NASCAR driver Jeff Burton signs autographs for fans at Food City Race Night Thursday. (David Grace, NET News Service)
BRISTOL –– Excitement for the races this weekend at Bristol Motor Speedway made it all the way to State Street Thursday, as race merchandise, food vendors and even a few drivers set up shop to entertain fans during Food City Race Night.
Race fans of every age swarmed the downtown area that afternoon starting at 1 p.m., toting NASCAR merchandise and bags full of free items from vendors on the street.
Barry Smith, from Ephrata, Pa., along with his wife, Kathy, and son, Brent, said they made the seven-hour trip to Bristol on Tuesday for the race, which he said the family has done for many years.
“We’ve been coming here since probably about 1990,” Smith said. “I just love to see them race. You can’t really get the feel for it unless you’re here. You can watch it on TV, but it’s not the same.”
Having already picked up a few packs of potato chips and some peaches, Smith said he just liked “walking around seeing all the people.”
Under a bright yellow Cheerios Racing tent, NASCAR driver Jeff Burton signed autographs for fans around 5 p.m., as others stood in the long lines at the Mountain Dew booth or walked around the grounds with their samplings of Armour Vienna Sausages.
Several show cars and trailers also lined State Street Thursday, giving fans a chance to peer inside the close quarters of the vehicles.
Gary Engle, from Rochester, N.Y., said his group drove 12 hours to Bristol and said he was enjoying the different cars and military representation at Race Night.
“This is our second year coming back,” Engle said. “We know some people down here and it’s a lot of good action on the race track. Everybody down here is real friendly and it’s just a great place to come.”
Music from the Pepsi Stage and the Downtown Center Stage, as well as other musicians plugged in and playing at the local eateries downtown, created a relaxing, laid-back atmosphere for the event.
Tony Justice, Jamie O’Neal and Tim Dugger/Sam Bass were scheduled to play the Pepsi Stage Thursday night, and Rock-A-Bye Blue and the Southern Countrymen were set to perform on the Downtown Center Stage.
Lisa Cox, along with her husband, Les, and children, Lucas and Carlie, all from Kingsport, said they were veterans of the Race Night events.
“We’ve actually been the past three or four years in a row,” Cox said. “The kids like seeing the race cars and the different samples of stuff and walking around.”
She said the family plans to go to the Food City 250 tonight, but said they’ll be watching the IRWIN Tools Night Race from home Saturday.
As for Race Night, Cox said she enjoys just being outside with her kids and meeting the drivers and seeing the different cars at the event.
“It’s something fun to do,” she said. “It’s something you can bring the kids to and meet people and talk to people.”