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