Thursday, November 29, 2007

Gridlock Alert

I love the lights of Times Square, but I try to avoid going there during tourist season and the holiday season. It's amazing how many people you can fit in a 10 block radius.

But I can be convinced to go there by the New Year's Eve ball drop, which I will brave the crowds for, or NASCAR. Yes, NASCAR. I love my drivers and every year in the week leading up to their annual awards dinner they do a parade around midtown called the Victory Lap.

The top 12 NASCAR drivers in 2007
drive the Victory Lap towards Times Square.

They go up Madison, across 53rd, down 5th, and end up at the "Good Morning America" studios. I'm not sure when this tradition started but I just found about it last year. Really I'm a new NASCAR fan anyway (driven to it, ha, by an ex-boyfriend but now loyally addicted). With my favorite driver Dale Jr. not in the top 12 this year the events have a bit less luster for me. But one of my favorite parts of NASCAR is how accessible the drivers make themselves to the fans. (Note: It was the top 10 but this year they expanded to the Top 12...)

I have been to three races -- Pocono, New Hampshire, and Kansas City back in college -- and each time I've seen drivers take hours out of their busy schedules to sign autographs, pose for photos and generally be very nice to the adoring masses. I once saw an MLB player carousing around NYC (we'll keep his identity unknown to protect the assholes). A young child and his dad approached the player to ask for an autograph. The player's reply? "I don't do free autographs, kid." And then the player walked away. Ouch. You'd never hear that from a NASCAR driver.

Matt Kenseth (17), Kyle Busch (5) and
Jeff Burton (30) arrive in Times Square.

I knew I'd never be able to stay for the whole event, which started at 8 and continued all day. But I dragged myself out of bed at 6:30 and went to the East side part of the parade route so I could at least see the cars. Antsy to get to work, I watched all 12 slowly drive by at around 8:30, wished I had called in sick so I could join the Times Square festivities, and then went to work.

As the morning dragged I realized I really wanted to go back, so I started my lunch break a little early and made my way back to Times Square. Last year I got Tony Stewart and Kasey Kahne to sign items for me, but Dale Jr. never made it over to where I was standing.

When I arrived, the crowd was thinner that it looked on TV in the morning but still impressively large for New York City. And the drivers were still there, smiling in their firesuits as their tired hands continued to sign autographs. It was too crowded to squeeze up front, so I stood back a little and just took it in. I had rooted for Jeff Burton this year so it was a big thrill seeing him. Martin Truex Jr. revved his engine a few times, Kyle Busch looked smug as usual, Jimmie Johnson (the repeat Champ this year) made humble statements while Jeff Gordon ate humble pie.

Not too long later, the drivers were called to another event. An audible "awww" went up through the crowd but the announcer rattled off a list of other events we could see the drivers at. That was nice. I overheard some businesspeople walking by complaining about NASCAR drivers being in midtown and closing so many streets on one of NYC's "Gridlock Alert Days," aka don't even think about driving here. Awww, tough break.

The second awesome event of yesterday came long after sundown -- the Rockefeller Tree lighting! A couple of my friends and I have gone the last few years. Last year, we avoided flipping the switch time in favor of Bailey's hot chocolate at the W hotel, but this year we decided to brave the crowds. And crowded is an understatement. It's like being an ant trying to plow through the area over a dropped sugary Popsicle stick. You have to budget an extra hour to work your way in and out of the area and I'm not exaggerating.

Yet it is completely worth it. They had all the normal corny music, followed by Nick Lachey and some lady I didn't recognize smiling and kvetching. Finally, the switch was flipped and voila! The tree was lit. It's always so pretty, with extra white sparklers that randomly light up around the tree. The many allusions to snow have been almost comical the last two years as we're not even close to snow weather. But it was pretty chilly last night.

Christmas at Rockefeller Center.

The crowd immediately thins somewhat after the lighting, but there were still plenty of people around as we made our way around to the parade of angels. We'll go back another time to hit the ice skating rink. We took some photos, warmed up a bit at Starbucks, and called it a night. Most of the buildings around there will put up their decorations and outdoor installations. There is one place -- Saks 5th Ave., I think -- that has a light-up snowflake show on the facade of the building, complete with music! I imagine it's perennially annoying for the businesspeople who work late nights around there as it goes off every 30 minutes, but I love it.

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