Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Draft Dodger

Ten years from now, I will still remember where I was the day Ben Grubbs was drafted.

I wasn’t at Radio City in New York or the war room in Owings Mills. I wasn’t enjoying the Spring Football Festival at the stadium or at Coburn’s in Canton (this blogger’s recommendation for best bar food in Baltimore). In fact, you could say I wasn’t even in the country as I spent draft weekend at Talladega Superspeedway, in the heart of NASCAR Nation.

I promise to do my best to give you my thoughts on the Ravens draft, although by now you’ve probably learned more about Grubbs’ sophomore year of college than you can remember about your own, but you’ll have to forgive me if I start to stray. This was my first NASCAR experience and I’m still wiping the impression of my face (apparently when you sit close to the track, its common to be sprayed with specs of rubber coming off new tires).

First off, what was I doing in Alabama? My day job brought me to The Cotton State on behalf of my client, CSX, to promote safety at railroad crossings. Our slogan, “Keep on Living”, was printed on thousands of promotional items, including free t-shirts. We brought about 10,000 shirts to hand out, however, my team at Exit10 underestimated one very important aspect of racing fans – many of them don’t bother wearing shirts to the race. Maybe they knew we’d be providing free wardrobe this weekend, but the line in to our tent was out the door at 8AM! It was clear I wasn’t going to have a break all day, but luckily I had my trusty Treo by my side to track the draft – I’m sure this is what my boss had in mind when he decided to arm me with internet access everywhere I go.

At about 2:00 EST I was able to check in on the progress in New York for the first time and I was astonished to find that only a handful of choices had been made in the first two hours. My first thought was if the NFL allowed fans into the stadium to watch the paint in the end zones dry, would it sell out? My second thought was now that Dawan Landry’s brother will be playing just down the road in DC, my prediction for a new satellite radio show called “Washing the Landry” could actually happen, considering XM’s headquarters is located in The District.

As for Baltimore, I knew it would be a while until I learned who would be the next to put on the pads for the purple and black. The Busch Series race was just about over when pick #29 appeared on my screen and ironically our top choice’s Alma Mater was just down the road from me in Auburn, AL. I was tempted to ask some of the locals about the potential of our newest guard, but the football chatter was kept to a minimum amongst the crowd. All they cared about was Junior, Smoke, the Rainbow Warrior, or Kasey Kaaaaaaahne (that’s how the women say it). It was also easy to see which racer they were supporting as the fashion du jour appeared to be t-shirts with full length faces of their favorite driver, along with matching hats, pants, and beer coolers.

Day two of the draft started early for Exit10 as our 4:45 wake-up call was necessary just to beat the traffic created by 200,000 fans lining up for the Nextel Cup race on Sunday. That’s almost three sellouts at M&T Bank Stadium combined.

The sponsor seating section was halfway around the track from our tent – fortunately we had golf carts all weekend – and when we arrived I was greeted by former Raiders quarterback Kenny Stabler, who stared for the Crimson and hosts a radio show in Birmingham. Stabler wasn’t the only Raider that caught my attention on Sunday as the Randy Moss trade was broadcast on my Treo to the dismay of, well, at least to me. No one else seemed to notice.

My PDA was put to shame, however, by the scanning devices available to fans at the race. This is going to take a few minutes to describe, but it’s worth it. For those of you who are NASCAR novices like myself, the fan development department at the Association’s headquarters in Charlotte clearly knows what they are doing. You see, you can rent a scanner that comes with Bose-like headphones and a portable television for the weekend at $70 a pop! You can then listen to the broadcast of the race – a mix between the radio call and the PA announcer – or you can decide to listen into the conversation between pit crews and their drivers. Any driver! The radio frequencies are published in the program and local papers and fans are allowed to hear the chatter throughout the race. Can you imagine if NFL fans had access to the conversations between coordinators, coaches, and the quarterback? Sort of like Ravens Wired on Red Bull. But that’s not all.

Remember the little TV I told you about, well not only can you watch the broadcast of the race, but you can also switch back and forth to individual driver cams placed on the front and rear bumpers. You can see the race from the driver’s point of view. I know you don’t need a football comparison to realize what it would be like, but sports writing is nothing without similes and metaphors so here it goes – it would be like strapping a camera to Steve McNair’s helmet as he drops back to pass, or better yet, tapping into camera #52 located behind Ray’s eyes.

Again, I digress. Troy Smith was a nice pick. Headline prediction: “McNair Apparent”.

Okay, back to ‘Bama. Our seats were just off the track and about 110 laps in, two cars crashed right in front of us. I had no clue how to react, so at first I ducked (not sure what that would do) and then stood up and took pictures (wouldn’t you?). In either case, it was by far the most exciting moment of the race and I don’t know what that says about me, or more importantly, the sport.

When the dust, smoke, and rubber debris settled, Jeff Gordon had won the Aaron’s 499;
JaMarcus Russell had won the lottery; Boy Wonder was headed to the Browns; the Heisman winner won a trip to the Charm City; and NFL fans everywhere were left wondering what will be in 2007. And after watching 500 miles of drafting strategy, while following the drafting strategy of 32 NFL teams, I believe Ricky Bobby and General Ozzie share at least one common belief, if you ain’t first your last.

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