On the way to the GM Goodwrench Service Plus 400 Winston Cup Race at the North Carolina Speedway, we listen to “John-Boy and Billy’s Rock ’n’ Roll Racing” radio show. This is like any other classic-rock radio show, except that in the middle of each song, the deejays cue loud car-engine-revving sounds that drown out the music. The North Carolina Speedway, in Rockingham, N.C., is known as “The Rock.” Its track is 1.017 miles around, and high grandstands surround the entire loop. In the infield (the many acres inside the loop) people park their RVs and fire up barbecue pits. Most RVs fly Confederate flags from their antennas. The New South moneyed folks fly in by helicopter and sit in enclosed luxury boxes, far above the engine noise and gasoline fumes. The cheapest grandstand tickets are $35. This seems odd, since the average attendee does not look wealthy. At all. Yet this is far more expensive than a Major League Baseball game.
Outside the stadium is a National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing bazaar, where every product features the NASCAR logo: cup holders, T-shirts, posters, jackets, pins. I purchase 1) ear plugs, which the cashier says are the best investment I’ll ever make (he is correct) and 2) an official NASCAR commemorative program (which is later stolen when I get up to get a beer). I do not purchase 1) a Jeff Gordon replica racing jacket, just like the one that champion NASCAR driver Jeff Gordon wears (not buying the jacket turns out to be a great move, for reasons that will become clear) or 2) a list of CB frequencies for the race that would let me listen in on the pit crews’ radio instructions to their drivers (if I owned a CB radio, I definitely would have bought that list).
Right outside the grandstand entrance is the Skoal booth, and a replica of the green Skoal Bandit race car, which has “U.S. Tobacco” branded on its hood and rear bumper. A Skoal employee revs the car engine while onlookers cover their ears. Other booth attendants hand out free tins of Skoal chewing tobacco. I take two tins of wintergreen-flavored Skoal. “Dipping,” the use of chewing tobacco, is ubiquitous at The Rock–everyone’s spitting brown. I end up dipping from lap 23 of the race through lap 48, spitting into an empty beer can. Net effect: slight headache, slighter nicotine buzz, annoying flecks of Skoal on my tongue, and a canker sore on the inside of my lip.
Free tobacco is everywhere. Winston smokers can hand in an empty pack of Winstons for a new pack, plus a free Winston Cup T-shirt. NASCAR is the last great refuge of tobacco sponsorship. Winston, Skoal, and Kodiak (another chewing tobacco) all sponsor cars. A huge percentage of fans smoke cigarettes throughout the race.
A huge number of fans smoke cigarettes throughout the race! This seems insane, since 1) the gasoline fumes, even up in the grandstand, are strong enough to make me slightly nauseated for the whole afternoon and 2) each of the more than 40 pit crews has vats filled with enough gasoline to run an extremely non-fuel-efficient car for more than 400 miles. One safety concession: About 30 seconds before the race starts, infield barbecuers are asked to extinguish open flames.
There is a 20-foot-high fence between the track and the grandstand. During the race, fans throw their empty beer cans at the fence. The cans hit, tumble down, and form a beer-can moat at the fence’s base. Some fans flick their cigarettes toward the moat (and thus, the racetrack), often before the cigarette has been extinguished. (See above for the safety concerns this raises.) This chain-link fence is the only thing between the fans and the track. Upon first taking my seat, I become disturbingly enchanted with the fact that I might witness high-speed, flaming car crashes from a distance of 50 feet. Seconds later, I realize that tires and hoods could easily fly over the fence and into the grandstand at speeds in excess of 100 mph. Car racing is one of the few sports where spectators routinely die.
Throughout the race, nothing comes close to the fan excitement generated by a collision (of which there are many). When a car spins out and other drivers swerve to avoid it, the entire grandstand rises as one, gasping and pointing, eyes wide, hoping for a violent accident. I’m hoping too.
NASCAR gives us the sport of the future. It’s already the fastest-growing sport in America. NASCAR is the latest benchmark in American sports’ steady march toward speed and violence. Football and hockey, while both brutal and quick, cannot compete with 160-mph impacts, flying sheet metal, and the serious possibility of a fiery death.
NASCAR’s biggest stars are Dale Earnhardt and Jeff Gordon. Real men root for Earnhardt. He drives a black Chevy Monte Carlo. (In the parking lot after the race, I suddenly noticed how many black Monte Carlos there were.) Earnhardt is nicknamed “The Intimidator,” and he has a thick mustache, just like every guy in the stands. Little kids and some women root for Jeff Gordon. He drives a rainbow-striped car, and he is matinee handsome–young and clean-shaven. Most fans at The Rock hate Gordon with a passion I’ve never seen equaled at a sporting event. A man next to me flips Gordon the bird every single time his car comes by–all 400 laps, all afternoon, even though Gordon can’t possibly see him. Personally, I decide I kind of like Jeff Gordon, who eventually wins the race, but I keep very quiet about it.
Beneath Earnhardt and Gordon are the lesser gods, a pantheon of drivers who each have their own fan club. Everyone at The Rock wears a shirt or hat identifying their allegiance to say, No. 6 Mark Martin and the Valvoline racing team, or No. 9 Lake Speed (yes, that’s his real name) and the Cartoon Network racing team (yes, that’s his real sponsor). Sometimes the corporate allegiances seem a little funny (e.g., the bad-ass, mustachioed No. 36 Ernie Irvan fan who must wear a shirt that says “Skittles” in pastel letters). The crass sponsorship in NASCAR once again seems to make it the sport of the future, the endpoint toward which all sports are headed.
The pit crews are my favorite part of NASCAR. They gas up the car, change all four tires, and slip the driver a pinch of Skoal, all in less than seven seconds. Matching jumpsuits and choreographed, mercurial flitting make them seem weird and futuristic. The changing of a tire in three seconds is one of the most impressive feats I’ve seen in sports.
My favorite driver today is No. 17, Darell Waltrip, and his Speedblock/Builder’s Square racing team. From the start, Waltrip putt-putts behind the other cars like he’s driving an underpowered go-cart. Less than halfway through the 400 laps, Waltrip’s Chevy hits the outside wall. He turns slowly into the infield, front end crumpled. It’s just not his day. Later, I find out that Waltrip received the Goody’s Headache Award, worth $2,500, given to the driver who runs the unluckiest race.