LOUDON - Two weeks of building anticipation weren't enough to prepare Brooke Lane for the excitement of her first NASCAR race and a visit to the garage area inside the track at New Hampshire Motor Speedway on Saturday.
And the 10-year-old girl's expectations were pretty high.
"I was really, really, really excited," she said, proudly displaying autographs she got earlier in the day from drivers Danica Patrick and Joey Logano. "I think it's really cool."
Brooke's excitement was shared by adults who strolled by the garages and were surprised at how accommodating the people working inside were just hours before the start of NASCAR Nationwide Series New England 200. Not everybody is fortunate enough to get access to the garages and pit row, but those who do feel welcome as they're invited for a closer look at the cars, or even a chance to meet a driver.
"It's an experience like no other," said Erica King of Loudon. "When you're in the stands, you're just seeing them go around the track."
King, an accountant for the New Hampshire National Guard in Concord, has been to many races at NHMS but Saturday was just her second time with NASCAR's version of a backstage pass. Enjoying the shade under driver Casey Mears' car hauler, she recalled seeing NASCAR star Dale Earnhardt Jr. swarmed by autograph seekers earlier in the day. When a crew member tried wrapping up the session to get Earnhardt inside the garage, King said "Junior" refused.
"He said no, 'I'm signing for everybody that stayed,' which I thought was great," King said. "That was very impressive."
Autograph requests are common and drivers oblige, signing whatever memorabilia is thrust in front of them and smiling for pictures.Veteran driver Brendan Gaughan was signing hats just a few minutes before climbing in his No. 62 Chevy Camaro for Saturday's race. He didn't hesitate at the requests, one to sign a hat a second time because his earlier signature had faded over time. He even thanked the fans for stopping by. Gaughan, who played basketball and football at Georgetown University, said racing is a different kind of sport when it comes to interaction with NASCAR's legion of fans, who lead to the sponsorships that fund the teams.
"What pays our bills are the fans. We understand that better than any sport," he said. "Every one of them is special to this sport. This is what we do and what we're getting paid for. As soon that window net goes on and I get the helmet on, I get 2 ½ minutes to get focused and be in my time. Until then, it's about doing the job."
Saturday's events were a buildup to the weekend's signature event - the Sprint Cup Series Camping World RV Sales 301. It's the first of two annual Sprint Cup stops in Loudon, which draws fans from throughout New England in July and again in September.
It's such a draw that the state expands the lanes on Interstate 93 to accommodate the surge of traffic coming north before the race and then heading south after.
Brian Geel, Brooke's uncle, brought his niece along with his wife and young son from Bristol, Conn.
"This is our first time ever at a race. It's amazing. It's so cool to see what goes on," he said. "I thought we would just see a couple of cars and take a picture. But it's really cool. You can walk right up to them. It's neat."