It's my third year at Race of Champions and still I struggle to explain the epic-ness of the experience. This year, I latched onto a word that wraps it up for me – surreal. For anyone slightly interested in racing, the event is filled with almost unreal, fantastic and pinch-me-I'm-dreaming moments.
From the minute I walk into the host hotel the surreal-ness begins. Despite my early in the week, late night arrival (1:00am), I run into Terry Grant, a Race of Champions entertainer, stunt guy and World Record holder. Let the surreal begin – where in the world does this type of run-in happen? Only at RoC.
Day two is a trip to the track to get the lay of the land, to understand how this stadium is going to be different – very different. Details have different meaning in different countries. But there is one detail that RoC never overlooks – the driver experience, because that's where it all starts. From there, everything else is amplified and perfected – from the TV broadcast to stadium audience to VIP hospitality. When the drivers are happy, so is everyone else.
Happy drivers Tom Kristensen and Seb Ogier.
Not that grumpy is the usual state of drivers, just that here, fun makes the show that much better. For the past 25 years, Race of Champions has been pitting the best in motorsports against one another to decide the "Champion of Champions" and the "World's Fastest Nation." Only the best are invited. It's intense heat racing, head-to-head on an identical track in identical cars. They don't test, they don't have a team engineer, they don't have official duties. They DO have fun. Lots of it. But this fun has serious consequences – to be crowned the Champion and to represent their country or region is a proud moment. So to balance the intense nature of racing with fun for the drivers – is an art form.
Back to Day Two…after the stadium is scoped, we're headed to the hotel, where Team America's driver and 2012 PWRC Champion Benito Guerra Jr and his dad have arrived. We wander the streets of Bangkok and meet up for a beer or two with Terry…as we move through the evening, more join us, Tom Kristensen and his crew randomly end up and the same place for dinner, Mick Doohan lands and meets us in the hotel lobby for a beer… It happens like that – surreal moments #2 and #3. You're friends from the past or new friends in shared experiences, whatever the case it is an instant familiarity and respect. Over the evening, the group comes and goes and we plot a day out in Bangkok for the next day.
New and old friends gather…Pilar Lastra, Terry Grant, Benito Guerra Sr., Benito Guerra Jr., and me.
Day three is a late start for our group. We meet at noon to take some sights around Bangkok. We opt for a river tour and some Buddha watching. Our karma is good because we get a tip from the Tourist Police that the Royal Temple is open once a year and today is the day. We make our way around town and end up once again at the host hotel for dinner and some Bangkok shenanigans with the bigger group. I'm sworn to secrecy. Surreal moment #4 is the incredible to unmentionable experiences I shared with this group.
Long boat tour on the river – Benito Guerra Jr & Sr., Pilar and Mick Doohan.
Friday – officially RoC begins. It is a reunion of sorts. For everyone. Not just the drivers but also the RoC workers and the entourage – no difference is made here. Surreal moment #5 – here the champions are just another face in the crowd and not the center of attention.
But, let's face it, this is a club – with the entry requirement being a champion – whether it's a series or a prestigious race, these guys have paid a HUGE price to get here. Not many are allowed into the club and it is all carefully managed to make sure the drivers and their chosen guests are relaxed and free to socialize. They hang out in the Driver's Lounge, car changing area or after race parties – together – not segregated like in their day jobs. Here they are allowed to talk about the car and share notes – and of course, play the games that racer's play: smack-talk and bench-racing.
Friday night back at the hotel is spent in the RoC Lounge (the private party area at the hotel) and out about in Bangkok for a few. The groups splinter-off full of new friends. Many turn in early to be sharp for racing, but not all… Surreal moment #6 – these guys can PARTY!
Saturday – some are fresh, some are not. Somehow the difference isn't obvious. Today is Nation's Cup – where they battle it out to claim the title of World's Fastest Nation. It's a tough battle between Team France and Team Germany – but once again – Germany claims it. What's surreal about today is the non-stop surreal. Everywhere you look are groups of drivers sharing and comparing – F1, IndyCar, WRC, WEC, WTCC, PWRC, MotoGP… But what are they talking about exactly? Everything – from racing, the day's event to horses. Yeah, horses. Schumacher recently bought a ranch in Texas and was all about sharing that passion. Surreal moment #7, noted. The Nation's Cup celebrations go late into the night or actually early into the next morning. Good thing the Race of Champions doesn't happen until later in the evening.
I spy WEC, PWRC, IndyCar, F1 & V8 Supercar.
Bangkok is known for its traffic issues, so each day begins and ends with a police escort. That's surreal no matter the event. Sunday is about crowning the Champion of Champions. The energy during the final minutes of the competition is charged with anticipation and some sadness. For a few drivers, the end of the race means the end of the weekend and goodbyes are said. The reunion is winding down. Surreal moment #8, racers are friends, too, not just competitors.
Most make it back to the RoC Lounge to celebrate Romain Grosjean's win and the fun they had challenging him…but even so, with early morning flights and the end in sight, see-ya-laters come with the cocktails and shenanigans. Shenanigans are a popular part of Race of Champions. To survive the weekend and not be pranked is an accomplishment and this year is no different. To protect the not-so-innocent, I won't mention names or actions – besides I don't wanted to be shunned next time around. And maybe I am guilty, too.
By now, it seems as if surreal is the reality. As I look back, I don't see the difference. Sorting it out to tell stories is difficult. It just is.
To the fans viewing from afar, the surrealism isn't lost. TV and social media capture the unique camaraderie and racing action. Where else do racing heroes gather, to put it on the line, to be crowned Champion Champions? Nowhere. Their on-going commitment to the sport of racing and to the fans is the most surreal part of all.
• Click here to check out Melissa Eickhoff's complete photo gallery from the Race of Champions on RACER's Facebook page.