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Confessions of a reluctant NASCAR fan

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One of the things I like most about being a journalist is that I never can be sure what a workday will bring.

Take last week, for example. When I woke up on Thursday I scarcely could have imagined that I would spend part of the day barreling around the 1.5-mile track at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

For starters, I’m not a NASCAR fan.

OK, let’s go back to the beginning and I’ll tell you how I got there.

It seems the good folks at the Cabarrus County Convention & Visitors Bureau are feeling pretty good about the things their community has accomplished. So much so, in fact, that they frequently invite outsiders to sample what Cabarrus has to offer.

One of their outreach efforts is geared toward African American ministers.

To acquaint black preachers with the Speedway, they recently invited six to take part in the Richard Petty Driving Experience. The Petty experience has several packages at various price points, but on this day the preachers were invited to ride shotgun for three laps around the track – absolutely free.

The invited guests were:

The Rev. Jerry Cannon, senior pastor of C.N. Jenkins Memorial Presbyterian Church
The Rev. Michael Suber of C.N. Jenkins
The Rev. Eustacia Marshall of C.N. Jenkins
The Rev. Veronica Cannon of Davidson College Presbyterian Church
The Rev. Casey Kimbrough, senior pastor of Mount Carmel Baptist Church
The Rev. Ricky A. Woods, senior pastor of First Baptist Church-West
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Story continues below

The Rev. Jerry Cannon, senior pastor of C.N. Jenkins Memorial Presbyterian Church, is all smiles as he climbs into car No. 43. He later confessed that he kept his hands folded in prayer for the entire three-lap ride at Charlotte Motor Speedway. (Photo: Qcitymetro.com)
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As fate would have it, one of the aforementioned preachers (I’ll let you guess which one) thought better of it and decided to opt out. That’s how I ended up going.

I arrived at the track around 3 p.m. and was instantly awed by the size of this modern-day coliseum. To say that the Speedway is massive would be an understatement.

Veronica Cannon was already there, and her husband, Jerry Cannon, would arrive shortly thereafter. After signing the required release forms we got suited up and headed down to the pit area, where we were fitted with helmets and a Hans device -- the neck and head restraint that, some say, might have saved the life of Dale Earnhardt Sr.

My car was No. 18. It had no door or windows and no real seats, for that matter. After climbing through an opening where a passenger-side window should have been, I got strapped in.

Let me say, I’ve never considered myself a coward – I’ve covered wars and civil conflicts on two continents – but being strapped so tightly into that seat, if you want to call it a seat, was almost too much.

No padding. No carpet. No plush accessories. Just a lot of support beams, roll bars and galvanized steel.

The man who was assisting me showed me how to release the straps in case of a crash and how to lower the netting that covered the window opening.

I could feel my anxiety mounting.

“Hi, what’s your name,” I heard the driver say.

I turned quickly to find myself staring into what were clearly two feminine eyes peeking out from behind a visor attached to a black helmet.

"Oh, hell, I’m dead," I thought to myself. (I’m just lucky I didn’t say it out loud.)

I tried to make small talk while trying to pump this woman for information that might yield clues to her skills and/or qualifications. It wasn’t too late to climb out of there, after all. I’m sure she could smell my sexist doubts a mile away.
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The Rev. Veronica Cannon of Davidson College Presbyterian Church is prepped for her NASCAR debut. (Photo: Qcitymetro.com)
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When it came our time to go, we were off like a bullet – zero to Wow! in no time flat.

Nothing I have ever done prepared me for this thrill. Hitting those 24-degree banked corners, my body felt like it weighed 1,000 pounds. The noise from the engine was deafening. The G-forces at times left me slightly disoriented. We hit speeds of 160 or better.

The three laps went by faster than I imagined they would, and toward the end I found myself wanting the driver to push it even faster, maybe even overtake the car that was just off our front bumper.

I left the track that day with a newfound respect for what NASCAR drivers do… be they male or female. Clearly, TV does not do this sport justice.

The preachers and other church members who were with me clearly were as impressed as I was.

“Wow!” they all said after climbing out of their cars.

Much has been written about NASCAR’s efforts to diversify its fan base to include more African Americans. I’ve got an idea. Strap a few more church folks inside a car some spring-like day for the high-speed ride of their lives. They’ll leave as fans. Guaranteed.

***
Glenn Burkins is editor and publisher of Qcitymetro.com. Email him at editor@qcitymetro.com.

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April 24, 2014
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