That's me standing next to the life-size replica of Kyle Busch's Toyota Camry on display at the recent NASCAR race in Joliet, Ill. The car was made from wood, padded in Styrofoam and covered in 1,500 lb. of melted Dove chocolate, 100 lb. of cocoa and 100 lb. of cocoa butter.

“Drivers, start your engines!” With those words and the deafening roar of stock cars that followed, my first-ever NASCAR experience began.

It was Saturday, July 11, at the Chicagoland Speedway, site of the 400, a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series event. Since this was my inaugural trip to the track, I wasn’t sure what to expect. An exciting night of vehicles vying for victory lane, perhaps. A spin-out or two (hopefully resulting in no injuries), I thought. And maybe, just maybe, a basket full of chicken fingers and French fries.

It was all that and more.

Sitting among some 100,000 fans (most sporting earplugs or headphones), I was mesmerized by the sights and sounds of the race, from start to finish. I was further awed by a trip to the pit area, where I saw pit crews and equipment up close and personal.

You might be wondering why I was at NASCAR, how I got into the pits … and why, oh why, I ate those clucks and fries.

Regarding my fried food frenzy, I plead the Fifth. (“When in Rome” …) But the ticket and pit pass were courtesy of the folks over at Mars Snackfood, who invited me back in 2008. I was unavailable at the time, but cashed in my rain check this year - partly out of curiosity, partly to see firsthand the rampant product placement and partly because, well, why not? NASCAR is a huge part of American pop culture. It boasts millions of fans and untold numbers of corporate supporters, including Kellogg’s, Nabisco, Little Debbie and Mars - sponsor of Kyle Busch’s No. 18 Toyota Camry. (Naturally, the car was adorned with advertisements for Mars’ Real Chocolate Relief Act.) Besides, it looked fun.

Kyle Busch, driver of the No. 18 M&M'S car, may not have finished the race, but he and his pit crew did help put on a show at the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series' 400, held July 11 at the Chicagoland Speedway.

And it was.

At times, I recalled scenes from “Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby” - the 2006 comedy in which Will Ferrell plays a NASCAR driver sponsored byWonder bread who gives thanks before dinner for Domino’s, KFC and Taco Bell (and is contractually obligated to mentionPowerAde’s“Mystic Mountain Blueberry” flavor at every sitting).

But for the most part, the event was very real (like Mars’ chocolate), very fast (cars went upwards of 200 mph) … and thrilling beyond belief.

It’s a rare moment in life when you get to experience something new for the very first time. NASCAR did not disappoint. Nevermind the long drive from Evanston to Joliet, the late-night search for my vehicle in the parking lot, the heavy traffic leaving the Speedway or the crazed drivers on the Edens Expressway thinking they were Jimmie Johnson (who led most of the race). I’d do it again in a heartbeat.

That said, I would have loved to see Busch and theM&M’Scar take the checkered flag. Busch’s engine expired just seven laps before the finish. And after a mostly clean race (until the end, when five cautions in the last 67 laps sent spectator adrenaline into overdrive), it was 50-year-old driver Mark Martin who proved that younger doesn’t always mean faster. Martin was followed by fan favorite and fellow teammate Jeff Gordon, age 37, creating a 1-2 win for team owner Hendrick Motorsport.

As we at BNP Media embark on a new era for sister publicationsCandy Industry and the newly renamedRetail Confectioner(previouslyConfection & Snack Retailing) I cannot help but make the connection between the Hendrick dream team and our new partnership here at work. Starting this month, asRCjoins the pages ofCI, Editor-in-Chief Bernie Pacyniak and I hope to be the winning combo that Martin and Gordon proved themselves in Joliet.

To quote Ricky Bobby, it’s time to “shake and bake.”