Fans, fun returning to the Atlanta Motor Speedway infield

Life, in all its quirky forms, is returning to Turn 1 at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

Life smells like bacon frying. Late Saturday morning Dacula’s Laureen Carter, dressed in her traditional race-day technicolor tutu, was tending to her cast-iron skillet and her sizzling pork. A people person tends to be a little lost when she can’t be around people. But now Carter was happily found, back in the company of a growing crowd on the AMS infield for this weekend of NASCAR races.

“You got to bring fun with you, and we always bring a little fun with us,” she said. Did we mention she was wearing a tutu?

It’s a prime patch of infield here where just beyond the bank of the first turn rises like a levee wall. On Saturday afternoon the thunder of Xfinity-class race cars - NASCAR’s Triple-A level - washed down and over the campers there. To be followed Sunday by the big boys in the Quaker State 400. Tooth fillings will rattle.

ExplorePhotos: The scene at Atlanta Motor Speedway

Many of these same people – such as Carter and her husband, William – were staged outside the track for 2020′s March race when COVID-19 concerns at first forced the track to cancel infield camping and then cancel the race altogether. Racing would return, but with a restricted audience. A second race this year, once a standard at AMS but now the anomaly, allowed the track to open more fully to the fans and to the media, which only this weekend regained access to the infield.

The fan presence on the infield is an essential sight of racing, filling in so much of the background color that was lost to COVID. They were sorely missed.

“It would be an understatement to say we’re excited to be able to open back up,” AMS Executive VP and General Manger Brandon Hutchison said. “This is as close to a pre-COVID race we’ve seen here since last year when we had to press pause.

“It’s exciting for our team. It’s great for the speedway. It’s great for the community and the state.”

Another nod to normalcy: For the first time here since 2019, the drivers won’t hustle straight to their cars before the start of Sunday’s big race. Instead, there will be the return of introducing each driver and of parading each around the track, once more lending some face to this sport.

It likely will be the pole sitter, Dawsonville’s Chase Elliott, who will draw the heartiest cheers, as the defending NASCAR Cup champion seeks to win for a first time on his home track.

Flying from Leo Thomas’ RV is a No. 9 flag, representing Elliott’s number. His friend from Macon and neighbor on the AMS infield hoists the No. 12, for Ryan Blaney, the winner of the March race here. But they still get along just fine. In fact, when Thomas fires up his low-country boil Saturday night, he will share. Such is the now-regained sense of community of racing’s infield.

“For one thing, I missed the racing,” Thomas said. “First, it’s all about the racing. After that, it’s the camaraderie. You become family here.”

If you look hard enough, the life returning to Turn 1 extends beyond easy stereotypes. A sampling of the fans there Saturday, in fact, represented a kind of cross-section that would tickle a sport trying to build its audience. For racing entered this decade on a downward trend of TV ratings and corresponding fan interest.

Near Thomas, the funeral director from Macon and staunch long-time race fan, was David Hillen, a 24-year-old relative newcomer to the sport. Hillen, from Minneapolis, rented the RV and lined up a sweet infield spot hard by Turn 1 for himself and five of his old Marquette University buddies.

COVID actually created this new little group of race fans. Racing was the first sport to return to action last year, attracting these guys who thirsted for something to watch and, honestly, something upon which to bet. Now here they were gathered on site for the first time. They had their wiffle-ball bat, their new grill, beer, a weekend’s supply of hamburgers and hot dogs. What else was needed?

Who knows, maybe this will become a thing for these friends. “Depends on how it turns out this week. So far, so good,” said another of their number, Christopher Barry, in from St. Louis.

By the way, they seem to like Team Penske this week, at 4.5-to-1.

And near the old college buddies were the Carters, who pre-pandemic were regulars here for several years. A mechanical engineer in Atlanta, William is a confirmed car guy. His wife was won over by the heightened sensations of the track. “I love the smell of racing fuel,” Laureen said.

Besides adorning herself so eccentrically, Laureen is bound to stand out on a NASCAR infield, where so few Black fans are found. But adopting Laureen’s attitude that, “We love being around people and love having fun,” the Carters said they have never felt out of place. And it’s always helpful, she said, if they steer conversations toward racing and away from politics.

Along with a commitment to repave and reshape the track this summer, AMS execs are hoping a solid, enthusiastic turnout both in the stands and on the infield this weekend will strengthen their argument for keeping the second race on the schedule. They lost the other race in 2013, and regained it this year as part of NASCAR’s COVID adjustments. The push now is to hold on tightly to that other date.

“This is a strong market; it’s one of the top 10 markets in the country. Our fans definitely support it. And with this investment, I think it definitely enhances our ability to keep a second race at Atlanta Motor Speedway,” Hutchison said.

Anything less will really get their tutus in bunches around here.