GRAND-AM Racing and McDreamy too: The full story

Laura Keeley, a columnist for The Chronicle’s opinion pages, had the chance to travel to Alton, Va. for the Bosch Engineering 250, a race on the GRAND-AM Rolex Sports Car Series presented by Crown Royal. Charlie Lee, The Chronicle’s design editor, also made the trip last Saturday and brought a camera to photo document the experience.

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Porsches. Pastel polos. Poodles. Premium Beer. Patrick Dempsey.

Quick: name that sporting event.

No, it’s not a golf tournament at Pinehurst. It was the Bosh Engineering 250, a GRAND-AM sports car race in Alton, Va this past Saturday.

As I alluded to in my preview post last night, GRAND-AM racing is not your typical motorsports experience. While NASCAR may own the company, the atmosphere and the fans could not be more different.  Don’t come looking for the redneck South, complete with American pickup trucks and cheap beer. Instead, you will find expensive sports cars accompanied by men and women who look like they are headed to a golf tournament, not a motorsports race.

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My first taste of this came as Charlie Lee (design editor for The Chronicle and my recruited photographer for the day) and I were walking toward the track past the MINI Cooper and Volkswagen car clubs. Charlie had on a well worn blue baseball cap with a big, white D on the front, and a blond petite security guard walking near us yelled out, “yay Duke!” as we walked by. I don’t expect to find Duke supports anywhere off campus, let alone at a racing event in backwater Virginia.

“Well that was a broken stereotype,” I remarked as we continued further into this previously unknown world of “country club” racing.

“The fans are very different,” confirmed Sean Nesbitt, an employee of GRAND-AM Road Racing, when asked about the inevitable NASCAR comparison. “[They are] more well-off, more educated, more affluent. It’s is an atmosphere like a laid-back country club, but the tickets are not am arm and a leg.”

Tickets are around $35, and in my opinion, it’s well worth the price of admission, especially for this crowd that did not appear to be hurting for money and, according to the GRAND-AM website, “show a passion for motorsports through their love of cars (side note: One fan we met told me that he drove a Nissan and made a face of semi-feigned embarrassment).” GRAND-AM is still relatively a diamond in the rough as far as sporting events go, and that translates into an awesome fan experience.

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The access the general fan receives is unparalleled at any sporting event I have ever been to, save for MLB spring training (another event all sports fans should experience). There is a fan walk that takes place 45 minutes before each race (complete with a live band last Saturday), and fans get to literally walk up and down pit row and check out the cars and chat with the crew and drivers. Try talking to a competitor at another sporting event 45 minutes before game time. It probably won’t end well for you.

The various car clubs that come out to the races have the opportunity to drive their cars on the racetrack before the actual race starts. Nesbitt said that occasionally the GRAND-AM staff gets concerned that the car enthusiasts will be too aggressive and crash on the course, but it’s all in good fun.

And so, as Charlie, Sean Nesbitt and I were checking out all of the race cars (there are two different types of cars that compete in separate categories but race at the same time – an interesting dynamic), Sean casually mentioned that Patrick Dempsey owns two cars and drives one of them.

“We can try to find him,” Nesbitt offered.

“Yeah, that would be good,” I said as calmly as possible, stifling the urge to jump back and say, “wait, what?!?!?”

As the clock ticked down to T-minus ten minutes before the race, fans started leaving pit road to go stake out their spots, but I

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had not yet found my new favorite GRAND-AM driver.  Then I saw that beautiful blue, red and silver number 40 car. McDreamy was nearby and, in another broken stereotype, extremely friendly and willing to talk to me even though he was about to hop in his car and start his engine.

“I’ve always loved racing,” Dempsey said as he described how he had worked his way up through different series until arriving at this one with his GT (Grand Touring) Mazda RX-8 car that hits a top speed of about 180 mph. “It’s great to be hear in Virginia, it’s beautiful.”

Dempsey admitted that clearing his schedule to race in the 12 or so races each year from January until September is “a little tricky. I can’t race at all when I’m making movies.”

As he gave me a friendly tap on the arm and jumped in his car, I could not help smiling at my fortunate stroke of serendipity. The race started about five minutes later.

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The race itself was a timed two hour and forty-five minute event. There was not a huge stadium with a track in the middle – at the Virginia International Raceway, there was a 3.27 mile track that wound through pristine pine trees. The atmosphere felt like that of a golf tournament – spectators could see what happened in front of them but had no idea how that fit into the big picture. Most fans set up chairs and a blanket or tent and stayed put, but there was the option of wondering around to get different perspectives of the course.

And I can honestly say, as someone whose only prior race experience was leaving a NASCAR race about 100 laps in, that this race in this serene setting was, in fact, not boring. I would even go so far as to say I enjoyed walking around the course and then settling in to watch the final hour at a picnic table. Being so close to the cars was fun (though I would bring earplugs next time), and we even got to see history be made as Scott Pruett set the new record for most wins in a career (26).

Dempsey finished 12 out of 19 GT cars, but at the end of the day, it was more about the pleasantly surprising experience of GRAND-AM racing than the actual race itself. I’m calling dibs on going next year.

To lean more about GRAND-AM Road Racing, check out the GRAND-AM 101 section on its website.


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