In 1997, the first morning of my first trip to the Phoenix International Raceway, I had a list of about 50 things I needed to do, from knocking out some interviews to making sure the ESPN TV reporter I was there to produce had enough hairspray.
But as soon as I could sneak away from my coworkers, I grabbed a track official and pointed to the craggy, rock-covered mountain that cast an early morning shadow over Turn 4.
"How do I get to the top of Rattlesnake Hill?"
With all due respect to Dover's Monster Bridge, Talladega's Tri-Oval and even the start-finish line at Daytona, the best seats in NASCAR can be found scattered along a prickly hillside in the middle of the Arizona desert. Or so I had always heard. Now, finally, I wanted to see for myself.
The official walked me through the tunnel beneath the turn, and when he emerged on the other side we hung a right and proceeded to a makeshift gate that said "Hillside Seating, $20." The people that were lined up waiting to get in held coolers, folding chairs, pop-up tents and umbrellas. One woman kept a giant aerosol can under her arm. "Rattlesnake spray," she claimed.
She no doubt had heard the same stories I had. The ones about Phoenix track officials hiring local cowboys and medicine men to sweep the hillsides around the one-mile oval to run off all the evil critters, from rattlers to scorpions to coyotes.
Turns out, those tales were taller than the hill itself, likely told by the same folks who claimed that, after the track opened in 1964, A.J. Foyt brought over Texas sharpshooters to hide in the hills and take out the tires of his Indy Car rivals.
As we handed over our Andrew Jacksons and passed through the gate, we had no idea that the first non-native known to have scaled Rattlesnake Hill was sent there by Jackson's protégé and heir to the White House, James K. Polk. A surveyor named A.B. Gray was sent west to map the uncharted territory and had stood atop this very hill nearly 150 years before I was attempting to.
We poured through the gate and the race fans around me looked like the land grabbers in the Tom Cruise flick Far and Away, sprinting up the hill and racing to see who could stake their claim to the best spots. These days, the hillside is tiered out with nice, flat areas to set up chairs and tents. There is even a hillside concession stand and restroom facilities.
In '97, not so much.
Then fans hoofed it straight up the hill, tripping over rocks and stepping around cacti. Most had wisely arrived wearing hiking boots and shorts and were equipped for what was sure to be a typical spring day in the desert -- cold in the morning, hot midday and then cool again in the evening.
Me, not so much.
I was dressed for work. I think I had on khakis and a golf shirt with some sort of Winston-sponsored windbreaker with a clipboard in one hand and a radio hanging off my belt. One fellow hill climber, who looked more than a little like the Marlboro Man, cast a glance over at my increasingly sweaty face and said, "You're a little overdressed for the racing in the desert aren't you?"
The nearer we got to the top, the more the herd thinned out. Most of the fans were Rattlesnake regulars and had their favorite spots already picked out. One by one, they threw down their gear like a pioneer announcing the location of his homestead. Marlboro Man set down his cooler and shouted ahead for me to whoa. When I turned around he said, "I know you're on the clock right now, but take this and don't open it until you get to the top." Then he tossed me a can of Budweiser. Now recognizing that he was dressed head-to-toe in black and red Dale Earnhardt gear, I thanked him by holding up three fingers. He smiled and said, "Damn right."
A few minutes later I reached the summit. At first I looked back to the east toward the city of Phoenix. A man who was already there sitting in a hunting chair told me that on a clear night you could see the lights of the city. He pointed out the Gila River and Camelback Mountain. He also bemoaned all the construction that was starting to crank up between the track and I-10, which lay to the north.
Then I turned west to look at the track beneath me. There aren't a lot of moments in a man's life when he feels like he's standing on a postcard, but this was one of them. The morning haze was burning off, replaced by the dust blown in from the traffic that snaked around the speedway and campfire smoke wafting in off the parking lots. I couldn't even imagine what sunset must have looked like.
In the valley 1,000 feet below, the Cup Series cars started firing up their engines and rolling out for the weekend's first practice session. My radio immediately started crackling, my coworkers finally realizing that I was missing.
"Here," hunting chair guy said, unfolding a second seat and sliding it my way. "Turn that walkie talkie off and sit down."
"Why?" I replied, still taking in the view.
"Because we're going to sit here and watch the racecars. And if you don't drink that beer then I am."