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Motor home away from home

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Behind his dark sunglasses, Richard Petty reviewed a thousand memories. He'd grown up in stock car racing. He went to the races with his father, Lee, a three-time Winston Cup champion, and he knew where the wives and children were supposed to be. And after he got married, he continued the family tradition during his racing career.

"We'd drive into the racetrack and leave the wives and kids in the infield with the drunks and go on to the race cars," Petty said.

It went on like that for decades. NASCAR drivers stayed in cheap hotels and their kids would play in the infield dirt under the scoreboards. The wives set up picnic tables in the sun or pulled down the tailgates on their station wagons and readied lunch for their husbands and often the entire crew. Then the wives would sit in steaming cars for hours, waiting for a race to end.

It wasn't exactly Southern comfort.

But over the past dozen years, the economic success of the Winston Cup Series has brought change -- family life at the racetrack. When a small business grows into a big corporation, it can mean longer hours and less time at home for workers. And though driving dads are part of a big business now -- and put in plenty of long days -- the accompanying big money has brought an unexpected bonus.

Nearly every driver now has a motor coach that serves as "home" for family and friends every weekend.

"The motor home was a big investment," said Nancy Andretti, the wife of driver John Andretti. "We have three children, ages 3, 7 and 9. If we didn't have the motor home, I don't know how we'd survive."

Wives and children have become welcome at the racetrack. You can see them out on pit road, hugging and kissing husbands and dads as they prepare to climb in the race cars.

Most drivers have custom-designed motor homes, and most tracks have an area set aside for their homes away from home.

In years past, the atmosphere could be anything but homey.

Into the mid-1980s, the wives and children stood with the beer drinkers in the long lines for portable toilets in the infield.

"Some of them couldn't wait," said Linda Rudd, driver Ricky Rudd's wife. "And they'd go out in the parking lots. It was bad."

Pattie Petty, who was a Miss Winston beauty queen before marrying Richard's son, Kyle, recalled her shock the first time she came to the track as Mrs. Kyle Petty.

"When I was Miss Winston, there were people who opened doors for me," Pattie Petty said. "When I needed a restroom, someone took me to one. When I came to the track as part of Kyle's family, I sat out in the car and when I attempted to go to the restroom -- where I had always before gone to the restroom -- I wasn't allowed in. There were absolutely no facilities for wives."

Said Richard Petty: "Oh, I think we asked NASCAR once to let the women in the garage area with us, but they said no, and that was that."

And that was that for a long time.

Pattie Petty said: "They left you in the infield. Kyle's mother was very used to that. She'd spend all Saturday night cooking turkeys or whatever to take to the track, because everyone came to you to picnic and listen to the race in the car on the radio.

"All the pluses and perks came as the industry grew up."

Nowadays, families park in an area near the garages at each track. Their motor homes are each worth from $200,000 to well over $1 million. And in the same way they are competitive in the garages and on the track, the drivers compete in the area some have nicknamed "The Upscale Trailer Park."

These motor coaches started as little more than basic RVs. Now, they have slide-outs (expansion panels), double slide-outs and triple slide-outs to expand their interior living quarters. If someone gets a quadruple slide-out, you can bet it won't be long before someone else has a quintuple.

Some motor homes have patio awnings and television screens built into the outside walls. Most of them have interiors that glitter and glow.

Richard Petty walked into his driver John Andretti's motor home at a recent race, looked at the floor space and said, "You could hold a dance in here!"

Andretti laughed at the memory. There's not a lot of dancing going on in his traveling party.

"We're like the Griswolds [of the National Lampoon Vacation movies]," he said. "We travel together, three kids, Nancy and I and a niece. We arrive everywhere like a small circus. The positive thing about it is that it gives continuity -- the idea that you know where you're going to be. ... The motor coach creates an environment where they are still part of your life -- and a bigger part of your life."

The facilities differ from track to track. Daytona International Speedway offers paved streets and brick walkways. At Lowe's Motor Speedway in Concord, N.C., fans get a modern campground -- including satellite television hookups -- but drivers get no such accommodations.

However, all the motor coach areas are surrounded by some sort of fencing for privacy.

"I do feel like a prisoner quite a bit," said driver Ricky Rudd. "But it beats getting up at 3 a.m. to talk racing with fans who used to wander in and knock on your [hotel room] door at any hour. As the sport gets more and more successful, the crush gets worse and worse. But the motor coach has become almost one of the few normal things in our lives."

NASCAR crowds have grown from the manageable size of 15,000 and 35,000 to 100,000 and more at most venues. It is no longer possible to get up at a reasonable hour and drive to the track in time for morning meetings and practices.

Kyle Petty has fond memories of going on day trips from the various tracks.

"Every museum and every educational venue near every track, Mom would take us to," he said, sitting in a comfortable swivel chair in his motor coach. "We did everything. But you look at John [Andretti] and the Burtons [Jeff and Ward] with their children. The kids are here three, four straight days because they just can't get out and get back in again because of the crowds."

NASCAR's success also has meant more demands on a racer to be away from home. Where once a driver would be home all week working on his car, he now may be forced to travel the country making appearances on behalf of his sponsors.

"I think a third of the [drivers] would be retired without [motor homes]," said Mark Martin, the current Winston Cup points leader who brings his family and friends with him to many races. "We spend seven days a week working, and this sport would be unbearable without the [private] aircraft and the motor homes we have now."

Stevie Waltrip was one of the first of the drivers' wives to go to every race. She didn't sit in a hot car during races. Darrell Waltrip, a three-time Winston Cup champion and now a Fox TV analyst, made sure she got through the gates. And she sat in the team's pits keeping lap times. But in 1987, when their first daughter, Jessica, was born, Darrell "insisted we get a bus, just so we'd have some place to hang out," Stevie said.

The buses, as Stevie Waltrip calls them, can improve relationships and bring spouses closer. Wives are no longer forced to stay home to take care of the kids, worrying about the allure some race fans may hold for their husbands. And when things go wrong on the track, wives can provide comfort.

"I can't think that the buses have done anything but add to keeping your family together," Stevie Waltrip said.

Humpy Wheeler, president of Lowe's Motor Speedway, initially opposed the idea of drivers' motor coaches as not fan-friendly, but has softened his stance.

"I think it has extended some marriages," Wheeler said. "And I've never known but a rare few race drivers without a good woman behind them. I mean, these guys are losing every week. Someone has to get them up off the floor on Monday morning."

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