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Published: August 27th 2010
A Forest of RV's
Folks arrive several days before the race to begin partying...
The following is dedicated to the life of Mrs. Mary Wiliamson, whose life was dedicated in great part to raising a fine family and whose son I consider to be a very decent friend.
NASCAR has never appealed to me. I cannot buy into the fanaticism. NASCAR fans rejoice in attending an event where there is a real possibility someone could die at any moment. For them it is thrilling. For me it only raises the question why anyone is willing to take the risk. The governing body of NASCAR changes rules as often as a group of boys do so at a kickball game during recess. Imagine the NBA saying that a three-point shot is now worth twelve, but a layup attracts a one-point penalty if not shot with the opposite hand. Becoming a multi-million-dollar driver on the NASCAR team is an abdication of personal responsibility. Ask a driver just extricated from a crumpled wreck while holding a frosty Diet Pepsi what happened and you’ll hear a series of excuses. It was Kyle Busch’s fault. The track was wet. One of the mechanics last week improperly inserted the discombobulator in the wrong square peg, causing the engine to lose
I got the thmbs up from these guys for my Tennessee t-shirt...
power. In others words it’s practically everyone else’s fault, but never his. Try to envision Kobe Bryant missing an open fifteen foot jump shot to win the game, and then blame Spalding for not putting enough dimples on the ball to improve his grip.
I can dismiss that the tobacco industry propped NASCAR through its baby steps to what it has exploded into today. Moreover, I am comfortable in overlooking that the entire NASCAR concept was born of bootlegging an illegal commodity through the rural back roads of North Carolina. There would be no such thing as NASCAR without cigarettes and alcohol. Only in the Japanese parliament could Viagra get more play than at Talladega.
Most of all NASCAR bores me. To tears. It would be for more gratifying to watch Ryan Howard smash an inside 3-2 fastball through the thick Philadelphia summer air into the upper deck at Citizens Bank Park. Any so-called sport whose entire existence is derived from an ad-nauseum and endless series of left turns does not deserve my patronage. NASCAR fans clamor on about strategy and trips to pit road. This is strategy, simple mathematics to determine when fuel will run out and when the
OK, so were not in the parking loot of the local Baptist church...
best time would be to get a new set of treads? If I want to observe strategy, I’ll stick to Phil Ivey bluffing an inexperienced opponent on a WSOP event.
In my thirty-nine years I had never attended a NASCAR event. I had planned to right after the lovefest planned by every NFL quarterback who ever threw a ball at Terrell Owens. While in the waning days of a vacation in Central Tennessee, the phone rang and Zack took the call.
“Hey there!...Uh-huh…Really…Are you kidding me? Why, yeah…we can, but wait. I’m not sure. I’ll have to ask him. OK, I’ll get back at ya in a bit. Bye!”
I was lost in some pointless activity at the kitchen counter when my host turned his attention to me. “Umm, Richie?”
“You remember when we started making plans to go to the lake on Saturday?” It would be my next opportunity to perform a few violent face plants into Watts Bar Lake while trying to get up on a wakeboard.
“Well, something just came up.” Go on, I encouraged him silently. He put the cordless receiver down. “You see, Felicia’s boss has tickets to the night
This woman popped out of the port-a-potty and snapped this photo. So focused on the target, she didn't even put her cigarette down...
race at Bristol for Saturday. Since her”, the doctor’s, “daughter and she are on the outs, Felicia got the tickets.”
“How many are we talking here?” Maybe Zack would go and there would be no one to take us to Watts Bar and drive the Supra with the souped up stereo system.
“Six. That would mean me, Penny, Felicia, Justin, Phillip and you.” Zack is all too familiar with my disdain for NACSAR. Two years ago he purposefully sat me on a stool across from a racing buff during the Daytona 500 just to see us antagonize each other. He was not disappointed. “I’m checking with you first in case you might not want to go.”
I did not hesitate. This was my chance to walk around in the belly of the beast and hobnob with its underlings. “We’re in!”
“Awesome”, he came back with in a mildly surprised tone.
“When do you need us ready?”
This would not be Zack’s first appearance at the track on the Virginia-Tennessee line. “The race starts at seven-thirty Eastern Time. That means,” we both turned to the analog clock in roman numerals above the kitchen counter to subtract the hour together, “we best
These folks have come with serious intentions of fun and relaxation...
be on the road by eleven.”
“That early”, he came back simply.
“People get there that many hours before the race?”
Zack enlightened me, “Richie, there are thousands and thousands of folks there already. They have been there for days.”
Clearly, I had no idea what I was in for. And I loved it.
Bristol, Tennessee reminds me of Saratoga in the summer. One of the three low-key of the Tri-Cities, it transforms itself when the races are on. Only here Goodyear replaces horseshoes. Fields of thick trampled grass have been converted into cities of tents, brightly colored tarps tied to trees and support poles, and recreational vehicles ranging from Airstreams to penthouses on wheels. The RV’s are stacked together in long rows like dominoes. While the most formal of attire does not surpass a polo shirt and a pair of khakis, there is nothing casual about a NASCAR fan’s rabidity. People come here personally and emotionally invested. They plan months in advance and spend thousands doing so. For many coming to Bristol is not just an activity to do on the weekend, it is the apex of their vacation, the one event to which they look
Festive and ready to serve the thirsty...
forward for the entire year. Stereos blast Leonard Skynard. Generators hum and at times burp exhaust fumes. Dozens of confederate flags sway in the weak breeze only to be rightfully outnumbered by the stars and stripes. Fans walk around in sleeveless t-shirts ripped off at the shoulder. In one hand is a can of Bud Light in an off-color foam holder. In the other is a recently opened tin of Skoal tobacco chew. Many don ball caps with the number of their favorite driver in thick relief.
Phillip and I toured the urban campground through the mud and muck after a morning of light mist. “Dad,” he tugged on my shoulder, “look there!” He called my attention to a sign, which was offering a free shot of liquor. In his excitement, Phillip read the sign as a free t-shirt instead of a shot. He wanted to walk away with a shirt no matter what. He had gone through all his spending money and I had taken from him his digital camera for misplacing it on several occasions. He was intent on getting a souvenir from his time in Bristol. Any eleven-year-old boy would want to be here, even mine whose
Bud on Wheels
Why go to the bar when it can come to you?
background in motorized vehicles starts and stops with a bicycle equipped with coaster brakes. “Can we get a t-shirt over there?”
The sign read “Free Shots For a Flash”, above which was a rubberized bust of two boobs from which anyone passing could imbibe by placing lips to nipple. Two young women in soaked white t-shirts stopped to inquire further. “No, I don’t think so.” I grabbed a clump a Phillip’s top at the neck and directed his attention in the other direction. “Hey! Look over there! Those folks have a pool set up and a plasma TV! Wanna see?”
“Sure!” I successfully diverted him. I do not have too many years left until he catches on. For example, the sign above the pool read, “It Is Not Rude To Swim In The Nude”. He did not notice. The slightly inebriated guests at the bar installed outside the camper door were inviting any women to take a dip. Phillip and I moved on.
The grounds outside the Speedway are a state fair for gearheads. Live bands pump Def Leppard cover tunes to the joy of raucous fans. Port-a-potties line up near pedestrian crossings. Mobile Budweiser bars are parked at the
No, he's not Vietnamese. It's just best to let the image do its own talking...
side of the road serving cups of beer to multitudes. The number of empties strewn about makes me want to change careers for the weekend. A well organized group of teenagers could make a killing here on collecting and redeeming them. Tacky souvenirs and other priceless relics destined to be the target of a Jeff Foxworthy joke are lined up on buffet tables. Which is more for me, the ceramic number three flag or the Dolly Parton key chain? The alluring odor of deep fried funnel cakes shares the same air as smoke emanating from a grill of roasted sausages and peppers. Surrounded by a glorious lack of sophistication, everyone is in a cheerful mood. They have come to have a good time and are not discouraged by the mud or the conditions better resembling a Skinner box. Reproduce this setting in Massachusetts and a riot would be only a matter of time. Partygoers give me the thumbs up in approval of my orange University of Tennessee t-shirt now drenched on account of the surging humidity. “Go Vols!” they scream. I return the same gesture. Phillip and I stop by to chat if only to compliment the elaborate living arrangements
I Am Not A NASCAR Fan
But if I were, I think I'd go for Danica Patrick...
around the SUV’s or campervans. No one turns us away. No one ignores us. Everyone is absurdly polite, another confirmation we are not in Massachusetts. The broad side of full forty-foot trailers finely decorated in a driver’s number and sponsors are flipped open. Inside vendors scramble around the sell all sorts of merchandise. The lines run fifteen to twenty deep in some places.
A civic group is selling bottles of water and earplugs outside the Speedway. Thirsty from the muggy conditions, I grab a bottle for the surprisingly fair price of a dollar. I expect to be fleeced here. Yet there are so many vendors selling the same products, it keeps the price down. There seems to be no control on licensing or permits for merchandising. Just about anything goes. “So you’ve got a set of earplugs, too?” the woman inquires as she handed me my change.
“Come to think of it, it’s a good idea. My boy here has sensitive hearing.” I hand her a dollar bill and took the small plastic pouch of plugs and stuff it in Phillip’s shorts pocket.
“What about yourself?” she continues.
“Nah, my hearing’s fine.”
With a bit of concern, she isn’t ready
I think Randy, she thinks Jimmy...
to let me go. “Well, sir, where are your seats for the race?”
I open my pack and check our tickets. “Row F.”
“You’re gonna want another pair.” I am convinced this was a ploy to separate me from another dollar. I pause, kind of hesitant. This time she was very firm with me, “This your first time?”
Was it THAT obvious? “Uh, yeah.”
“Then you really need another pair. You do not understand. It’s gonna be louder than anything you’ve ever heard in your life.” I silently scoff at the superlative. Whatever. I buy the pair and thank her. Little do I know that woman extended to me an enormous gesture of kindness and advice. She hasn’t sold me the protection just for her 20-cent margin. She is truly concerned about my cluelessness. I have absolutely no idea.
Once in the vicinity, finding the Bristol Motor Speedway is no chore at all. It is a modern-day bowl stadium propped up by steel columns and decorated with hungry advertisers. It is a task, however, to lug coolers and any belongings uphill to the entrances. The numbers of the elevator shafts do not correspond to the gate numbers printed on
Bristol Motor Speedway
World's Fastest Half Mile...
the scannable ticket. Only those with “Elevator” on their ticket can get a ride to loftier heights. Otherwise everyone else has to find their way on foot, pretty much guaranteeing the death of a few dozen senior citizens every race. Once inside, we climbed our way to the opening of section F. Twenty rows above our seats I took in the stadium seating.
“Whoa,” let out Phillip. There wasn’t much I could add. Bristol Motor Speedway is an astonishing sight. It can cram 160,000 people to view a single race. That’s the city of Cheyenne, Wyoming…three times. Those who frequent races at Bristol think of Michigan Stadium as a closet and yawn. The racing surface’s circumference is only one half mile, but the towering stands make it feel much, much larger. Each end of the oval is raised to a maximum of thirty degrees. The infield is cramped, everything below is cramped. It is a modern-day Roman Coliseum for spectators far more zealous about their favorite driver than I will ever be for the Philadelphia Phillies. Zack and his party still hadn’t arrived; there were ninety minutes behind us on I-40. I turn completely around and only then did it
Bristol Motor Speedway with thousands in the stands...
start to sink in how big NASCAR really is in this part of the United States.
The others arrived shortly after Phillip and I finished some sandwiched we pulled out of our cooler. Each driver was introduced to approval or contempt thousands of supporters or sworn enemies. Then, much like a chariot in Roman times, they were taken to their Crayola colored cars on Pit Road on the beds of shiny black 2011 Ford F-250 pickups. The crowd cheered Bobby Labonte and screamed at Jeff Gordon as if the condemned had just entered the Coliseum for their final encounter with highly irritated and famished lions. Never have I seen so many thumbs pointed down and middle fingers pointed up.
If there is one way the Speedway and NASCAR will ever retain me as a fan, it will be on account of the ceremonies prior to the drop of the green flag. NASCAR may be hamburger to Augusta National’s Filet Mignon, but at least it promotes and advances a sincere love of country long lost on the elite that look down on Lester, Ace, Burnell, and his lovely wife Polly. A local news reporter who became a naturalized citizen from Canada
The Kindness of Others
The folks behind us offered Phillip a headset so he could listen to the play by play...
waxed poetic about the good of the U.S. Armed Forces, in sharp contrast to popular media outlets. Members of the military past and present were honored with a thundering sound of applause absent of the matter-of-course superficiality in New England. There are few moments more memorable or stirring than a humble elementary choir singing The Star Spangled banner backed up by a fervent 160,000 tenors, basses, and sopranos. An entire community stood together to sing. No one moved, chatted about the family, or gossiped. Drivers, officials, camera crews, and spectators were all at a standstill. No baseball cap covered a single head. Fighter jets dipped close to stadium level at the last line of “and the home of the brave…” and left in their wake a deafening roar that drowned out cheers and applause. No one public event could better confirm how far from Connecticut is from Bristol, Tennessee. It is not a matter of distance, rather mindset. For the first time I saw NASCAR in a positive light. I closely connected to the set of values of which I have made so much fun in the past. I felt I belonged in Bristol.
“Drivers, start your engines!” a woman
Oooh...Let me Guess!
So...you're not from Vermont?
called out over the PA system. Curiously, the word “driver” has replaced “gentlemen.” All turned on the ignition simultaneously. My intestines trembled. Of the dozens of sponsors for which the Speedway and NASCAR prostitute themselves, Speedy Muffler is not among them. The cars entered the track from Pit Road in perfect alignment behind a pace car for a few laps until the green flag indicated the race was on. The pace car dropped back onto Pit Road and the neatly formed pairs exploded around the track. The noise was monstrous, even evil. The grandstands at Bristol are so high there is nowhere for the sound to escape. I rushed to cover Phillip’s ear canals with the spongy orange plugs; in pain he had scrunched his eyes from the intense roar.
I looked at Zack on my left in disbelief at the noise level. I yelled at him, “I’d rather stick my face in the engine of a 747 during takeoff!”
“I said…”, and didn’t bother repeating it. There was no way he could hear me. I was no more than three inches from his right ear. My thoughts rushed back to the woman who coerced me into buying me those earplugs. She went on my Christmas card list at that very moment. In fact, she’s welcome at Thanksgiving, too.
Ten laps in, the once evenly aligned pairs were spread out randomly over the track. A vertical column scoreboard kept track of the lead car and who was directly behind. I tried to follow Joey Lagano, as he is from Middletown, Connecticut where I spend up to ten hours a day. Every now and then I checked on Phillip’s ears fearful some irreparable damage was being done. He said he was fine each time. Each time I breathed a sigh of relief as I was ready at any point to take him as far away from the track as I could drag him.
The cars perform one lap in about sixteen seconds, but it takes me ten laps to find the leader. They don’t slow down enough for me to catch the number on the roof each car. Now I know what it feels like to be at a hockey game and not be able to spot the puck anywhere. To follow a NASCAR race, you have to be in it all the way. The Speedway is not for the casual interloper.
One hundred laps in and I fear to admit that all I am seeing is a bunch of cars going around in a tight circle at fatal speed. My head is spinning. All of the drivers have some desire to see God before everyone else and it’s NASCAR’s job to arrange the meeting. Three cars line up side by side to pass one another at 120 miles per hour. This is insane. Mangled body parts seem to be the only logical outcome. I still don’t think NACSAR is a sport, but there is no way to confuse it with full contact chess.
On lap three hundred, I walk around the half mile oval only a few feet away from steel reinforced fencing curved inward to protect the public from any airborne vehicles. I face the oncoming assault entering the first turn. Through the fence I can hear the cars charge at me. I fight the fear that naturally seeps into my nerves. The shaking is so thunderous I am convinced that I could probably pull my spleen out of my left elbow.
It is now lap three hundred eighty-eight. In terms of the action and lead changes, I am strangely, well, bored. I have been for a while. To me it’s just a bunch of cars going round and round. NASCAR needs to put a spotlight on the lead car; that would help. I could then at least pretend I have a clue as to what’s going on. The fans around me gesture, threaten, shake their fists, holler, and carry on as if the drivers could hear them. The person sitting next to can’t hear them. The emotion is raw and it is personal. I love baseball, but honestly harbor no dislike for any positional player in the National League East. With some of these folks, a few look as if they’d be willing to follow up on their menacing comments. They’re not just heckling.
The race at Bristol requires neighbors in the stands to text each other in order to communicate. It is not being smug or glib. It is the only way to effective send a message and have it properly received without having your tympanum blown back to Knoxville. My phone vibrated in my pocket. I opened it up to receive a message from Zack. It is his strategy to leave well before the checkered flag, which was fine by me. Instead of firing a message back, we exchanged hand signals and then passed them on to Justin, Penny, and Felicia. We exited and went down to the track level and out underneath the first turn. Just as we turned to the right to move away from the retaining fence, the motorized cavalry revved out of caution and recommenced the race. Phillip was leading us out and had his back turned. As they powered by his feet were lifted off the ground and shoved slightly to the right.
A half mile away, Phillip and I arrived at the car focused on getting out of Bristol before the race let out. Traffic stories about leaving track were nightmarish. I put down the window to take in the moist night air. Over one thousand yards away, I looked back at the Speedway and heard the high-pitched stirring of billions and very, very angry bees.
Tot: 2.885s; Tpl: 0.224s; cc: 21; qc: 118; dbt: 0.1219s; 2; m:saturn w:www (188.8.131.52); sld: 3;
; mem: 1.7mb