Several times a year at Texas Motor Speedway, class is in session. When the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series holds its races in far north Fort Worth in the spring and fall, Race Day U is an action-packed, value-loaded day at the races.
Just the term "day at the races" carries with it a prominent ring of quality father-son time. Race along with me if you want to know whether a morning of bonding is worth that hefty $199-per-person price tag.
My 10-year-old son, an automotive fanatic, and I arrived at the track at 8 a.m., which meant we mercifully missed heavy traffic and had our pick of the free parking. By 8:45 a.m., the Race Day U proceedings were well underway in a massive event tent just outside of Gate 2.
Opened in 1997, Texas Motor Speedway is second largest speedway in the United States, behind only the famed Brickyard of Indianapolis Motor Speedway, home of the Indy 500. It's a big victory to avoid the hassle of traffic and parking while getting some racing fun started before most attendees will even arrive at the track.
Race Day U gives deep-pocketed fans a chance to get close to a number of NASCAR stars via Q-and-A sessions hosted by popular 1310 the Ticket radio hosts Norm Hitzges and Donovan Lewis as well as pit road and track access afterward. Walking into the event tent, we were handed black drawstring backpacks that served as goody bags, filled with a number of collectibles, including an official race program and a 1:24 scale diecast #17 car. We also got earplugs, which we'd forgotten to bring and would come in handy later. There was a small breakfast taco station with coffee, juice and iced-down sodas available as well, included in the price.
At a few minutes past 9 a.m., Chip Gaines (of Fixer Upper fame, and the day's pace car driver) participated in a short interview with Hitzges as the 200 or so Race Day U "students" watched on. Over the next hour or so, several racing-related personalities would appear for on-stage interviews including Austin Dillon, Danica Patrick and NASCAR Hall of Famer Bobby Allison. The drivers graciously signed autographs to the side of the stage after their interviews. Given the swarming crowds gathering outside our tent, getting to meet the drivers in such a calm setting was a big win.
Having scored some grub, met a couple of drivers and snagged some souvenirs before 11 a.m., the day was feeling like a success already. But after entering the main gates into the grandstand area, where we accepted promotional Kevin Harvick bobblehead dolls, we made our way down onto the track and didn't stop there. If getting a couple of driver autographs made us feel like insiders, strolling along pit road made us feel like NASCAR officials.
Imagine you want to pay extra to be feet away from Dak Prescott as he stretches on the field before a Dallas Cowboys game, or to retrieve basketballs for Dirk Nowitzki on the court just before a Dallas Mavericks tip-off.
Scooting out of the way of a race car being pushed past? That's a unique thrill that isn't available at the other major sporting events in D-FW.
Add the up-front spots for the pre-race concert from Texas country star Pat Green, and I couldn't snap photos quickly enough to keep up with the memories my 10-year-old made.
It was when we got to our seats, located about halfway up the grandstand near turn four, just before the cars hit the finish line for each lap, that the value of this excursion really came into focus.
On the Turtle Waxed surface, the day was indeed the stuff of dude bonding: sights of dozens of colorful race cars, roaring sounds from under their hoods. But beneath the obvious muscle of the event lies the true heart — a time where this dad got to see his son smile as much in one day than he ever had before.
The next Race Day U is Sunday, April 8, 2018. The pre-race access that comes with Race Day U is also available as an upgrade to any race ticketholder.