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THE PEPSI 500

Camp NASCAR

Thousands of fans converge at the series' 36 races a year and prefer to stay in their RVs on the track's infield instead of in hotels.

August 29, 2008|Jim Peltz | Times Staff Writer

William Hambly climbs inside his 26-foot camper/trailer, opens one of its brown cupboards and carefully pulls out several folded flags that he stores in clear plastic bags.

The flags feature the images and car numbers of such top NASCAR drivers as Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jimmie Johnson and Mark Martin.

"This is one of my favorites," Hambly says while unfurling one flag that features a stylized logo of legendary NASCAR driver Richard Petty and includes Petty's autograph in the upper right corner.

Hambly and his wife, Gini, have their flags hoisted at the Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, where they've parked their trailer on the infield for a four-day stay.

The Hamblys, a San Marcos couple whose marriage and love of NASCAR span 30 years, arrived Thursday for Sunday's Pepsi 500 race, the next event in stock-car racing's premier Sprint Cup Series.

They are among thousands of NASCAR fans who converge at the series' 36 races a year and prefer to stay in their RVs on the track infield instead of in hotels.

"It's a family thing," William Hambly said. "I wouldn't go to the races and sit in the stands all Sunday long with the kids. You're at your trailer, your home, your bathroom, all your food is there."

The camping contingent is a key part of NASCAR's culture. A sea of motor homes and campers parked tightly together can be seen at every track, many with high-perched flags or hand-made banners trumpeting the fans' favorite drivers.

"It's like living in a little city, there's just so much going on all the time," said Donald Gandy of Visalia, who has been taking his RV to Auto Club Speedway since the track, formerly California Speedway, opened in 1997.

The campers are a spectator group that considers itself among NASCAR's most loyal and one that track operators such as Auto Club Speedway nurture to help ensure their races turn a profit.

This weekend, for instance, the speedway plans to hold concerts, give away prizes and show a movie on its giant TV screens for the infield crowd. "RV guests are a huge part of what makes a race weekend special," said track President Gillian Zucker, whose facility has 1,900 infield camping spaces and 800 more outside the track.

For the Hamblys, camping at the races is like a mini-vacation. They've been taking their children -- Justin, now 25, and Beth, 20, along with other relatives and friends -- for years to NASCAR races, mainly in Phoenix and Fontana.

"We get together and we talk about racing, and we have some beer and cocktails. Everybody's got their flags up and their [NASCAR] shirts on and their hats on and it's all good fun," Gini said.

There's also the thrill of rooting for their favorite drivers.

"I like [Earnhardt] Junior, everybody does . . . and I'm starting to like Robby Gordon," Gini said. "It's easier now to say who my least favorite driver is."

Then she paused, as though she couldn't bring herself to say his name. So William said it for her: "Kyle Busch."

After towing their trailer with William's pickup truck, the Hamblys parked Thursday in a pre-assigned spot in the infield of the 565-acre facility, surrounded by the two-mile oval track and perched next to friends they see only once or twice a year on race weekends.

William, a 52-year-old plumbing contractor, sits in a chair atop the trailer to watch the cars speed by on the track. He also listens to a scanner, eavesdropping on drivers and NASCAR officials. "I love my racing," he said. "You've got all that horsepower. It wakes you up in the morning. You're vibrating all day long."

Hambly also likes to barbecue. "I'll cook up like a 16, 17-pound prime rib for four or five hours," along with hamburgers and hot dogs, he said.

Gini has a fear of heights, so she stays on the ground. "I have the TV, but I don't need to watch the race, it's just fun being there," she said.

What's the weekend cost? To get their infield spot at Auto Club Speedway, the Hamblys bought a flat-rate package to both NASCAR weekends -- the Fontana track hosts Cup races on Labor Day weekend and in late-February -- for about $950, or $475 per weekend.

That earned them a camping spot for four days, admission for Sunday's Cup race and to NASCAR's second-tier Nationwide Series race Saturday night, plus practice and qualifying sessions and access to much of the sprawling infield. "It's a lot cheaper than staying in a hotel . . . and then you're eating out," Gini said.

There's also the cost of diesel fuel for William's truck. From their house in San Marcos in San Diego County, that amounts to $150 round trip for the Fontana race and $450 for the Phoenix race.

Some infield dwellers move to the grandstands on race day, including Gandy, the Visalia fan.

Before the Fontana track was built, Gandy paid $1,200 for the right to buy season tickets for two prized seats at the start/finish line each year. Those tickets cost $850 this year, plus he had to pay to park his 38-foot Monaco motor home in the infield.

Gandy, a 73-year-old fan of Mark Martin and Carl Edwards, said he sits in the grandstands on race day so he can see most of the track. Otherwise, he prefers the infield. "I have good neighbors on both sides of me," he said. "We have big cookouts, people have water guns squirting each other."

The Hamblys acknowledged that high fuel prices this year made them think twice about attending some races.

"We've talked about it, but when it comes down to it," William said, stopping in mid-sentence. Then Gini completed his thought: "We know we won't do it."

For them, NASCAR's allure is too great.

"There are people who couldn't understand how you could watch something going in circles," William said. "But when I got them to the infield and had them spend a couple of days there, they were hooked."

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james.peltz@latimes.com

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THE PEPSI 500

Sunday at Auto Club Speedway, 5 p.m., ESPN

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