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Gearhead Heaven 

Win or lose, PPIR delivers the goods for the faithful

click to enlarge Putting his art degree to the testA.J. Alsup in the - drivers seat - DARRALD BENNETT
  • Darrald Bennett
  • Putting his art degree to the testA.J. Alsup in the drivers seat

In spectator sports, it all comes down to one valid question: Are you getting your money's worth? And Colorado auto racing fans finally seem to be getting it.

Although Pikes Peak International Raceway doesn't release attendance figures, an estimated crowd of over 30,000 turned out last weekend to see the Busch Grand National Series NAPA AutoCare 250 at PPIR, the largest crowd of the year so far.

Tickets for the event cost between $40 and $50 for race day admission, or $80 for race day and qualifying day admission (including an infield pass), a price that's comparable to an Avalanche or Broncos game.

But motor racing is unlike hockey and football, where the objective is to watch the game and then hurry to the exits to beat the traffic. Sure, you'll see tailgating at hockey and football games, but at races, the tailgating can last for days on end.

Big races at big tracks like Indianapolis, Daytona and Talladega are kind of like Dead shows for gearheads. Last weekend, some 140,000 people gathered for the NASCAR Winston Cup event at the Pocono Track in Long Pond, Pa. Like souped-up Deadheads, some fans follow their favorite drivers around the country from track to track. The size or prestige of the race doesn't seem to matter much. Just about any race that attracts more than 100 people generates a festive atmosphere.


Getting gritty with it

Recently, there have been more reasons to celebrate as PPIR emerges as a place where jilted drivers get their satisfaction. In May, at the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series, Joe Ruttman stepped back into the winner's circle after being dismissed by Jack Rousch Racing. And on Saturday, just a month after being fired from his job driving on the MBNA Joe Gibbs Racing Pontiac team, Jeff Purvis ran away from everyone, leading 121 of the final 124 laps on the one-mile oval, finishing more than 15 seconds before his closest challenger, Jeff Green.

Green had his hands full trying to fend off a late rush by Kevin Harvick, who started in last place in a field of 43, only to scream up through the field, finishing third. But the tireless Harvick covered even more ground than that. In four days he traveled over 4,000 miles and did 750 miles of racing. On Thursday he traveled from Charlotte, N.C. to Long Pond, Pa. On Friday he qualified sixth fastest for NASCAR Winston Cup's Pennsylvania 500, and then hopped on a plane to race in Colorado Springs the next day. But because he wasn't able to qualify for the Busch race on Friday (being in Pennsylvania as he was), he had to start at the back of the field. After the Saturday race at PPIR, a helicopter whisked him to the airport and he flew back to Pocono.

"I never get tired," said Harvick.

Neither do the fans.


Down from the mountain

Racing isn't always about winning. It's about improvement, and personality. Silverton's A.J. Alsup began racing motorcycles at age 5. Recently he has raced in the Southwest Featherlite and Slim Jim All-Pro Series before trying to make a name for himself in the Busch Series this year.

Alsup doesn't fit the stereotypical image of a professional racer; he's an art major graduate from Ft. Lewis College in Durango.

"I think there's a lot of similarities between stock cars and art," A.J. said. "All the stock cars are more or less the same. The difference comes from the fabricator's hand. You take a flat piece of metal and build a bitchin' racing machine. It's the ultimate manifestation of form following function."

Whenever Alsup races, the family tradition associated with motor sports is prominent. His father Bill, the racing family's patriarch, owns the team and has raced in the Indy 500 for legendary team owner Roger Penske. A.J.'s brother, Nipper, who works as a chief instructor for the Richard Petty Driving Experience during the week, is the team's manager. And the people of the Four Corners region were in force both as spectators and as team members. Silverton's volunteer fire chief, Gilbert Archuleta, acted as overspill man, while the gas can man doubled as grillmeister, flipping burgers and hot dogs between practice runs.

"Silverton is an old mining town, and I think there's a lot of affinity between racers and miners," said Bill Alsup. "Both spend a lifetime chasing a dream. They both have that indefatigable optimism that [good fortune] is going to happen."

About two dozen friends and well-wishers from the Four Corners region made the trip to root A.J. on and witness big-time stockcar racing up close in the pits. Alsup didn't get the top-20 win he was hoping for; he finished 29th. But his well-wishers went home, smiling from the experience nevertheless. "What I think we've done," said Bill Alsup, "is create a bunch of racing fans."

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