By Kevin Kelly

The phrase "bucket list" is tossed around a lot these days.

Websites and news stories tell us about things we should do or places we should go before it's too late. Seeing the Northern Lights. Skydiving. Getting a tattoo. Swimming with dolphins. Going on a cruise. Running a marathon. Standing in the shadows of the Great Pyramids in Egypt.

If you're any kind of follower of NASCAR, trekking to the Last Great Colosseum for the IRWIN Tools Night Race has to be high up on your list.

It was mine, ever since Dale Earnhardt only meant to rattle Terry Labonte's cage back in 1999.

The wonders of modern technology make it easier than ever to enjoy a sporting event from the comfort of your living room. But let's be honest. It's not the same.

High definition television has revolutionized the in-home viewing experience but it cannot duplicate the thrill of being there; experiencing the sights, the smells, the sounds, the emotions of being part of a major sporting event.

And what better way to soak in the Bristol short track experience than by bringing the living room with you and staying in one of the campgrounds?

My home away from home for the weekend was parked in a gravel spot outlined with white paint in Section H of the Dragstrip Campground that overlooks Bristol Dragway.

Occupying the RV "next door" were Allen and Joey Brown.

The brothers from Fayetteville, N.C. entered a contest called the Ultimate Bristol Weekend sweepstakes at the last minute, and won the thing.

Their prize? On-site accommodations. A parking pass. Race weekend tickets. A $500 travel stipend. Hot passes for the IRWIN Tools Night Race. Entrance to the Sprint Cup Drivers meeting. Groceries from Food City. Four cases of Pepsi products, which helped explain why they offered me a Diet Pepsi. A Bristol Motor Speedway prize pack.

They couldn't believe their good fortune.

"We didn't think it was real at first," Allen Brown said. "I needed to see some proof. The waivers finally came in and I said this is for real. I'm glad."

It was Joey's first NASCAR race. For the Jeff Gordon fan, the highlights were many.

"The people are so nice here," he said. "And it's like the ultimate. You get to come and experience everything. To walk down while your favorite driver is signing autographs, to walk beside him, everybody is on this side of the gate and you're on this side with the driver, you just feel like you're part of the team. It's great."

The Dragstrip Campground is like a pop-up community on the outskirts of a big city.

Georgia, Indiana, Illinois, Ohio, the Carolinas, Maryland, Kentucky and the Canadian province of Ontario were represented on license plates in my immediate vicinity in Section H of the campground.

People return every year to have a good time and enjoy some of the most entertaining racing NASCAR has to offer these days.

It's a welcoming atmosphere, like a backyard barbecue in a lot of ways. Fire up the grill. Pour some drinks. Turn up the radio. Play cornhole into the wee hours. Enjoy the time with friends and family. Maybe get a little rowdy.

Flags fly in support of favorite drivers.

A Happy Birthday sign hung from the antenna and passenger side mirror of one family's pickup truck. One group from Indiana brought their "puppy," a Saint Bernard-Great Pyrenees mix that looked no more like a "puppy" than I resemble Matthew McConaughey.

Set between two campers parked side-by-side - one towed by a Ford, the other by a Chevy - a woman assembled a mannequin and sat it in a lawn chair. It held a sign that sign that pointed to one side and read, "Camping with stupid."

Bristol is not something to experience alone, which is why I called a friend who had never been to Thunder Valley and convinced him to take a last-minute road trip.

Campground amenities include unlimited access to the shower house and free tram service to and from the track. To be honest, I was a little leery about the whole shower house thing.

A clean shower stall and ample hot water washed any reservations away. My advice: arrive early to beat the morning rush, don't forget a towel, soap and shampoo. This isn't a hotel. And your mom isn't coming to pick up the washcloth you left on the shower floor.

If you're a people watcher, the sights are many at Bristol.

I walked the grounds Friday and again Saturday before the race. As I told Tom Taylor, host of BristolLIVE, the energy reminded me of a state fair. Just a sea of people having a lot of fun.

The midway included a zip line and ferris wheel for the kids and plenty else for the whole family, including rides in the back of a monster truck.

In one stretch of the massive display area between the track and the campground, you had a band playing country music next to a mechanical bull next to a booth promoting the Battle At Bristol.

Billed as college football's biggest game ever, the University of Tennessee will play Virginia Tech on Sept. 10, 2016 as Bristol Motor Speedway transforms from legendary short track to football stadium. Yard lines were marked on the asphalt in the infield garage.

Steps away from the stage, attractive bartenders were serving up Ole Smoky Mountain Moonshine and trying to position themselves to be in the background of a TV show broadcasting live.

I asked Chelsea the bartender to recommend a flavor of Ole Smoky Moonshine. Without hesitating, she suggested Hunch Punch mixed with Mountain Dew. My buddy in the "Dale Yeah" t-shirt ordered a shot of Sweet Tea.

I pulled out my notebook as I sipped my refreshment in the shade and asked Chelsea, a Bristol resident, about the significance of the night race.

"I feel like people look forward to it coming because local sales go up," she said.

More importantly, had she ever sipped the kind of moonshine that isn't available in stores? Yes, she freely admitted.

I needed something in my stomach beside Hunch Punch.

Thankfully, the choices were plentiful, and one in particular stood out; a caloric concoction that its creators from Mooresville, N.C. dubbed the, "BBQ Sundae." The sandwich board set up in front of the food truck advertised the $9 offering as Gluten Free.

What's in a BBQ Sundae? A whole lot of gastro goodness, that's what.

Take a clear Solo-style cup and layer the ingredients like sand art. Baked beans. Pulled pork. Coleslaw. More pulled pork, with a slathering of tangy barbecue sauce. All garnished with a pickle spear.

Finishing it felt like a victory, celebrated quickly thereafter with a glorious nap before gearing up for the race.

Part of my weekend assignment included covering the race for BristolMotorSpeedway.com, which meant being inside the track long before the green flag. Wynonna Judd played the pre-race concert and I spotted captain "Wild" Bill Wichrowski of "Deadliest Catch" fame posing for photos in the garage.

Bristol is something to behold from the outside. But being on the floor with rows of seats rising high into the sky defies description.

An energy filled the place that I can only liken to the atmosphere before an NFL playoff game or Southeastern Conference football game between rival schools.

NASCAR wants Game 7 moments. Bristol delivers year-in and year-out. The passion from drivers and fans is palpable. It is scrappy short track racing at the highest level.

As I settled into my seat in the press box high above Turns 3 and 4, I looked out over the crowd and couldn't help but think to myself that my bucket list now was one item shorter. And that I would find a way to get back soon.

That's Bristol, baby.


This story appeared in the Bristol Magazine - Winter Edition 2014

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