I was still in New York City when the sputtering began.
“You?” a friend of mine asked, earnestly. “You are going to do that?”
“Why not?” I inquired.
“Well, y’know. I wouldn’t have thought you’d be interested in that.”
“Well, it’s not really you, is it?”
And so forth.
I get this a lot. Because I am English and I sound a little clipped, strangers tend to assume that I share my fellow countrymen’s disdain for America’s more traditional pastimes. By now, the friends I left at home have come to terms with my apostasy, as a parent learns to accept his child’s foibles. But those friends I have made stateside remain perplexed and irritated. On questions such as guns, football, trucks, and, well, pretty much all of politics, the East Coasters of my acquaintance tend to remain stubbornly puzzled. Unlike other immigrants, it is frequently implied, I haven’t yet received the message: That Americana stuff? That’s fluff.
And so it was with my first foray into NASCAR, after being invited to a race by a friend down South: “You?” “That?” “Really?”
In all honesty, I was unsure whether “it” was, in fact, “me.” And so, with a fully open mind, I set out to Daytona Beach, Fla., to see what all the fuss was about.
And what a fuss there was! This, after all, is a sport in which all is muscle and brawn and the American Spirit dial is turned proudly up to eleven. Here, before a quarter of a million fans, a host of hi-tech daredevils update the classic horse race for the modern world. As the Montgolfier brothers were eventually upstaged by the Saturn V, so has Secretariat met his piston-powered match. Whatever it is about the human condition that leads otherwise relaxed people to strap themselves into roller coasters or jump willingly out of airplanes is also on happy display at the Daytona International Speedway. If you ain’t seen a muscle car slam into a wall at 200 miles per hour, you ain’t seen nothing yet.
In search of such thrills, the crowds pour in. Miles outside the stadium, the ticket scalpers line the roads, offering to buy and sell any spare stock. Inside the gates, the vendors stack their trucks as far as the eye can see; today, if they play their cards right, will pad their bottom lines for the year. There’s even a handful of determined religious activists hanging around the periphery, the better to accost dawdling stragglers and shout wildly at them about the end times.
And why not? Good preachers go where the converts are most likely to be, and they are more than likely to be here at the races. For all the hype about the scale of college football, it is NASCAR, not NCAA gridiron, that draws the biggest crowds: 300,000 in Indianapolis; 250,000 in Florida; 170,000 in Texas; 160,000 in Alabama — the numbers add up when you’re having fun. But here’s the strange part: Outside what the denizens of America’s teeming coastal cities derisively term “flyover country,” few people so much as know that these events exist. Sitting in northern Florida watching the fighter jets scream through the show-opening flyover and hearing the announcers run excitedly through their prayers, a peculiar thought pops into my head: What would it look like if the Super Bowl were invisible to at least half of the country?
This, I imagine. This is what it would look like. All told, NASCAR is held in the sort of place that the smart set abhors — Phoenix, the Milwaukee Mile, Michigan’s Belle Isle, the Speedway at Nazareth — and, even on its red-letter days, it remains there. Examining cultural segregation a century or so hence, the anthropologists of the future will wonder at the scale of the divide. On one sunny day in February, as many Americans as live in Baton Rouge packed themselves into a small space to watch a beloved sporting event. And the nation’s trendsetters just yawned.
Perhaps this should be no surprise, for the Kentucky Derby this is most definitely not. Here, the fans prefer beer to champagne; hot dogs to canapés; and T-shirts-and-ball-caps to Milan’s lavish haute couture. There are few pretensions on this southern tarmac; no Veuve Clicquot galas or Byronic airs. There is just family and tradition and the unique roar of jagged American grit.
For uninitiated sorts such as myself, it is difficult to prepare for just how primeval the experience can be. On television, the cars seem almost majestic; but, from 20 feet away, they are jungle animals. When, time and time again, they come screaming past the bleachers, all of those forgotten impulses are reactivated upon the instant: the fight-or-flight instinct that an overwhelming bass yields; the medieval fear of speed and witchcraft; the adrenaline that comes with knowing that someone close may get hurt.
Gradually, lap by lap, the hypnosis begins. Round, and round, and round they go, their positions changing at first imperceptibly, and then, occasionally, in modest fits and starts that prompt knowing nods from the veterans. With my hearing protection dulling my contact with the outside world, and my head rolling slowly around the track, I feel almost light-headed by the time the 50th lap is complete.
Perhaps it’s the beer?
Speaking of which, you’ll find little price-gouging inside the stadium, which, given the event’s humble origins, is fitting. Those stereotypes of toothless bubbas with Confederate-flag hats and sleeveless Lynyrd Skynyrd T-shirts are, in 2016, long, long out of date. And yet the outlaw spirit lives on in their stead. All sports have their creation stories — it is, perhaps, an unwritten part of their legitimacy — but NASCAR’s has the benefit of actually being true.
That story? Back in the Temperance days, a host of good-ol’-boy Southerners took the souped-up cars that the moonshine-and-illegal-whiskey game had rendered invaluable and began to race them for kicks. At first, their competitions were informal, held on whatever highway or mud track was temporarily at their disposal. Before long, however, some of the more talented racers started looking for a more organized affair. They didn’t get it — at least not straightaway — for, without an established set of rules or any official imprimaturs, the spectacle quickly became a hotbed of malleable conventions and crooked promoters. Eventually, a local auto-repair impresario named William France called a conference that resulted in the creation of a governing body tasked with overseeing the races. On February 21, 1948, the National Association for Stock Car Racing was born.
Since then, it has only grown. Today, NASCAR is the No. 1 spectator sport in the United States, with 75 million Americans calling themselves fans. Each year, the sponsors bring $3 billion into the fold, while TV contracts add $560 million to the pot. Is that money all from “rednecks”? Not on your life. As of 2014, one in five fans was non-white, and two in five were women — facts that apparently surprise some.
Back in 2006, the producers of NBC’s Dateline attempted to provoke an altercation at a NASCAR event by “planting” a couple of Muslim men at a race and filming the reaction that they received while walking around. The show’s producers claimed that they were “intrigued by the results of a recent Washington Post/ABC News poll and other articles regarding increasing anti-Muslim sentiments in the United States,” and that they hoped only to discover how real the animus was. Evidently, the answer shocked them, for nothing at all happened. Per Ramsey Poston, who was the managing director of corporate communications for NASCAR at the time, the men “walked around, and no one bothered them.” Well, then.
Coming from a culture in which it is considered normal for a game to last 25 days and still end up a tie (that, quite seriously, is how test cricket works), I found the all-or-nothing nature of NASCAR jarring. In almost every sport I know, even a bad mistake can be overcome given a little time: Fumble the ball in football and you have a while to fix it; lose your serve in tennis and the flub can be canceled out; strike out with the bases loaded in the eighth inning and your team can make amends in the ninth. At the speedway, by contrast, even the slightest of blunders is catastrophic.
Much to my chagrin, I would find this out firsthand. Shortly after the engines started up, a member of my party leaned over to me and offered me a plastic sandwich bag filled with torn-up pieces of newspaper. I looked at him quizzically.
“Ten dollar buy-in,” he said. “Winner takes all.”
Obliging, I reached into the bag, pulled out the first strip my fingers touched, and read the name that had been written on it: “Dale Earnhardt Jr.”
Everyone around me reacted. “He got Dale Jr.! He got Dale Jr.!” Eyes met eyes. Some rolled in frustration.
I looked at the friend who had brought me to the race. “Is that good?”
From that moment on, I was hooked. Now, I had a rooting interest to go alongside my adrenaline. “If Dale Jr. wins,” the lady in front of me turned and told me, “you’ll walk away with about $400.”
Alas, it was not to be. For most of the race, “Dale Jr.” hung back, sometimes pushing, sometimes lagging, but never taking himself out of the running. And then, 30 laps from the end, he began to make his move. In the space of five minutes, he went from ninth to eighth, eighth to seventh, seventh to sixth. Suddenly, he moved from fifth to fourth. And then, as the crowd began to purr, he made a risky play for glory and . . . crashed disastrously out of the race.
Busy as I was pre-spending my winnings, I didn’t immediately grasp what had happened. And then, slowly regaining my bearings, I realized: This was it. “Dale Jr.” had lost, and so had I. There could be no comeback.
In this regard, NASCAR is less akin to a hyped-up form of old-fashioned horse racing than to the Roman Colosseum at the height of its pomp. Pace the insistences of our more progressive friends, human beings do not change with the times — not really. We may adjust here and there, and we may be cowed by institutions and social pressure or improved by ideas and culture, but we are all animals at heart, and, in the safety of our modern world, we seek the thrills that we have lost. It is no accident that the two most popular sports in America are, by any objective standard, entirely brutal. Football, per George Will, is “violence punctuated by committee meetings”; NASCAR is a merry-go-round interrupted by the occasional explosion. The jet fighters and fireworks that we saw before the flags had been lowered were not the warm-up show so much as they were the overture to the opera. Pleasant or not, danger is endlessly fascinating, and people enjoy the vicarious thrill of involving oneself in it at a distance.
As it happened, we were in for quite the finish even without Dale Jr. in the race — the closest finish in Daytona’s history, in fact. By one-hundredth of a second, Denny Hamlin squeaked past Martin Truex Jr. and took the prize for himself. In the stands, there was a brief moment of confusion, followed by a swift photo call, followed by some of the loudest cheering I’ve heard outside a rock concert.
For the quarter million or so of us who were there, it was quite a thrill, a fact that I had trouble conveying to anybody when I got back to New York City.
“You? Really? You liked that?”