Viva Las Vegas!

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

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Justin Kent (left), Wayne Anthony (center) and IMS President and CEO Jeff Belskus at the NASCAR Sprint Cup Awards Ceremony in Las Vegas. Anthony won the Race to Vegas Sweepstakes from IMS and took his son, Justin, on the free trip to Las Vegas.

Note: Wayne Anthony, from Martinsville, Ind., won the Super Weekend Race to Vegas Sweepstakes and was rewarded with an all-expenses-paid trip for two to Las Vegas on Dec. 1-2 for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Awards Ceremony at the Wynn Las Vegas. Anthony, 50, was entered into the annual contest when he renewed his tickets for the 2012 Crown Royal presents the “Your Hero’s Name Here” 400 at the Brickyard at www.imstix.com. Anthony shares his memories and impressions of the trip in this column.

At first, I couldn’t believe what I heard. The company that handled the sweepstakes for the Speedway called and left a message on my answering machine indicating I had won the Race to Vegas Sweepstakes.

I remembered checking the box to enter the sweepstakes when I renewed my tickets for the race. But winning it? Come on.

So I called the Speedway, and sure enough, it was true. My son, Justin, and I were heading to Vegas. What a trip of a lifetime. What a chance of a lifetime!

My son and I started following Tony Stewart his last full season in the IZOD IndyCar Series, in 1998, with Team Menard. We stayed with Smoke when he jumped to Cup full time in 1999 and never have stopped supporting him, even when he wasn’t the most popular guy in the series, proudly wearing the orange colors of his sponsor Home Depot during those years, even if it meant we were booed at the track!

So it was even more special to take this trip knowing that our favorite driver was going to be the main man at the head table, the champion.

I’ve been around racing and have been a fan of the sport for a long time. I worked for an AMA Superbike team in Colorado for quite a few years. The owner of the team, Judy Dominick, also was Tony’s PR person early in his career. Talk about a small world! My uncle also owned an open-wheeled NASCAR Modified team in Connecticut throughout the 1970s, and I’ve always enjoyed attending oval races at IMS and other tracks around the country.

But none of that prepared Justin and me for the thrill and spectacle of NASCAR in Vegas.

Justin and I arrived in Vegas Thursday, Dec. 1 and hopped a cab to the Venetian. We didn’t waste any time, finding a schedule of events and diving in.

We decided to head to the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino, where we had access to the After The Lap party for drivers after they completed their lap of honor on Las Vegas Boulevard. We grabbed a table on the balcony and checked out the scene. Jeff Gordon stunned everyone – including me – when he started break-dancing on the floor at that party! That was something.

Friday was the big day, packed with activity. Justin and I started the day by meeting and having lunch with IMS Vice President of Marketing Mark Dill, who gave us our tickets for the Awards Ceremony. Mark also kindly took pictures of Justin and me with the Sprint Cup, which was very gracious.

Then it was time to go back to the room and scrub up for the Awards Ceremony. Justin and I were among about 200 contest winners like us lucky enough to have access to the special Fan Reception, where we got a chance to see the drivers and their guests up close and ask questions of the drivers. Each driver came out to talk with fans for about five minutes, and they were so relaxed and personable. You could see how they enjoyed being away from the stress and pressure of a race weekend.

We were able to follow the drivers toward the Red Carpet. All of the top NASCAR drivers and owners were there, and we were able to get some very cool pictures adjacent to the Red Carpet, including Justin with team owner Joe Gibbs.

The entire scene was very well organized. We never felt rushed. And the credentials we received granted us total access, which was so cool.

The Awards Ceremony was so nice. After the Ceremony, Justin and I just sat back and performed one of the best parts of any Vegas trip – people-watching. But these weren’t ordinary people; they were NASCAR superstars.

Still, I was struck at how normal and down-to-earth the star drivers, crew chiefs and owners seemed. There also were a few other surprises. I’ve been a NASCAR fan for a long time, but I had no idea Jack Roush was so short! It was very neat to be so close to so many legends.

There was one other very impressive thread of the Ceremony that’s worth a mention. I don’t want this to sound wrong, especially in these tough economic times, but I was so impressed at the money that NASCAR spent to make everything so classy at the ceremony. There was such attention to detail, so many nice touches. Everything was perfect, right down to the carpet that was embossed with the Awards Ceremony logo. Total professionalism. It was really something to see.

Racing and I have been friends for a long time. I’ve been in many pits, including NHRA, AMA and NASCAR. But seeing these drivers up close – and out of their focused, work environment at the track – helped me realize even more that they’re real people, with unique, fun personalities.

Kyle Busch probably was the biggest revelation. He was a really good talker, really engaging and funny, during the After The Lap party on Thursday. Justin and I definitely had a different, better impression of Kyle after this trip.

I also hope Jeff Gordon break-dances on stage at the Awards Ceremony if he wins the championship next season!

Bottom line: I’m already a fan, but this experience was so cool. To get this kind of access would make anyone a NASCAR fan. This Ceremony is not for us; it’s for the drivers, teams and their families. So it was such a privilege to be allowed into their world for one night.

Justin and I want to thank IMS for an experience we’ll never forget. The contest was very gracious of the Speedway – a great package.

This trip has hyped up Justin and me even more for the NASCAR race weekend next July at IMS. The Brickyard is a phenomenal place. Anyone who’s never been to a NASCAR race at the Speedway needs to go and see it. It’s that simple!