Euro NASCAR Diary: Alon Day’s wild ride and soaking in the culture

RELATED: NASCAR Whelen Euro Series coverage

Editor’s note: Correspondent Matt Crossman is in Belgium this weekend for coverage of the NASCAR Whelen Euro Series season finale at Circuit Zolder. Through his trip, he’ll share his experiences in a series of diary entries, all to document the European brand of stock-car racing.

Day 1: Alon Day offers a white-knuckle trip through Belgian streets

ZOLDER, Belgium — Alon Day was using his left hand to take cell phone video and his right hand to shift and that left no hands for the steering wheel. Ah well, the houses were set pretty far back from the road and we were not going that fast anyway.

I was riding shotgun as Day drove his No. 54 NASCAR Euro Whelen Series Chevrolet in a parade through Zolder, a small town in Belgium that is home to Circuit Zolder, site of the series’ season-ending races this weekend. The parade was meant to introduce drivers to fans, and I’m here to write about the growth and development of the series and its drivers. Day, a member of the 2016 NASCAR Next class and seen by many in the industry as a future star, is the points leader headed into the final two races (Saturday and Sunday).

We hadn’t gone half a mile when the parade of race cars ahead of us was gone. Drive nose to tail, organizers had said over and over again, so that drivers wouldn’t screw around. This being NASCAR, of course they did. Day also had to stop because a black van pulled out of a gas station in front of us, and by then there were five cars between us and the rest of the field.

We eventually caught back up, and Day said later that he didn’t want to drive too fast with me sitting next to him. Not only did I not have a seat belt, I did not, technically, have a seat. My butt rested on a pad, my legs were twisted to the left to avoid the battery and my back was against sheet metal.

Day is well known for adjusting to new racing situations — cars, tracks, weather, etc. — and he adapted to this one. He turned to me and said, “hold on to something.” I grabbed the roll cage just as he floored it. My butt sank into the pad and my back pressed against the sheet metal. Soon we were going way faster than I would ever tell the organizers. At least he was holding on to the wheel with both hands.

 

Day 2: Savoring cultural differences aplenty in Zolder

ZOLDER, Belgium — Members of the NASCAR community have a particular way of greeting each other. With square shoulders, they walk briskly toward each other, stop at arm’s length, and extend an arm for a handshake; occasionally a hug, or at least half of one, follows. It’s like long-lost friends who see each other all the time. The body language, a mixture of gravitas and familiarity, is so distinctive that I could spot it anywhere. I was surprised to see it in Belgium at Circuit Zolder, host of the NASCAR Whelen Euro Series races this weekend … and then even more surprised by the double-cheek kisses that often followed.

That’s a microcosm of NASCAR in Europe compared to NASCAR in America. It’s the same … and different. Take Friday’s drivers meeting. Drivers shuffled in. They sat down. Bored, they looked at their phones. Before the meeting began, it was just like every NASCAR drivers meeting I’ve ever been to. Then the meeting started, and the similarities ended.

Over and over again, series owner Jerome Galpin and race director Philippe Godet warned, cajoled, insisted, demanded and every other harsh word I can think of the drivers not run into each other. By comparison, NASCAR rules in America are presented as optional. Now, to be fair, this weekend will feature the last two races of the season, and Galpin and Godet did not want the championship decided by a wreck. But there’s also a cultural difference. In America, stock-car racing is a contact sport. Here, it isn’t … or at least not nearly as much.

One other way it’s the same and different: At the race track, the Euro NASCAR folks have made me feel more than welcome, which is exactly what it was like when I first started covering NASCAR in America.

I have been eating lunch and dinner with race officials, and in America, it’s common for me to be offered food in haulers. But that’s usually a hot dog and soda. Here, it’s like a potluck meets a picnic. Culturally, it’s French. We’ve had fish, chicken, salad, couscous, baguettes, bottles of wine and a cheese plate at the end of each meal (and also three courses of laughter). The cheese alone has made this trip worth it, to say nothing of the laughter.