Sports Nut

The Nightmares of NASCAR

Why I’m too scared to go the Daytona 500.

If the Daytona 500 isn’t the largest all-Anglo assembly this side of Liverpool, it is certainly the drunkest. It’s an around-the-clock intox-a-thon. Retribution weekend. For racing fans, the opening of the NASCAR Winston Cup season represents emancipation from pissant micromanagers, HMO rip-off professionals, PalmPilots, child-support collection pests, and mothers-in-laws who lurk in the shadows like Hannibal Lecter. And while you’re at it, pass me another one of them room-temperature cans of Old Milwaukee.

Oh, I’ll be watching the televised race on Fox, clinging to color announcer Darrell Waltrip’s every syllable. I am hip to NASCAR, and with the new season unfolding I’m wondering how the Joe Gibbs racing team will fare now that it’s switched from Pontiac to Chevrolet. Can Jeff Gordon regain his focus in the aftermath of his acrimony-spattered divorce? Can NASCAR maintain its ass-kicker panache after it allows somebody with one of those Formula-One-sounding names like Christian Fittipaldi into the mix?

See, I know all about this stuff. But I cannot muster the words to adequately describe how delighted I am that I will not be there in person to experience Daytona. Why? I’ve been around these guys, and frankly, they scare the crap out of me.

My first on-site exposure to the astounding phenomenon of Winston Cup racing happened in 1997, when they opened the Texas Motor Speedway here in my own bailiwick. NASCAR was big, a culture unto itself, and I felt compelled to go out there and experience the enchantment, the allure.

I was little like Casy, the preacher, when he hitched a ride out to California with the Joad family in The Grapes of Wrath. The preacher said, “Somethin’s happening. I got to go where the folks is goin’. Gonna cuss ‘n swear ‘n hear the poetry of folks talking.” Yeah, and once the preacher made it to California, he got his head opened up with an ax handle. But I went ahead and got a coveted press credential that offers access to the garage, pit areas, and media center, where Winston reps hand out free cartons of cigarettes.

You practically have to provide dental charts and DNA samples to land NASCAR media credentials. A press guy told me that a couple of journalists had the temerity to give (or perhaps sell) their credentials to some unauthorized rubes. He claimed that the reporters have been blacklisted, eternally banished from future events, and that NASCAR had fined their publications because of this unspeakable ethical lapse. “NASCAR can actually fine a newspaper?” I said. The NASCAR guy offered me a thin and rather chilly smile. With that, I entered the kingdom of modern big-league stock-car racing. This is no place for sissies.

The race teams—the drivers and crew chiefs and gas guys and tire changers and the whole entourage—still sport a number of psycho-rural types who have experienced the sensation of being whopped in the back of the head with a 2-by-4. Now, these folks should be fun to interview, but in order to get to them one must circumvent a gantlet of corporate shills with their characteristic high-viscosity personalities. “Oh, there are still some of the down-home types of fellas racing,” Cale Yarbrough, who won his first Daytona in 1968, told me. “But they’re getting harder and harder to find. The successful drivers are the ones with the financing. When I was doing it, the winner of the race was the driver who was the bravest one out there at the end of the day.”

In the media center, a reporter tried to approach Bruton Smith Jr., a car-racing big-hoss who had built the new track in Texas. Smith has the darting eyes of an Enron exec and mean little teeth. Squirrel’s teeth. “Bruton, I just talked to Dale Earnhardt, and he said he doesn’t like the track,” the reporter told Smith. “He said that Turn 3 is a disaster waiting to happen and that …”

Smith’s entire head took on the helium-inflated look of a float in the Mardi Gras parade. “Bullshit! Dale didn’t say that! That’s a big, fat lie!” Smith responded. “Where you from, anyway?”

“Philadelphia,” said the reporter.

“Well, then, that explains it,” said Smith, who huffed away to the buffet, joining the line of baby elephants that constitute the NASCAR press corps.

About those NASCAR writers: A few of them go a quarter-ton, at least. The food-line fare, courtesy of the Lowe’s home-improvement people, was gut-measurement appropriate. The writers carried off massive servings of synthetic cholesterol, coated with Ragu pasta sauce, and were soon back for seconds and thirds. During the course of the afternoon, I asked one of them to describe the benefits of covering the sport full-time, as opposed to say, ACC hoops. “No night games, no nigras, and no goddam coaches,” he cheerfully explained.

Trent Lott could not have put it more eloquently. When they start the engines on Sunday, I’ll be watching. Fifteen hundred miles seems a safe enough distance.