The office inside Elaine Sweidel’s San Antonio residence is filled with the kinds of NASCAR memorabilia you’d find in the homes of many NASCAR fans, but what’s hanging on her wall elevates her fandom to a higher level. Pinned to a bulletin board is a map of the United States with large push pins representing various tracks on the Cup Series schedule that the retired 67-year-old grandmother of two has visited to watch a race since becoming a fan two decades ago.
Currently, 20 pins are on Sweidel’s map, each with a line leading to a spot where she’s written in pencil the date visited. Her goal is to make it to every track that hosts a Cup points race.
“I’m trying to reach this goal, but I’m not getting any younger,” Sweidel said. “… I’m trying to squeeze them in by age 75.”
To accomplish her objective, each year Sweidel and her husband of 47 years, Dave, a retired 20-year veteran of the Air Force, pick a new track or two to experience. During the 2023 season, their trips consisted of seeing races at Dover, Del., and World Wide Technology Raceway just outside St. Louis. This leaves only Pocono, Sonoma, Michigan, the Chicago Street Course, Iowa and Nashville as tracks that are left unchecked on the list she keeps handy on her phone. The latter of these Sweidel is planning to attend next July, while also contemplating an excursion to Sonoma.
“We want to go to Sonoma I think before we do Michigan and Pocono and all that,” she said. “I got to check it off the list.”
Sweidel’s path to NASCAR fandom is different from most. She didn’t grow up in the sport’s Southeast hub, as she was a military brat who spent time in various locales around the globe, including graduating from a high school in Germany where her father was stationed at the time.
Upon Dave’s retirement from the Air Force, the couple settled in San Antonio. It was here in 2001 that her interest in NASCAR was piqued.
Her nephew had graduated from LSU that year and she encouraged him to seek employment with the USAA, where she and her husband both worked. Taking that advice, he moved in with the couple before starting his new job and getting settled in the area. And each weekend he would watch the NASCAR race, a sport Sweidel knew nothing about other than the typical stereotypes associated with those who enjoy watching a sport where cars run counterclockwise around a track for hundreds of miles.
As Sweidel sat with her nephew to watch the races, though, she found herself becoming interested. And in 2005, she decided to attend her first NASCAR race weekend at Texas Motor Speedway, located in Fort Worth, just under a five-hour drive from the couple’s home.
“I don’t know what happened, but some sort of a switch just flipped in me that turned on a passion for just what the whole thing was about,” Sweidel said.
Little did she know then this would be the beginning of a NASCAR love affair that would lead to her crisscrossing the country to watch races at different tracks.
In 2007, when the NASCAR circuit left TMS after its annual spring stop, the couple decided to drive to the next race on the schedule, at Phoenix Raceway. Later that season came visits to Bristol and Talladega, and gradually the idea of making this a regular thing began to take hold.
“From there, everything just started falling into place,” Sweidel said. “I was still working, and our kids are grown, and I didn’t have grandkids back then, so when we went on vacation, we just wanted to do something different.”
Meet the NASCAR fan who travels to every Cup race — and found himself along the way
Working in Sweidel’s favor as she initially laid out which tracks to visit in the mid-aughts, the Cup schedule was essentially unchanged year-to-year. From the 2002 through 2010 seasons, not a single new venue was added. And when Kentucky joined the fray in 2011, another 10 years passed before the next time NASCAR added a new track with Nashville, Road America in northern Wisconsin and Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas.
Such stagnancy made it rather straightforward to plan trips as both fans and the NASCAR industry largely knew what the schedule would look like each season. Even before NASCAR would release the schedule, fans could book flights and reserve hotel rooms with relative confidence that they wouldn’t need to alter their plans.
But that was then. Over the past few years, NASCAR has undertaken an initiative to expand into new markets while also reducing some of the repetitiveness that once postmarked its calendar. This has left fans (and teams) eagerly awaiting each fall the release of the schedule for the following season. Sweidel is no exception.
“It seemed like the (2024) schedule took forever to come out this year and I was waiting and waiting and waiting,” she said. “Because when you’re a NASCAR fan, you got to get your tickets in advance if you want anything decent and then hotels and stuff like that, but if I don’t know far enough in advance it’s really hard to get reservations.”
Another byproduct of NASCAR’s new approach to scheduling events is that Sweidel understands some tracks may fall off. She wasn’t able to attend races at Chicagoland and Kentucky before they were dropped in 2020 and 2021, respectively. And on some occasions, there is an urgency to get to a new track lest it not be in NASCAR’s long-term plans.
Sensing that NASCAR wouldn’t return to Road America beyond 2022, Sweidel made it a priority to go there last year. And Sweidel’s intuition proved correct. Road America only hosted a Cup race for two years before its date was shifted this season to the street course in downtown Chicago.
Between travel costs, race tickets and other associated expenses, it certainly isn’t cheap to travel to multiple NASCAR races each year. Especially if you live in San Antonio, far away from the majority of tracks, and if you’re a retiree on a fixed budget.
What helps is that since Dave is ex-military, the Sweidel’s have clearance to rent a room on an Air Force base, often at a price well below what hotels would charge, most of which up their prices significantly during race weekends. Provided there is a base in relatively close proximity to the track and has availability, this goes a long way to helping keep costs in line.
The opportunity to stay on an Air Force base created a serendipitous moment for Sweidel this past spring while attending the race at Dover Motor Speedway in Delaware, just minutes away from Dover Air Force Base where the couple was staying that weekend. But when the Cup race slated for Sunday was postponed until Monday due to rain, they had an unexpected free day and decided to go see the movie “Big George Foreman” at a nearby theater. As they walked in, walking out were Ryan Blaney, Chase Elliott and Bubba Wallace, who had just seen “The Super Mario Bros. Movie.”
Blaney happens to be Sweidel’s favorite current driver, and the opportunity to meet him was one she couldn’t pass up.
“I just took a chance and said, ‘Excuse me, do you mind if I take a picture?’” Sweidel said. “And Blaney was the most outgoing of the three of them. He’s like, ‘Yeah, sure, come on, come stand right here,’ and he kind of directed the whole thing, put his arm around my back and (asked me questions).”
I flew fr TX to ✅ off track #19 @MonsterMile. It rained; I was sad. But my day became ☀️ bcuz of these 3 guys that I admire. Thank you, gentlemen @BubbaWallace @Blaney @chaseelliott You made my trip most memorable. One of these guys MUST win on Mon b4 3pm cuz my ✈️ leaves at 7. pic.twitter.com/ZoFCGF6j1f
— Elaine GaylorSweidel (@ElaineSweidel) May 1, 2023
In the photo, Sweidel is wearing a NASCAR jacket she purchased at Love’s Travel Stop. The jacket is covered in patches commemorating the tracks she’s visited. Some of the patches she purchased at the actual track, but with some tracks not selling patches she’s had to resort to finding historic patches on eBay.
The jacket has become more than just a jacket. It’s a keepsake, something she cherishes immensely, represents where she’s been and her devotion to the sport.
“I get more compliments about my jacket than anything,” Sweidel said. “It’s in my funeral orders, that’s what I’m going to be buried in. That’s my plan. Not anytime soon, I hope. I got to get at least 25 patches on it.
“I love it so much.”
(Photo of Bubba Wallace, Ryan Blaney, Elaine Sweidel and Chase Elliott: Courtesy of Elaine Sweidel)