Hours before the racers will start their engines at the Enjoy Illinois 300, NASCAR fans crowded the midway.
Getting up close and personal with the cars, and drivers, is a highlight of attending races. The midway — carnival rides, food, a remote control race car game, bands — is another.
Jeff Klingelhoefer, 40, of Troy, Illinois, was able to get an autograph from driver Joey Logano, and also from Logano’s pit crew.
“I’m a long-time NASCAR fan, I’m a mechanic myself, and I know how hard it is to keep up the cars. They’re a pivotal part of the team,” Klingelhoefer said after handing the Logano baseball cap over the fence to the pit crew for their signatures.
He said he felt like a kid in the candy store in the infield: “To me, it’s the best experience, you can watch them come into the pit stop.”
Races are better than a lot of sporting events because fans can get so close, he said: “You see stuff behind the scenes. Racing is more than going in circles all the time.”
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Kathy Mitrano, 64, of Salem, Illinois, and her husband Paul, 66, got tickets for Christmas; they’ll be 30 rows up at the start/finish line among 57,000 other fans in the sold-out crowd.
“You’re sitting up there and you hear all these engines and it just gets inside of you, it’s just exhilarating,” Kathy Mitrano said.
The couple already had a chance to talk to retired driver Kenny Wallace and got his autograph. The couple has attended other races at the racetrack, and have been impressed with the improvements over the years.
“They’ve done an amazing job, it’s really fan oriented. If they continue here, I’ll keep coming,” Mitrano said.
Kyle McIntire, 28, and his wife Brittany, 32, decided to make the weekend a family affair, bringing their 7-month-old and 9-year-old daughters, along with a 9-year-old cousin and grandparents. The race is Kyle McIntire’s sixth, but Brittany’s first.
The group were among thousands walking through the World Wide Technology Raceway’s fan zone and midway.
“It’s fun, definitely fun, there’s a lot to stay busy, especially for the kid,” said Brittany McIntire. The family drove from Springfield, Illinois, yesterday, drove back home after the race, and back again Sunday morning.
Of all the merchandise trailers, the longest line Sunday morning was for merchandise for the race itself.
David Scott, 59, and his friend Ron Wagher, 53, from Bloomington Illinois, have been to six NASCAR races.
“It’s one of those things. I wish someone paid me to go 160, 170 mph. I like the speed,” Scott said.
The pair said the logistics — how organizers were funning fans into parking and through entrances to the track — were different from other races they’ve been to, but so far they hadn’t experienced any major problems. They were curious to see their view from their seats.
Most Sunday morning fans were enjoying the activities (or shade behind the stands) instead of heading to their seats.
Dustin and Kara Mossberger, of St. Charles, hoisted their son Jackson, 4, onto Dustin’s shoulders after dropping a cooler off at their seats. The trio were headed into the midway; Jackson was attending his first race in person. He woke up Sunday morning ready to go, with his ticket in his hand.
More than 1,000 people are camping at the track, with fans excited to see NASCAR locally.
Kevin James, 56, of Hazelwood, was among them. Attending a NASCAR race to camp in the infield was on his bucket list, so he rented an RV and brought along his grandsons, Harrison, 14, and Hasani Hendrikson, 17, of St. Charles.
“Since it was here in St. Louis for its inaugural event, this was a perfect opportunity because it was so close to home. I’ve never been to a NASCAR race, and what better way to do it than in the infield in my hometown.”
The weekend brought many opportunities besides the races: a Nelly concert, pictures with Bubba Wallace, meeting friendly camp neighbors. James said he’d been to the race track before, and also praised the renovations.
“I think NASCAR will be back; I really do.” said Mitrano.
The show will unfold in front of 57,000 expected fans and a television audience on FS1 as St. Louis adds another major sporting event to its history.
St. Louis is set to be the center of the stock car racing world this weekend — and the Enjoy Illinois 300 is the hottest ticket in town.