Ever since she turned 16, Cathy Huckaby had the cleanest car in town.
Every weekend she would turn on the radio and listen to the NASCAR race. To pass the time, she would wash and wax her car.
Years later, Huckaby admitted that she doesn’t necessarily have the cleanest car in town anymore, but if you take one look at the red 2001 Chevy Monte Carlo she drives, her affinity for the sport is obvious — and advertised — through a vanity plate that reads: "NASCAT."
"NASCAR drivers have grit, they’re brave," said Huckaby, proudly wearing a 2007 Daytona 500 T-shirt with driver Kevin Harvick on it. "They go around so fast and they’re living on the edge."
Just listening to Huckaby speak, you can tell that she loves the sport, and she loves it for simple reasons.
"I love the smell of it," she said. "The feel when the cars come by and the ground shakes. It’s just amazing."
So amazing that Huckaby and her friend Sharon Kelly spend every race day together, whether it be at home watching on TV or traveling to see the event live. In 2002 and 2003, Huckaby traveled to six states to see six different races.
"I was chasin’ racin’," she said.
Her favorite stop was in Bristol, Tenn.
"It’s a small, short track with a lot of action," she said of Bristol Motor Speedway. "Before the Car of Today, there was a lot of bumping and stuff and they weren’t going fast enough that they could have a detrimental wreck."
Since her six-track in six-state excursions, she’s been diagnosed with muscular sclerosis and lost her job and ability to travel to so many races. But even with all that going on in her life, she still makes it to Atlanta Motor Speedway twice a year.
"It’s an all-week event," Huckaby said. "You get to know all your neighbors, walk all over the campgrounds and visit with different people and eat their food and drink their drinks. It’s like a big tailgate party."
It’s that atmosphere that makes NASCAR different from any other sport for Huckaby.
"It’s the camaraderie, hanging out with everybody," she said. "Everybody likes different drivers, but nobody cares."
The title of Huckaby’s favorite driver is currently open for applications. She’s leaning toward Harvick, but thinks no one will replace her longtime favorite driver, Rusty Wallace. Huckaby was such a Wallace fan that she once paid $500 so she could sit in his suite for three days at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
"At the time, Rusty was driving for Miller Lite and it was all the Miller Lite you can drink," Huckaby said. "What else does a race fan need?"
Not much really. Some fans need only a TV and a six pack to enjoy NASCAR.
"You drink massive amounts of beer, and I have my best friend Sharon there and she never shuts up," Huckaby said of how she enjoys a race on TV. "You can take a nap in the middle. If anything happens, the TV is gonna scream loud enough that you’ll wake up."
So will Kelly.
"It’s fun to watch the drivers battle back and forth at those speeds," said Kelly, who once won a ride-along with Denny Hamlin. "Going 160 mph made me appreciate what they do. Four laps had me waiting to get out of the car."
From Kelly’s ride-along to Huckaby’s seats in Wallace’s suite, these two NASCAR fans have done it all, or close to it. They’ve walked amongst the drivers on pit row, they’ve met such greats as Dale Earnhardt and Tony Stewart, and they’ve witnessed some of NASCAR’s best races. Although those memories will always be cherished, these fans both feel that NASCAR isn’t as great as it once was.
"The younger drivers have taken something away from NASCAR," Kelly said. "The old guys used to get under the hood and know when the slightest thing went wrong with the car. NASCAR isn’t as exciting as it used to be, but it’s still in our blood."
Huckaby says that corporate sponsorship plays a role in the lack of excitement.
"The drivers can’t be as emotional as they were before," Huckaby said. "If Office Depot is paying Tony Stewart $20 million a year, they’re not going to let him jump out and cuss people out and act up.
"That’s a bad thing because I like the emotion," she added. "I just want to see them care enough to get emotional about it."
At one time, hearing two women discuss their passion for NASCAR may have been rare, but as the sport has grown, so has its demographics.
"You see people from all walks of life," Kelly said of the average fan at a race. "It used to be predominantly a male fan sport, but a lot of women have come over. A lot of women came along with their spouses and enjoy the speed.
"People don’t realize that there are a lot of women who were tom boys who now love the sport. It’s kind of a sisterhood."
If female fans are like a sisterhood, Huckaby is the spokeswoman, and she has a message for those who have yet to catch on to the sport.
"Fire up the car, smell it, feel the ground shake and just listen to it for a minute," she said. "That’s what it’s all about."