NASCAR’s more entertaining tracks.
They also leave having realized — if they didn’t already know — that the race itself is just part of a great raceday experience available to all fans, and much of it is absolutely free.
For several years, Dover has set up the FanZone outside Turn 4 of the track. It’s near Victory Plaza, which is anchored by the Monster Monument, presented by AAA — a gigantic statue of Miles the Monster holding a full-size NASCAR stock car.
The huge midway area features all sorts of attractions and exhibits set up by various NASCAR sponsors and partners. You can do everything from buy a grill at the Camping World store to visit the antique tow trucks at the AAA exhibit. It includes the Monster FunZone, which has racing simulators, moon bounces, show car displays and many other great attractions for kids. All this is in addition to the live broadcasts of “NASCAR Trackside” and “NASCAR RaceDay” from the SPEED Stage in the FanZone.
This fall, there were many of the highly-anticipated driver appearances. Mark Martin, Clint Bowyer and Martin Truex, Jr. came out to the AAA Experience Display. Fans who took part in a Food Bank of Delaware meal packing event were able to go to a Q&A with Jeff Gordon.
It’s become a tradition at Dover for the winner of the most recent race to appear on the Monster Monument, and that continued this year when Jimmie Johnson came out to offer fans some insight on his quest for another NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship. But the talk wasn’t all about racing — he also spoke about what it’s like to be a father.
“It’s the coolest thing in the world,” Johnson said. “I thought I’d understand what it would be like to be a parent, but when my daughter was born and I met her, something was activated and something far bigger than I ever expected took place.”
Johnson is used to big crowds, but he had quite an opening act this time — he took the stage on the Monster Monument following retired Philadelphia Eagles safety Brian Dawkins, who was the Grand Marshal for the day’s main event, the “AAA 400” NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race. Dawkins was in Dover just hours before the Eagles retired his No. 20 jersey prior to that night’s game against the Giants, and there were many black-and-green No. 20 jerseys sprinkled in amongst the usual driver-based NASCAR attire in the crowd.
When Johnson was done, much of the crowd merely turned around and walked about 100 feet to the Victory Plaza stage for a great concert by country music group Lonestar, which also sang the national anthem prior to the green flag.
All in all, it’s an experience that’s hard to match anywhere — except maybe next time around at Dover, where it’s a mainstay.