Twelve hours, 500 miles, 2,000 tires, 7,000 gallons of gas, 20,000 Dale Earnhardt Jr. shirts, 16,000 hot dogs, and an inland sea of light beer: My fearless voyage into the 34,400- horsepower heart of Nascar, Texas.
I’M SITTING AT AN INTERSECTION in one of the world’s largest parking lots, watching an impatient crossing guard cope with the early stages of one of the world’s largest traffic jams, which is forming in front of the Texas Motor Speedway, one of the world’s largest racetracks. The guard has a long shift ahead of him; today’s race won’t begin for six hours and forty minutes. Plus, it’s spitting rain. He finally turns toward me and begins yelling and pointing at the track, and I lurch forward into a tunnel that runs underneath it, emerging into the open air of a gigantic walled city.
As on a Sunday morning in any big city, some residents have a clear sense of purpose, while others clearly have none. Outside the locked gates of a parking lot that holds the drivers’ luxury buses, fans are already waiting, digital cameras out and Sharpies ready, just in case a famous racer decides to leave his warm bed and wander into the cold. The speedway’s infield has been converted into a camping area, home this race weekend to 10,000 people. Giant luxury motor coaches with tinted windows and expandable living rooms park next to scrappy little campers with awnings set in the gravel and hand-painted buses with homemade scaffoldings on their roofs. American, rebel, and Lone Star flags fly next to banners waving the numbers of honored NASCAR drivers: 3 (the late Dale Earnhardt), 8 (his son Dale Earnhardt Jr., known to all as Junior), 20 (Tony Stewart), 24 (Jeff Gordon). Beer cans and plastic bead necklaces lie smashed on the ground, clues to the ferocity of the previous night’s partying, and now, in the cold light of a cloudy morning, men and women walk slowly along the lanes between the campers, dazed looks on their faces. A few climb up onto their roofs for a view of the empty gray track, which mirrors the sky. It is November 5, the Dickies 500, the eighth race in the Chase for the Nextel Cup, and 43 race cars will soon be driving really, really fast for 500 miles. If the rain holds off, 215,000 people will crowd into this former cow pasture north of Fort Worth to watch them, and for an afternoon or so, the Texas Motor Speedway will be the eleventh-largest city in the state, measured by population. Measured by other values, those of human devotion, corporate satisfaction, and skull-rattling noise, it’ll be number one.
Though the rain has stopped, talk in the pressroom is bleak: There’s a 30 percent chance of more today, and rain means no race. Stock car tires have zero tread, so even the least bit of moisture on the track can spell disaster. Journalists sit at their laptops and read their papers. Some of these guys have been covering the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing long enough to have seen it go from regional Southern sport to national craze. NASCAR likes to brag that it now has more than 75 million fans, or one in 4 Americans, which is probably an exaggeration, and that 275 million watch on TV, which again is a bit of a stretch. But somebody’s watching: ESPN, ABC, Fox, and TNT are paying $4.48 billion to televise NASCAR races for the next eight years. Seven million people turn out for the season’s 36 races, held from February through November at 23 speedways all over the country, from Fontana, California, to Dover, Delaware. The race weekends are three-day festivals, many beginning on Friday night with the Craftsman Truck Series, continuing with the Saturday afternoon Busch Series, and culminating in the big-daddy Sunday afternoon Nextel Cup Series. Of course, you don’t have to be a race fan to know that NASCAR is huge. You see the drivers every day, on cereal boxes, in magazines, on TV: Stewart selling Banquet chicken potpies, Junior selling Wrangler jeans, Ken Schrader selling Little Debbie snacks.
Let me begin by saying that I, however, have never been a NASCAR fan. Not only have I always been annoyed by the overt commercialism of the sport (why, for God’s sake, should I buy a certain brand of chicken potpie because some guy in an orange-and-black jumpsuit tells me to?), I’ve never really gotten stock car racing. What’s the deal with driving in a circle for four hours? Like a lot of Americans, I’ve always found deep and special meaning in the throwing of an ellipsoid followed by the violent bringing to earth of the catcher of said ellipsoid: I love football. That said, it was while watching Monday Night Football one night long ago that I heard Howard Cosell say something about racing I’ve always remembered. He was debating his partners about which sport featured the best athletes. Don Meredith or Frank Gifford offered something obvious, like football or basketball, with which I, of course, agreed. Cosell, always the contrarian, said, no, it’s auto racing, and he backed it up (in my memory) by explaining that the drivers had to have superquick reflexes and that they had to maintain a level of mental and physical focus for hours at a time—one false move and it’s not an offsides penalty. It’s death.
Okay, maybe. But if Cosell were here today, I’d say, “Look at these guys: doughy Stewart, rail-thin Junior, diminutive Gordon. Some of the younger drivers in NASCAR still have pimples. These are the world’s best athletes?”
So I’ve come to the Texas Motor Speedway not just for the drivers but also for the cars and the crazies, the life and the lifestyle, the thrill of speed and the agony of watching a bunch of guys turn left for four hours straight. The things that millions of my fellow Americans live for almost every single Sunday.
Actually, I’ve been to the Texas Motor Speedway before. Along pit road, a series of large parking spaces on a kind of exit ramp off the track, the crews are spreading out tools and bringing up stacks of smooth tires on the very piece of ground where, two months earlier, I’d donned a fire-retardant suit and climbed through the window of a Chevy Monte Carlo SS. I wasn’t alone that afternoon; four dozen other mostly middle-aged men, many of them in “Junior” T-shirts, had also paid the Team Texas High Performance Driving School hundreds of dollars to see what it was all about—to drive a real race car. After a brief lesson, we were strapped into a five-point harness, one with a collar connected to our helmets so that if we drove into the wall, our skulls wouldn’t snap off our spines. The inside of the car was cramped and cage-like. My co-pilot’s name was Steve. He flipped a switch and started the engine, and we were consumed by sound and rattling fury. A four-wheeler pushed us out onto the track, seventh out of seven cars, and I lumbered into that first turn like a tank. But on the straightaway I tapped the accelerator, and we suddenly surged ahead, like Michael Vick in the open field. It took me a while to figure out how to “drive the line”—NASCAR-speak for finding the best trajectory going into the turns and onto the straightaways, staying as close to the wall as possible, cutting the gas to ride the curve of the infield border, then progressively accelerating until you slam the pedal to the floor on the straightaway and hug the wall again. The other drivers, it might be needless to say, were better at driving the line than I was. In fact, by the eighth time around the mile-and-a-half-long track, every other driver in my group had passed me. Two laps later, as we slowed into the pit lane, it all of a sudden became very important to me to know that I hadn’t really driven like a guy who owns a Volvo station wagon, and I asked Steve about my top speed. “We went one hundred fifty on the next-to-last lap,” he said, clearly trying to make me feel better. It worked, at least until I figured out later, through a humbling viewing of the $45 videotape, that I maybe—maybe—topped out at 125.
I learned more about what racers go through from riding along with a professional driver a few minutes after my drive, in a dense pack of six other cars also piloted by pros. We got faster and louder, and by the first straightaway we were absolutely flying. “WOOOOOOOO!” I found myself yelling involuntarily. The driver barely decelerated on the turns and hit the gas again while we were still curving. I was certain we were going to fly off into space, but then we went even faster and it got even louder and I held on to the cage bars tighter. At 160 miles per hour, the drivers gave us paid customers a show, weaving in and out of traffic, violating the driver’s ed two-second rule, scaring the hell out of us. At one point I looked over and the car next to us was so close I could have touched it—if I could have peeled my hands away from the bars. The hardest part was the curves, where the banking was so high (24 degrees) and the g-force pressure so hard that by the third turn I felt like the guy in those pictures of early acceleration experiments, whose face is blowing back over his skull. My eardrums screamed. It felt as though a very large person were sitting on my head.
That was 160 mph. Today, I hear, they’ll come close to 200.
On the grass in front of the main grandstand, a giant mobile stage is being set up for the pre-race ceremony. At the center, stairs lead to a large inflated Nextel castle, and on the sides sit three life-size characters from the 2006 Disney movie Cars. I’m going to go out on a limb right here and say that I believe Cars may be the best movie ever made about NASCAR. My three-year-old son, with whom I have watched the movie about 25 times, will back me up on this. Yes, it’s a Pixar cartoon, but it is spot-on about everything in the NASCAR world, from the look and feel of the tracks and the infields to the adoring faces of the fans.
Ah, the fans. The night before the race I had spent some time among the 40,000 faithful camped in the sites outside the stadium (for which they’d paid considerably less than the fans occupying the infield). Many of them had been there all week. NASCAR fans are not shy—not the men who stood around drinking beer in large groups, chanting, “Titties! Titties! Titties!” at women cruising by in slowly moving trucks, and certainly not the women, many of whom did indeed bare their breasts in return for the showering of plastic bead necklaces.
I had a guide for much of the night, a journalist from Beaumont named Jerry Jordan, himself a NASCAR fan who has been to many races. This, of course, was my first, and I betrayed my ignorance when I began asking people who their “favorite drivers” were. Two clean-cut men from Kansas wearing NASCAR caps with the numbers 20 (Stewart) and 24 (Gordon) stared at me as if I was stupid before pointing at their hats.
“Tony Stewart,” answered another young man at a nearby fire, and a cheerful young woman agreed. “I love his attitude—he’s just like me. You gotta have the right attitude to race.”
Jerry and I wandered to another campsite, where a couple from Silsbee, near Beaumont, drank beer and watched the OU-A&M game. The man had long hair, an East Texas drawl, and a casual but defiant redneck air. He wore a Budweiser cap and his wife wore a Bud jacket. Jerry recognized a fellow traveler, and this time he asked the question the way NASCAR fans ask it of one another: “Who’s your driver?”
“Dale Earnhardt Jr.,” the man responded proudly. “Nothing but.” He held up his beer. “I drink Budweiser too. I don’t need to share the wealth with anyone else.” He looked into the fire. “Junior’s never going to fill his daddy’s shoes,” he said, “but he’s his own person.”
Who’s your driver? As I would learn, it’s not a matter of favorites, and for a lot of the faithful, it’s not even a matter of choice. Football fans root for individual players, but only because they play for their team. NASCAR fans feel about their drivers like Baptists do about Jesus.
It’s still breakfast by my clock, but I’m watching the first corny dog of the day get eaten by a teenage girl in a Caney Cougars T-shirt. The man next to her has a plate of nachos. The PA announcer reminds us to go to the main souvenir midway and “grab some of your favorite driver’s merchandise!” NASCAR devotees tend to get to the stadium a lot earlier than most other sports fans, and they fill the time with two all-American pursuits: eating and shopping.
More than $2 billion of NASCAR-licensed products are sold every year, and the road along the grandstand looks like a carnival, with dozens of large hauler trucks selling stuff and thousands of fans with nothing to do for hours but … buy stuff. Many drivers have merch trucks. Junior has five, and in front of each one, fifty people wait to buy hats, T-shirts, and jackets decorated with his face or his number or the logo of his primary sponsor, Budweiser.
Dozens of companies that sponsor NASCAR cars have marketing tents or booths along the midway. Nextel, which will pay a total of $750 million through 2013 to be NASCAR’s main sponsor, has a giant barn where you can buy a cell phone or get your picture taken with life-size cardboard cutouts of Stewart, Gordon, and Junior. At the Chevy and GM tents, pretty girls greet passersby. Goody’s people hand out “headache powder”; U.S. Smokeless Tobacco dispenses snuff. Nearby, four fans on a mock-game-show stage play NASCAR trivia, with people in the large crowd chiding them for not knowing the answers to questions like “Who is the youngest winner of the Daytona 500?”
The race is five hours away, but some would argue that this is the main event for NASCAR fans—hanging out with other like-minded folks, people who love speed, noise, and the occasional breakfast corny dog, people who know that the youngest winner of the Daytona 500 was Jeff Gordon. Age 25.
One of the reasons I’ve never taken NASCAR seriously is because it’s always seemed like a kind of endangered species refuge for white males, both on the track and in the stands. So I’m surprised when I spot my fourth interracial couple (he wears a Bud jacket, she a FedEx one). In addition, on Friday I watched a black driver, Bill Lester, race in the Craftsman Truck Series and yesterday saw several blacks in the pit crews. NASCAR has been working hard to expand its audience and recently hired Magic Johnson as a consultant.
I’m also surprised by the number of women I’m seeing, attributable, perhaps, to all the young hotties racing these days. At Friday’s qualifying laps—where drivers competed for the coveted pole position—the fans were lined up three deep behind chains and gates with their cameras on, their Sharpies up (caps off), and their hats and autograph books in hand. Half were women, and they called out to Jimmie Johnson, to Stewart, and to rookie sensation Denny Hamlin (“He’s pretty in the face,” one said as he walked by). But the racer who made them scream like teenagers was 26-year-old Kasey Kahne, the Brad Pitt of NASCAR, though he looks more like Noah Wyle from ER. After Kahne drove his laps, he got out of his car to talk to a huge crowd of reporters. “Oh, my God,” a woman with short blond hair standing behind the pit wall announced. “We’re gonna see Kasey Kahne!” Another joined in. “There he is! Kasey! Woohoo!” They waved at Kahne, who leaned against his car, sunglasses on his head, eyebrows arched, answering questions and trying to act casual. He was about 25 feet away.
Three or four women began yelling at once, “Kasey Kahne!” He didn’t look.
“I’m watching him,” a woman said breathlessly into her cell phone. “He’s being interviewed ten feet from here!”
There’s always something to watch on the huge Nextel Vision screen just behind pit road: ads for Lowe’s (featuring Johnson), UPS (Dale Jarrett), and Nextel; scenes from Cars; videos of crashes—cars spinning out, hitting the wall, smoking—and winners spraying the air with champagne.
A couple of on-screen announcers talk about what to look for in the upcoming race. The Dickies 500 is the eighth of 10 races that constitute the Chase for the Cup, a new (since 2004) playoff system after a regular season of 26 races. People complain about the NBA’s grueling season, in which basketball players play from October to June; NASCAR’s campaign is two months longer, almost every single Sunday. By mid-November, when the cars pull into the Homestead-Miami Speedway for the last race, everyone is exhausted: drivers, crew, and fans. NASCAR’s is the Bataan Death March of professional sports seasons.
The rain returns in a light, steady drizzle, but inside the garage, the crews are making last-minute changes to the brightly colored Chevy Monte Carlos and Dodge Chargers. They share names with current models put out by automobile companies that anyone can buy, plain old “stock” cars, but there is nothing stock about NASCAR cars. The engines are custom-made—$50,000, 358-cubic-inch, 800-horsepower V8’s that get about 3 miles per gallon. There are no mufflers or catalytic converters. The brakes, shock absorbers, and axles are fit for a Sherman tank, and the 12-inch-wide tires are absolutely bald, good for maybe 100 miles before blowing. The 22-gallon vacuum-sealed fuel cells have a foam baffling to prevent explosions. The body is beer can-thin sheet metal, welded together with no doors and an open window for the driver (the windshield is made of shatterproof Lexan). The headlights are decals. The driver’s seat sits inside a cage of tubing. The steering wheel clicks on and off a collapsible column. There are oil pressure and water temperature gauges and a voltmeter, but there’s no speedometer; drivers use the tachometer (RPMs) if they need to figure out how fast they’re going, but the sound of the engine and the tires usually tells them all they need to know. Racers understand better than anyone that all speed is relative, and all they want to do is go relatively faster than everybody else.
One of the core debates in NASCAR is, car or driver? Which is more important? On the one hand, because all cars must have the same internal and external specs, the race will ultimately be about the men driving them. On the other, the teams with more money generally have faster cars, and as driver Brian Vickers said in a pre-race press conference yesterday, “We all know you win these races at the shop.” In other words, careful adjustments to the steering, tire pressure, or chassis can give any car an edge. Earlier this season, Johnson’s crew chief was suspended for four weeks for raising the rear window to give his car an aerodynamic boost. As the saying goes, “If you ain’t cheatin’, you ain’t tryin’.”
Former Dallas Cowboys running back Tony Dorsett, wearing a Crown Royal jacket (he was helping promote a company contest), stands under a restroom building awning between pit road and the garage and answers questions from a pretty blond reporter. “I’m becoming a NASCAR fan,” he insists. “I’m becoming a bigger NASCAR fan as the years go by.” A middle-aged man with a camera around his neck, who has been waiting for drivers to make the walk to the track, blurts to his wife, “That’s Tony Dorsett! Holy shit!” and begins snapping pictures.
It’s still raining, the sky is getting even darker, and I’m starting to worry that I’ve come all the way to the TMS just to wander the souvenir midway and stare at the Nextel Vision screen. But walking around pit road, I run into Tom Krampitz, the track’s government and community-affairs consultant, whom I had met in September when I’d first visited the track. “NASCAR will postpone the start for four or five hours if need be,” he assures me, “but they’ll run the race today. They have to. The TV advertisers won’t be happy showing it tomorrow on cable. Tomorrow’s a workday. No one will be happy.”
Back in September, Krampitz had taken me up to the grandstand roof for a bird’s-eye view of the track, which was built in 1995 by Bruton Smith, a fabulously wealthy North Carolinian who owns five other tracks. Smith then sold the track to the city of Fort Worth in return for a thirty-year lease. “He’s a visionary,” said Krampitz, gazing over the prairie. “He saw this piece of land and decided to create this.” Krampitz, who is tall and thin and looks like the character actor James Cromwell, told me that there’s always some kind of event going on at the TMS, from weddings on Victory Lane to proms in the Speedway Club. That evening in September it was a charity drive, where a thousand fans paid $25 to drive three laps around the speedway.
Directly underneath us, 192 suites lined the top of the grandstand, with 64 seats in each one. “Companies pay sixty to eighty thousand dollars a year to show their clients a good time,” said Krampitz. “This puppy is a money-making economic-development engine. Street & Smith’s said one of our big weekends is the economic equivalent of the Super Bowl. The return to the city is huge.” He looked down on the track and the giant logos of companies sponsoring the TMS: Dickies, O’Reilly Auto Parts, Radio Shack, Samsung, UPS, Time Warner Cable. “Obviously, if we have a piece of flat surface, we’re gonna sell it. That’s the name of the game.”
No sport is more heavily subsidized by outside money than NASCAR. “Money buys speed,” as TMS president Eddie Gossage is fond of saying. Corporate sponsors make NASCAR’s wheels go round, much to the supreme consternation of anyone (like me) who’s ever (for example) felt proud of the Chicago Cubs for keeping their outfield walls commercial-free. How can anyone take seriously a sport in which both car and driver are covered in ads? How do you cheer for DuPont?
“Loudly,” Jeff Gordon, driving the DuPont Monte Carlo SS, might say. It costs $15 million to $20 million to build and maintain a car, as well as pay the crew and the driver, so team owners go to corporations for sponsorship help. Right now, the 250 companies involved in the business of NASCAR spend about $1 billion annually. Each team generally has one or two primary sponsors, which pay anywhere from $3 million to $15 million a year in return for getting to put a big logo on the hood and possibly on the roof and doors (if there is more than one primary sponsor, they will alternate taking the hood logo, race by race). Teams also have many associate sponsors, which pay anywhere from $72,000 for twenty-inch decals on the doors and fenders to $1 million for the rear spoiler or the trunk space (called the TV panel because it fills the screen when the camera in the following car is trained on it). In the early days, it was all motor oil and chewing tobacco. Now you see logos for Nicorette, Ragú, M&M’s. Women make up two fifths of the fan base now, and much of the advertising is aimed at them. Two seasons ago female Busch Series driver Kim Crosby had a sponsorship deal with Boudreaux’s Butt Paste, a diaper rash ointment.
Corporations love NASCAR because the return on investment is excellent. Studies have shown that the “exposure value” to a corporation of having its logo on a car and driver exceeds the money spent putting it there by as much as five to one. Think about it: Even if viewers TiVo a race and fast-forward through the commercials, they still see nothing but ads. NASCAR fans are more white-collar and middle-class than fans of other sports and they’re extremely brand loyal. Budweiser sells a lot of beer because of Junior—and Drakkar Noir sells a lot of cologne. In the first year after he began doing ads for the fragrance, sales shot up by 46 percent.
In return for the millions of dollars, drivers become marketing tools for their corporations, doing TV commercials, making personal appearances before or after every race, and giving interviews in which they constantly drop the names of their primary sponsors. Drivers find themselves gushing over band-saw blades and pipe wrenches, as Jeff Burton did at a Friday press conference when his team announced that Lenox Industrial Tools would be an associate sponsor in 2007: “We have all high-quality products on our car. We have all quality names that people notice. Lenox is a wonderful addition to that.”
There’s a great scene in Cars in which Lightning McQueen, a shiny, arrogant race car, reluctantly makes his obligatory post-race personal appearance in front of the adoring rusty heaps waiting at the tent of his sponsor, Rust-eze Medicated Bumper Ointment. “I hate rusty cars,” he says to his handler, then gives his rote speech: “You know, the Rust-eze Medicated Bumper Ointment team ran a great race today.” Yes, maybe stock car racing is an authentic sport and NASCAR drivers are authentic athletes, but if they didn’t spend so much time selling soap, I’d be more inclined to give them the benefit of the doubt.
The basic strategy of stock car racing is pretty easy to understand: Go fast, turn left, drive the line. Advanced strategy, or “racing hard,” is where things get interesting. The Nextel Vision screen shows some good examples of this sort of thing as it plays a video to the tune of AC/DC’s “Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap”: cars nudging one another, smashing one another, putting one another into the wall. Drivers “trade paint” to intimidate, to retaliate, or just because they feel like it. Mostly they do it to get the other guy out of the way or make him spin out, especially on the turns, when the cars are at their most unstable. This is called the bump and run. Dale Earnhardt was a master of it. He did whatever it took to win and bullied his way to seven Cup championships; Junior, the consensus is, doesn’t, and has won none.
Sometimes a racer doesn’t even have to bump; if he speeds up right behind another car, he can trap air underneath his opponent’s back end, causing it to lose its grip on the road and spin out. But often what cars are doing when they’re speeding along behind one another is “drafting,” or riding in the other’s slipstream. Drafting is mostly used at bigger tracks like the Talladega Superspeedway. This year, on the very last lap there, Stewart, in third, was drafting behind Johnson, who was in second, when he gave him a push to the inside of Brian Vickers, who was in first. Both sped past him, Johnson won, and Stewart came in second. As NASCAR fans say, that’s racin’.
The rain stops. Eight large blower trucks roll out, like racetrack Zambonis. As they make their way around, the band Van Zant begins playing on the main stage. The crowd is polite until the guitarists knock out the first notes of “Sweet Home Alabama,” at which everyone in the place goes crazy. It’s a greatly appreciated nod to history—not so much the band’s (the two singers are brothers of Ronnie Van Zant, long-dead singer of Lynyrd Skynyrd) but NASCAR’s.
Stock car racing began in the Deep South, in the hills of North Carolina and Georgia, where federal revenue agents chased Prohibition-era moonshine runners driving souped-up cars disguised to look as ordinary as possible. The drivers—hotheaded young men like Junior Johnson, immortalized in Tom Wolfe’s 1965 Esquire story, “The Last American Hero Is Junior Johnson. Yes!”—found themselves racing one another in their off time, especially after Prohibition ended. NASCAR was founded in Daytona Beach, Florida, in 1948, and the new organization built tracks and established rules and standards. The idea was to race stock cars, the ones everyday people drove. Detroit got in the game, building supercharged versions of those cars with V8 engines, wide tires, and massive suspension systems. In the sixties television brought the sport out of the boonies with help from personalities such as Richard Petty, a.k.a. the King, who wore sunglasses and a cowboy hat, autographed everything put in front of him, and won seven championships.
The modern age began in 1971, after Congress banned cigarette advertising on TV. Looking for a new venue, cigarette giant R.J. Reynolds gave NASCAR $100,000 a year in exchange for its brands’—especially Winston—being displayed everywhere. The Winston Cup Series was born. In the seventies and eighties NASCAR modified its rules and regulations until all cars were basically the same, though crews kept finding ways to squeeze an extra horse or two out of an engine. The eighties saw the emergence of Earnhardt, who played the bad guy to Petty’s good guy and was known as the Intimidator.
The supermodern age began in 2001, when, on the last turn of the last lap of the most legendary NASCAR track, the Daytona International Speedway, the Intimidator smashed into the wall and died. Even non-fans took notice of his shocking death and the deep mourning it triggered throughout NASCAR Nation; almost immediately, the sport’s popularity rose in the mainstream. Two years later Reynolds withdrew as the major sponsor and Nextel signed on. Cigarettes out, cell phones in. In 2004 NASCAR made an overt effort to bring in more-casual fans when it replaced the points system it formerly used to crown its champion with the new Chase for the Cup.
Not everyone is happy with the changes, even if they have helped make NASCAR one of the great success stories in American sports history. Old-time fans complain about the modern, corporate NASCAR, how it altered the points system, changed its lead sponsor from the ultimate Southern crop to the ultimate universal consumer item, and reached out to the rest of the country by adding races in places like Kansas City and Chicago while at the same time cutting them at venerable Southern tracks. How far will NASCAR go? Well, this year, for the first time, it’s allowing a foreign car company into the Cup. After almost sixty years of having the track to themselves, Ford, Dodge, and Chevy will have to make room for—gasp—Toyota.
NASCAR may be turning Japanese, but it still relentlessly honors its American heroes—this morning by making a long presentation to Terry Labonte, a veteran driver from Corpus Christi who is retiring after this race. Then today’s drivers are introduced, in reverse order of starting position. As their names are called they appear at the top of the Nextel castle, wave regally, descend the stairs, and high-five Sparky, the TMS’s spark plug mascot. Many drivers get no response, as if the fans have never heard of them, but the marquee stars are loudly applauded: Stewart, the bad boy; Hamlin, the rookie phenom; Matt Kenseth, the consistent but boring Wisconsinite, who is leading the Chase; Johnson, the rising star who is primed to take over that lead today. Half the crowd boos Gordon, the nice-looking corporate guy. Kahne, the young hottie, is wildly cheered. And when Junior’s name is called, the stadium goes messianic, roaring for the son of the South, the son of the Intimidator.
After the intros, the drivers walk to Chevy pickups, climb in back, ride around the track, waving and smiling at the crowd until they reach pit road, where the cars are waiting.
All right, let’s roll.
Not so fast. The official starting time comes and goes. Drivers sit in their cars, get out and stand around with their pretty wives and girlfriends, do interviews with the Speed Channel, watch two blinged-out blond “pit lizards” in tight jeans slink hand in hand up and down the line, and wait for the trucks drying the track to drive slowly around and the pit crews to blowtorch the pavement, though by this time, it looks pretty damn dry.
I hike over to the crowded grandstand and find a seat high above the start/finish line. For a time, at least, I’m a member of NASCAR Nation. We stare. We eat. We stand. We sit. We finally hear the words we’ve been waiting for.
“Gentlemen, start your engines!”
They do, each car coming loudly to life. The pace car, with flashing lights on its roof, leads the cars in single file, and they roll around the track as the crowd stands and cheers.
The cars are moving at maybe 50 mph now, and a man in the flag stand above the start/finish line waves a yellow caution flag. One lap later, he waves a yellow flag and a green flag, which means the race is officially beginning, though it’s beginning rather cautiously because of the conditions. On the next lap he flashes two fingers at the cars, which split into two precise columns, a parade going grandly around the track. There is one lap to go until the green flag, and the cars weave back and forth, warming up their tires and knocking off bits of loose rubber, speeding up and braking, growling like dogs. We’re on our feet now, waving caps in the air, whooping and taking pictures.
The pace car veers off onto pit road, and the two lines slowly accelerate as they head down the last two hundred yards to the start/finish line. Everyone is screaming and the cars are getting louder and faster and the flagman waves two green flags and the bright numbers and logos blur past as 43 eight-hundred-horsepower engines open up as far as they can go and the sound shakes the earth and all of us standing there.
It is obnoxious, violent, and arrogant, the loudest thing I’ve ever heard, and I feel it deep down in my football-loving soul. It feels good.
And then they are off, around the first and second turns, like geese on the wing, jocke-ying for position. Thirty-two seconds later they’re back, even faster, but not as loud, because the line has already started to thin out. Kurt Busch has taken the lead, and fans tip their hats at their drivers and wave their hands.
Twelve laps in, the fans sit down. There are another 322 to go. Cameras inside twelve of the cars feed video of what’s happening around them to the Nextel screen. Maybe a quarter of the fans have on headphones to listen on radio scanners to the drivers talk to their crews. The sound of the individual cars as they pass is sharp and quick—VEEEOW! VEEEOW!
A yellow caution flag comes out, and the cars all slow down and stay in position behind the pace car, which has zipped out onto the course. Yellow flags usually mean something dangerous has fallen on the track, like oil or debris, though I can’t see anything. The cars head slowly to the pits for four new tires, a tank of gas, and any adjustments the driver or crew chief thinks are needed, usually to help the steering and handling. At Clint Bowyer’s station, the men, all in black Jack Daniel’s uniforms like their driver, put on their helmets and gloves, pick up their tires and gas cans, go to the wall, and wait intently: the jack man, the gas man, the catch can man, the two tire changers, and the two tire carriers. A fast pit stop can vault a rider into first and even victory lane, while a slow one can send him to the back of the pack. As Bowyer’s car screeches in, the jack man slides the jack under the right side before it’s even stopped. The tire changer fires a pneumatic gun at the lug nuts on the front tire—1-2-3-4-5!—and yanks it off; the carrier jams the new tire on, and the changer fires the gun five more times (the nuts are glued onto the wheel). Another pair works the rear tire. The jack man lowers the car, and they hustle to the other side to do it all again. Meanwhile, the gas man slams one 11-gallon can into the fuel cell, and the catch can man jerks it out. They repeat with a second can. The last to touch the car is the jack man, who drops it even as it is already burning new rubber and spinning out. The whole thing takes fourteen or fifteen seconds. Two crew members low-five each other and turn around to watch on the big screen as Bowyer gets in line behind the pace car with everyone else, all doing the fishtail wiggle. Then, as almost a fifth of a million people stand up, the pace car veers off, the drivers slowly accelerate toward the starting line, and 43 fine-tuned, supercharged machines take off again with a snot-loosening roar that you just don’t get on TV.
Up on the roof, spotters with binoculars radio the big picture down to their drivers and crew chiefs. The sound is even louder up here, as if the stadium were a giant concrete speaker.
I can see the tent city in the campgrounds to the east and northeast, the massive parking lots to the south and west, the haulers and buses in the infield, and fans everywhere, not as many as the TMS had hoped (181,500 was the final tally, a turnout diminished by the rain and, perhaps, the opening of deer hunting season), but a lot of people nonetheless. It’s always amazing to be part of a really big audience, but the crowds at the football games and rock concerts I’ve been to pale in comparison to this one, and not just in terms of size. Staring down at the gathered Nation, it’s clear to me that NASCAR fans—who show up so early, who care so deeply about their drivers—are more passionate about their sport than anybody else. It’s not just about driving fast. It’s about lifestyle. History. And not giving a damn what the rest of the world thinks.
Stewart leads now, followed by Junior, Johnson, Kahne, and Gordon. The top five NASCAR stars. How perfect is that?
After a while, things start to fade into each other, and I’m lulled by the repetition, the sameness. Some cars move up, some fall back. Indeed, the main strategy for most drivers is to wait in the pack, avoiding trouble, until the very end of the race, when they can make their move. Back in the grandstand, I watch Stewart go around and around the track. I watch the big screen. I long for some drama, maybe even a crash. The truth is, it’s okay to long for a crash. Thirty-one drivers died in NASCAR’s first 53 years, but none have since Earnhardt’s fatal crack-up in 2001, after which safety improvements were mandated. The drivers are now packed into their cars so tightly and safely—and the track has “soft” walls that give way slightly on impact—that it’s really hard to get badly hurt anymore, much less killed.
Another caution flag goes up. A woman three rows down throws her hands in the air, obviously upset. Many fans complain about ghost-debris caution flags, ordered, they believe, by the powers that be when things get a little samey down on the track. A restart can always be depended on to stir things up again.
Junior, who won his very first Cup race here at the TMS in 2000, has been in second for a while now, and two pretty women in red number 8 jerseys lean over their seats and wave at him twice a minute as he zips by. The one on the left is a dyed blonde, and the one on the right, who wears a set of headphones and holds a number 8 doll in her hands, is a redhead. They look to be in their late thirties. As the cars go by, the blonde flips the finger at Stewart. She waves at Junior, circles her hand to the right, and then points in that direction, toward turn one. Junior follows. A few laps later Johnson passes Junior on the inside and she flips him off too. But then Junior passes Johnson, and the women and the other fans cheer.
Ten laps later Bowyer comes in behind Junior so fast he causes him to get loose, lose control, and smash into the wall. Everyone stands as the caution flag comes out. The drivers pull into the pits, but while other cars are in and out in fifteen seconds, Junior’s crew keeps him there, trying to pull the fender out from his right rear tire. “Get out! Get out!” fans yell. The other drivers are already rolling behind the pace car. It takes a whole minute, an eternity, for Junior to get out, and then after just one caution lap, he returns to the pit. Fans stare intently through binoculars, trying to figure out what’s wrong. The blonde and the redhead just stare.
After another caution flag (the race would feature twelve, the most ever at the TMS) and another round of pit stops (at almost every one, Stewart’s crew is the fastest), the cars roar through another restart. Kahne has been in second behind Stewart for twenty minutes or so, and now he makes his move, trying to pass him on the inside of turn three and then turn four. Stewart blocks both attempts. The crowd begins cheering Kahne, who is two car lengths back. On turn one of the next lap he tries to go to the outside but can’t make it. He tries again on turn three—same result. On the straightaway Kahne is drafting behind Stewart at 190 mph. The fans are screaming. Kahne tries again to go wide on the next turn, but Stewart is too fast. Kahne drafts again on the straightaway but then falls back about twelve feet and then even farther. Stewart has won another battle.
Meanwhile, Junior—whose crew eventually got his car roadworthy again—has fought his way back from thirty-fourth place and is now in seventh.
We’re in the homestretch, only 27 laps to go, but everyone in the pits looks exhausted. Some crews have already begun tearing down and packing up, even though anything can still happen. The difference between Stewart and the guy in thirty-fifth place is maybe 25 seconds. A loose oil line could lead to “the big one,” a huge chain-reaction pileup that takes out dozens of cars. Stewart could blow a rod. Kahne could blow his engine.
He does, with eleven laps to go, and limps to the garage. His pit crew packs up.
With eight laps left, Kevin Harvick bumps Scott Riggs, who is in second, sending him into the wall. A bunch of trailing cars wind up in the grass as camera flashes go off all over the grandstand. Everyone heads to the pits and out again for the final restart. The only drama at this point is whether Johnson, in second and now the Chase points leader (he would win the Cup two weeks later), can catch Stewart. He drafts right behind him, but nobody is going to catch Stewart today.
Car or driver? Stewart seems to have an extra couple of horses under the hood, but he’s also clearly in some kind of a zone, the way Michael Jordan or Joe Montana or Bob Gibson used to get. He has the reflexes, the arrogance, the killer instinct, the guts, the smarts, the feel. It’s as if he can see the whole track and sense what’s about to happen at any moment.
Stewart crosses the finish line under two checkered flags. Johnson is 0.272 seconds back, and Junior finishes sixth. Stewart, who led for 278 laps (the most ever in a race at the TMS) pulls up at the finish line, climbs out his window, scales the twenty-foot fence to the flag stand, grabs a checkered flag and waves it, climbs down, gets back in his car, and commences the “burnout” victory dance—screeching, doing doughnuts, and smoking his tires. Then he heads for Victory Lane, just behind pit road. He waits until the signal from NBC that its commercials are over and, with confetti blowing and TV cameras rolling, climbs out and stands in his window, raises his fist, takes a big swig out of a giant bottle of Coke (one of his sponsors), cheers along with the crowd, and gives a TV interview, in which he says, “I think I’ve been inspired by my new sponsor in Hiram, Georgia, Ray Roquemore’s Taxidermy. He’s been telling me I need to win races so I can get in victory lane and promote his taxidermy company.”
In the pressroom, the drivers give good ad: “The Jack Daniel’s Chevrolet was good all day long,” begins Bowyer. “It was a really good day for our GM Goodwrench Chevrolet,” says Harvick.
After Stewart gets his Dickies 500 trophy (he won $521,361 for the race), he begins doing the “hat dance.” With his right hand on the trophy and his left holding his first finger up in a number one sign, he has his picture taken wearing a cap showing the logo of each one of his more than two dozen sponsors. Stewart’s 29 Cup victories have given him a lot of practice doing the hat dance, and he flashes the same big, slightly lopsided grin for each sponsor. He takes one cap off and tosses it to a man on his right, who then hands him the next one. Chevrolet. UGS. WIX. Bass Pro Shops. Timken. Sunoco. Goodyear. 3M. Mac Tools. I watch him do this for ten minutes, completely unself-consciously. NASCAR, which was for so long defined by rugged Southern individualists, has become completely beholden to corporations, but the drivers have long gotten over any qualms they may have had about this. So, of course, have the fans. We love our drivers, and if they must wear the logos and sing the praises of products we know they don’t really use, well, it’s one of the lesser sins an athlete can commit. Especially when it buys so much speed.
Stewart shakes hands all around and walks out of Victory Lane. It is dark and cold, and the confetti is now just litter blowing over the pavement. The pit crews have all packed up, and an impatient security guard shoos me out too. Mini-cars with high-pitched engines are buzzing around a quarter-mile version of the track—a Sunday night race of the Lone Star Legends—and handfuls of fans are scattered throughout the grandstand. Most, though, are long gone, drinking beer and parsing the day’s action back at the campsites or sitting in their cars in the long, slow lines of traffic leading away from the track, dreaming of the fearless drivers who will deliver them again next Sunday.