For NASCAR fans it doesn't get any better than this: a rooftop vantage point to spend time with friends and watch the racing. From left are Barb Brown, Rosi Thompson, Rick Ayers and Shar Gamo. They'll be back atop Ayers' bus today for the Sirius 400.
BROOKLYN, Mich. - The busiest campground in the United States this weekend is not at Yellowstone National Park, or even at Yosemite.
And the crowd of campers at this place doesn't come for the flora and the fauna, or the fishing and the hiking.
The 2,600 campsites here are a highly-coveted commodity - you can't get one unless somebody dies and wills it to you.
These campers are the NASCAR faithful, and they are camped out in the eye of the hurricane - in the infield at Michigan International Speedway, roughly 60 miles northwest of Toledo.
“This is really a city, a city of race fans,” said Wendy McGlenn of Sylvania, whose family camps just inside the guardrail on Turn 1. “We used to sit in the stands, but here we're right next to the track and we never have to fight the traffic in and out of this place. We eat and sleep right here, and relax while the racing goes on all around us.”
The infield campers are just a small portion of the well over 100,000 fans who have filled MIS this weekend to watch the NASCAR and ARCA teams practice, qualify and race. If there is a race at MIS, they will come. It is Woodstock minus the drugs, plus a lot of exhaust fumes. OK, and maybe a Bud or two as well.
“This whole NASCAR thing is just one big family, and that's what you find in the infield campground, a family of about 20,000 race fans,” said Rick Ayers of North Baltimore, who drives a converted church bus full of friends into the infield for each race. The bus serves as the supply wagon and mess hall, and most of the party sleeps in an array of tents packed onto the camp site.
“A church in Arlington used this bus for their bible study group,” said Ayers, who works as a framing carpenter building new homes in Wood and Lucas counties.
“I got it for fourteen hundred bucks, and then spent maybe another six hundred outfitting it for camping. It gets us here and back, and the view of the race from the deck on top is great. We wake up to the sound of racing, and you can't beat that.”
Ayers has been coming to races at MIS since 1972, and eventually became a Davey Allison fan. After Allison was killed in a helicopter crash in 1993, Ayers switched his loyalty to a peach-fuzzed rookie named Jeff Gordon, whom he had seen race sprint cars on tracks in Findlay and Eldora, and who has since gone on to be one of the top drivers on the Winston Cup circuit.
“Most of the people here have a favorite driver, but we are all just racing fans first and foremost,” Ayers said. “I got the race fever many years ago, and I've had it ever since. I take vacation time so I can get here early and stay late, because the campground on the infield has about the friendliest bunch of people you'd ever find. You never meet a stranger here.”
The infield is an eclectic collection of $200,000 motor homes with air conditioning and satellite television, simple canvas tents and the hybrid contraptions like Ayers' ex-bible studymobile.
The campers pay $175 to set up along the guardrail; the sites inside that go for $125. They pay an additional $80 per individual for a wrist-band pass that covers all the events associated with the race, and each campsite can purchase up to 10 such passes. To watch the race from the stands, you will need an additional ticket.
Barb Brown of Bowling Green is excited to be at Michigan International Speedway -- and that was just for yesterday's Winston Cup practice session.
From the air, the infield looks like the place old school buses go when they retire.
“Race fans get creative with these old buses, because they're pretty sturdy and you can do a lot of things with them,” said Rosi Thompson of Bowling Green. “You'll see some of them painted up really fancy just like a race car, and some of them look like they'll never make it home. Each one is unique, and they seem perfect for this type of camping.”
Like many of the fans in the MIS infield, Thompson spends Thursday through Monday during race week in the campground. She started out as a Dale Earnhardt fan, and has followed his son since Earnhardt's death at Daytona two years ago.
“You come here for the thrill of listening to these motors and feeling the vibration as the cars fly past on the track,” Thompson said. “But what brings you back over and over is the people. There is such a unique bond between all the fans here. You've got thousands of people camped out side-by-side, and there is really no trouble at all. Everyone enjoys the racing, and is sensible about it.”
McGlenn and her husband Brian camp out in a modest, conventional camping trailer and bring along sons Jason, 17, and Josh, 16, and a revolving assortment of friends. Brittany Robinson, a 16-year-old who will be a junior at Start this fall, is a regular at the McGlenn campsite.
“There's a real social atmosphere in the infield, but it doesn't get too crazy,” Robinson said. “I'm not a diehard racing fan, but I'm more than a casual fan so I love it here. I kind of grew up watching racing, and coming here is kind of a traditional thing. If there is a race, this seems like the place to be.”
McGlenn, who works at Midwest Products Finishing in Ottawa Lake, said the camaraderie in the campground is such that there is a party-like atmosphere, but it is still safe and comfortable for families.
“Where else can you see fans who support different teams camp side-by-side for five days and cheer for each other and get along like this?” McGlenn said. “In other sports there are only two teams; out here there are 43 teams and we root for each other. If this was Ohio State against Michigan, the fans would be fighting with each other if they were this close.”
McGlenn's husband comes to the track a week before the race and camps out across the road from MIS on Sunday night, just so he can be one of the first campers through the gate when it opens early Monday morning. When the campers motor their way into the infield campground, they cross the same track where the Winston Cup cars will scream along at 200 miles per hour today.
“Rolling across the track - that is one of the coolest parts of the whole week,” McGlenn said. “As a racing fan you have a hard time not pulling on the wheel and turning onto the track. We want to be as close as possible to the action, and that's why we're here.”