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Caraviello: At Charlotte, pre-race shows are nothing short of explosive

May 21, 2011, David Caraviello,

At Charlotte, pre-race shows are nothing short of explosive

It begins six to 10 months ahead of time, with requests sent to the Pentagon, and meetings with officials at Fort Bragg over what men and materiel may be available for Memorial Day weekend. Scripts are written and revised, compromises are reached. Weeks beforehand, a designer at a South Carolina pyrotechnics company begins inputting information into a computer, and soon afterward three or four employees begin loading up the large amount of product needed for the job. A few days before the big event a rehearsal is held, and the morning of the race the fireworks crew arrives with all the cables and equipment needed to put on one of the most explosive pre-race shows in NASCAR.

That's the way it works at Charlotte Motor Speedway, where months of preparation go into a more than three-hour extravaganza that's full of music, munitions, and testaments to American military might. The show leading into the Coca-Cola 600 has evolved into a spectacle nearly as anticipated as the race itself, one often complete with bands, flyovers, soldiers rappelling from helicopters, big guns firing, and explosions -- lots and lots of explosions. It just wouldn't be a race at Charlotte without them.

" It's become a great annual tradition ... We've done some phenomenal things over the years."


Certainly that will be the case for Saturday's Sprint All-Star Race at the 1.5-mile track, where driver and crew introductions will be illuminated by pyrotechnics spread across multiple stages, and fireworks will even be shot from the top of the speedway's new 200-foot-wide big screen. And then next weekend comes the really big show, a Coca-Cola 600 pre-race program that will feature -- among various tributes and musical acts -- a simulated invasion by U.S. Army special forces troops from Fort Bragg, a flyover from a B-2 stealth bomber out of Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri, an air show by the U.S. Black Daggers parachute team, and a 21-gun salute.

"It's become a great annual tradition, something along the lines of the Super Bowl halftime show," said track president Marcus Smith. "It's a lot of fun to think about what the pre-race show will be for a given year, and to work on it, and the team looks forward to developing a bigger and better and different pre-race show for all of our events."

Traditionally, the All-Star Race has featured plenty of fireworks and pizzazz, the Coca-Cola 600 has taken on a military theme, and the track's fall 500-miler has been preceded by a stunt show. But Charlotte's pre-race shows weren't always that big. Back in the 1960s, former track president Humpy Wheeler remembers becoming enamored with the ceremonies prior to the Indianapolis 500, which included the Purdue University marching band, the playing of Taps and the singing of Back Home Again in Indiana. When Wheeler started at Charlotte in 1975, he and track owner Bruton Smith talked about doing something similar for their Memorial Day weekend event.

By today's standards, that first pre-race show was modest -- it featured 40 majorettes from Kilgore College in Texas. Early on, the Charlotte staff realized they had to think bigger. "I knew these things had to be big, or they wouldn't work," said Wheeler, who split from the track in 2008 and today works as a consultant. So in came mock dogfights from the Commemorative Air Force, which preserves military aircraft and puts on air shows. There was a six-man football game between members of Clemson University's national title team and the San Francisco 49ers. And in the early 1980s the big guns, literally, were brought out for the first time. Rangers and Airborne troops from Fort Bragg staged a mock invasion, complete with Chinook and Apache helicopters, howitzers, machine guns and rifles. The crowd ate it up.

"We knew we had really hit home," Wheeler said, "because it was Memorial Day weekend, the crowd loved it, and the Army used it as a great recruiting tool."

Around that same time, Wheeler remembered, Charlotte debuted the flyover. Air Force Major Gen. Thomas Sadler, a longtime friend of the track who is active in Speedway Children's Charities, helped win support in the Department of Defense. And soon after two jets out of Shaw Air Force Base in Sumter, S.C., streaked over the track just as the national anthem reached its crescendo. "The crowd went bananas," Wheeler said.

That close relationship between Charlotte and the military, particularly Fort Bragg, continues today. Christian Byrd, the track's vice president of events, said the speedway begins requesting approval from the Pentagon months in advance of that year's show, and track officials visit Fort Bragg to see what assets the base has available. That can be tricky in wartime when so many assets are being rotated overseas, but the relatively short physical distance between the fort and the track has resulted in strong personal relationships that help smooth the process. Officials from the speedway and Jay Howard Entertainment, which produces pre-race shows at most NASCAR events, submit to Fort Bragg brass a plan that typically goes through a few rewrites before it's finalized.

But in the end, most of the soldiers and much of the hardware -- helicopters, howitzers, tanks and the like -- that have come to define Coca-Cola 600 pre-race shows come from Fort Bragg, located about a two-hour drive from the track. "I think as long as we are a good team player with them," Marcus Smith said, "and can extend a great opportunity for their troops to be involved in not only a great event ... but also a great training exercise and recruiting effort, I think we'll be able to count on that relationship."

Through the years, the pre-race shows have taken on identities of their own. Celebrities stopped by, from Burt Reynolds, Telly Savalas and Elizabeth Taylor back in the day, to Jessica Alba, Jessica Biel and Bradley Cooper in more recent times. There was a fly fisherman from Ireland, who arrived in tweed and Wellingtons, and expertly cast lures into white-painted race tires 90 feet away. There was Jimmy "the Flying Greek" Koufus, who jumped off a ramp in a race-engine-powered school bus and landed 200 feet away on a bed of cars. There were repeated visits by Robosaurus, a 40-foot-tall metal dinosaur that breathed fire and ate small cars. An administrative aide at the track saw a story about the beast in a supermarket tabloid. It took $25,000 to transport the thing from its warehouse in Burbank, Calif., but Wheeler said it increased attendance every time.

In the press box once during one typically crazy Charlotte pre-race show, Wheeler overheard a veteran writer predict that elephants and dancing bears must be next. So naturally, a three-ring circus arrived the following season. High-wire walkers traipsed lines strung from the grandstand towers to the infield. As a boy, Marcus Smith remembers sitting around the dinner table and listening to his father, Bruton, talk about how great the next pre-race show was going to be.

"He would give us a snapshot of what we were going to do that year," Marcus recalled. "From the time I was a kid, the ideas -- whether it's jumping buses or the great flying Winnebago or what have you, and of course the incredible military reenactments -- have really been a staple of putting on the race at CMS."

Smith's favorite memory? "Probably when we staged the invasion of Grenada on the frontstretch," he said, referring to the 1983 operation reenacted by Airborne troops from Fort Bragg. "I would say probably my next favorite was when we had a glider come in. The guy was a paraplegic and had flown in a glider across the United States. He arrived at the speedway on race day and did some amazing stunt flying. He ended up buzzing the frontstretch grandstand, and got so close I could actually see his face. I had no idea how crazy that was at the time, but now I think -- that was nuts. How in the world did that guy do that and not have a serious accident?"

And then there are the explosions. For military-style blow-ups, which include everything from simulated howitzer fire to the mock strafing of an enemy village by low-flying aircraft, the track calls on Ray Bevins, an explosions expert who works primarily in the film industry. For pyrotechnics, the speedway works with East Coast Pyro, a company based in Catawba, S.C., that handles fireworks for Charlotte and some other NASCAR tracks. It's a large-scale project, with plenty of fireworks shot off introductory stages and during the national anthem. Tom Thompson of East Coast Pyro said the company has worked with the track for 15 seasons, and a Charlotte pre-race show is as big a job as they have all year.

"It's a big job, because it's a big venue, big logistics," Thompson said. "It's a lot of pre-plan time, a lot of time in the plant preparing for the event. Because it's such a spread out location, we have several different sites where we're going to shoot pyrotechnics from. It's a lot of logistics. It's not just an outdoor Fourth of July fireworks show where you go out in the field somewhere and set up by yourself and no one bothers you all day. It's a very detailed project that takes a lot of cooperation. It's a big dance."

Because so many fireworks are set off in close proximity to the grandstand -- such as those in All-Star Race introductions -- they have to be the type that leave no debris. Scripts for a particular event are fed into a computer and transferred into a firing controller, which has a joystick a technician uses to fire off any particular sequence. The pyro guys are on site early in the morning and still there after the track has closed, but in between everything has be done quickly. "They roll those stages out there," Thompson said, "and you've got to set your cables within 10 minutes and tear it down just as quick."

The result, though, seems well worth the effort. The booming of fireworks or simulated military ordinance has become as much a Charlotte trademark as yellow walls and a $1 million-to-win payday for the All-Star Race. "The inner pyro in all of us wants to blow stuff up," Byrd said. "My boss likes doing it. Going back to the Humpy days, he liked it. The race fans enjoy it. I think it's a win-win. It's definitely one of the signature aspects of coming to a race at Charlotte Motor Speedway."

Of course, there's a balance, which is why next weekend's show will include not only its share of explosions, but also somber moments of remembrance, musical tributes, and the unfurling by military family members of an 11,250-square-foot American flag. And then it's onto the race itself, which is followed by perhaps the most arduous phase of the entire process -- planning the next pre-race show, and trying to make it more spectacular than the last one.

"We've done some phenomenal things over the years," Smith said. "We are absolutely always making it harder for ourselves to jump the bar the following year. But we just keep challenging ourselves to get better and better."