Infield has family look Ambience: 'All these people, the colorful team flags flying from the campers. And everybody is so nice. It's always, "Hi, where you guys from?" ' one fan says.

September 14, 1997|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

LONG POND, Pa. - Scott Keates and Rich James came to the Pocono Mountains with all the trappings for a weekend of camping: pup tents, grill and cooler. And on this summer afternoon, they were cooking New York strip steaks for dinner.

But they were not alone. And this was hardly wilderness.

Keates and James, who live in La Plata, Md., were among the thousands who had set up camp in the center of a 2.5-mile asphalt oval. The occasion: a Winston Cup stock car race at Pocono International Raceway.

"It's wonderful out here," Keates, 30, a lumber and supply company employee, said amid the crowded, dusty surroundings.

"Look out there," said James, 36, a building materials salesman. "All these people, the colorful team flags flying from the campers. And everybody is so nice. It's always, 'Hi, where you guys from?' "

Infields have lured devoted fans since auto racing started in the late 1940s. And infields have changed a lot since then.

They were once filled with hard-core fans: leering, beer-drinking men and bikini-clad women. Wet T-shirt contests were the highlight of a hot afternoon, a drunken party the cap to a sun-scorched day. Fights settled such important matters as whether Richard Petty or Bobby Allison was the better driver.

Darlington, S.C., still has a riotous infield. And at Pocono, those who want to be rowdy can make their way to a section near Turn One where a mud bog and weekend-long party await.

But, throughout most of Pocono's infield, and at most other major tracks, the atmosphere is much more sedate and family-oriented these days. Fans cook out and play ball - and at Daytona International Raceway they fish in the infield lake. "A lot of people think the people out in the infields are beer drinkers and hell-raisers," said Steve Slonaker, who works for Commercial Credit in Baltimore. "But there are all types of professionals out here - even real people like teachers are out here."

Infields - part Ocean City boardwalk, part residential community - are created by fans who drive RVs, campers and cars into that patch of open space within an oval or road course.

You'll see sights familiar to any neighborhood: Women sunbathing on lawn chairs, children bicycling, people playing Frisbee, a man pulling a child in a red wagon. You can also glimpse a man shaving in a car's side mirror, a woman reading the newspaper at a picnic table, and, occasionally, security guards on trail bikes, horses or golf carts.

The smells are also familiar: cocoa butter for suntanning; beer; steaks, chicken and fish grilling; the sulfur from a spent firecracker.

It isn't cheap to get in. Every track sets its own pricing policy. At some tracks, fans pay as much as $75 for a grandstand seat and an additional $40 for an infield ticket, plus $40 for their camper. Fans may need to pay for a grandstand seat and parking to get infield access. Other tracks simply charge for an infield ticket - usually in the $40 range - and parking.

Until recently, fans had to make their own infield entertainment, whether that meant drinking, suntanning, biking or reading. Now, infields feature a sort of mobile bazaar.

At Pocono, for instance, fans wearing T-shirts touting their favorite driver strolled between wooden booths and tents. They could buy soft ice cream or waffle boats, freshly grilled chicken or steak sandwiches. They could sign up for a credit card or the National Guard. Or they could listen to rock bands on a stage called "Camel Roadhouse."

Nearby, a tent featured 1/10th scale, remote-controlled NASCAR models racing on a 28-foot-by-16-foot track. The cars looked just like those driven by Dale Earnhardt, Jeff Gordon and other stars, and fans could race - and crash - them for two minutes at a time for $5.

"We have an awfully good time here," said Diane Holtz, 49, a secretary spending the weekend in the Pocono infield with her husband Jerry, a Conrail engineer, and their two daughters. "It's relaxing and a chance to set your own pace after working all week."

The Holtzes didn't even leave the infield during the race. They climbed atop their camper and listened to a scanner - a hand-held radio that can be bought or rented at prices starting at $60 - to pick up all the communication between drivers and their pit crews.

"We don't always see the whole race," said Jerry Holtz, "but we always know what's going on."

Pub Date: 9/14/97

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