Night of mania
By NICK SCHWIEN
He wasn't quite what Logan Nuss and Taylor Stahl were expecting.
Nevertheless, both girls were pleasantly surprised by getting a chance to hang out with a NASCAR star -- even if it just was for a few seconds.
That's the sort of buzz Emporia native Clint Bowyer brought to the stage at the Ellis County Fairgrounds on Tuesday. Bowyer was in town to compete in Mod Mania, a special weekday event at RPM Speedway in Hays.
But Bowyer was just part of the mania Tuesday. Add into the mix another NASCAR driver, Kenny Schrader, and the crowds were abuzz all night.
As were Nuss, 11, and Stahl, 12, especially after being surprised by a close encounter with Bowyer.
"I thought he would be older," Nuss said.
"Yeah, like 23 or 24," Stahl said.
"Maybe more like 30," Nuss chimed in.
Bowyer, 33, was the main focus at the event in the fairgrounds building as nearly 300 people attended his special meet-and-greet prior to the races.
And there was no surprise to Scott Crawford the event was so well-attended.
"The track has been asking us for several years, and things just worked out right," said the CEO of Crawford Supply's Traeger division, a primary sponsor of Bowyer's dirt-track race team. "Clint has been wanting to get out here for a while. ... I'm glad for Hays and the area."
John Ketter and one of his sons, Alex, were happy, too. The father heard about the event before the night, but a chance encounter solidified his family's trip from the small town of Tipton in north-central Kansas.
"I heard about it on the radio," John Ketter said. "I had come out last week and bought a grill from Crawford Supply and found out more about it then. My timing was good."
His 10-year-old son was pleased as well to meet Bowyer.
"It's pretty exciting," Alex said. "I've seen him on TV."
Bowyer signed autographs for hours and posed for pictures with fans throughout the night, as did Schrader. And the two drivers even spent time at each other's meet-and-greets during the day.
"In my early days, he wasn't even born," Schrader joked about his racing career.
Schrader entertained fans in the VIP section of RPM Speedway, packing the viewing area above the main concession stand at the track.
"It's always fun," Schrader said about the appearances at tracks throughout the U.S. "We're doing four of these this week at different places. One of them we haven't been to before."
Schrader and Bowyer were parked side-by-side in the pits, and neither driver could avoid the mass of fans seeking a quick autograph or picture the entire evening.
The only time the two stars got a bit of a reprieve was on the track. Both qualified directly from their heats for the A-main, and both finished in the top 10 of the feature.
It was the first time Bowyer had competed at the Hays track, while it was Schrader's second time. In 2009, he completed only a few laps before having his night end early after being caught up in an accident.
"We still didn't run very good," Schrader said. "I'm not sure where we finished, but it wasn't good enough. We just guessed wrong on the car."
RPM officials guessed right on the success of the night. The large grandstands were full, and additional bleachers were brought in and nearly filled, too.
More people even bought pit passes to be closer to the action all night long.
Track officials estimated more than 2,500 people attended but weren't sure of an actual count immediately following the races. It was one of the largest attendance numbers -- if not the largest -- in track history, though.
No matter what the number was, the night proved to be a success for fans and drivers alike.
"That's neat," Schrader said. "I knew with Clint coming too it would be like that. (People) obviously support the track."