DAY 1: Friday I’m wearing a card around my neck that’s called the Hot Pit Pass, which sort of sounds like I have a waiver dispensing me from shaving my underarms. But the pass is an almost all-access insider card to all things NASCAR. And it’s a good thing to string around your neck when you’re in Charlotte, North Carolina on a Sprint All-Star race weekend.
NASCAR is an acronym for National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing. The sport’s history goes back to running Appalachian moonshine — racing stock cars in the US became popular during Prohibition, when bootleggers tricked out their rides for speed, handling and smuggling capacity in hopes of evading the long arm of the law and tucking away some under-the-table profits. You know the story.
Today, rather than circuiting the Smokey Mountains, racecar drivers are getting ready to hustle around a 1.5-mile track in Concord, a suburb of Charlotte. They drive circles at very high speeds, those cars. About 200 miles per hour, according to driver Number 17, Matt Kenseth.
“This is the biggest HD TV in the world,” my guide, Nealie Stufflet, tells me as we putter over to the Charlotte Motor Speedway on a golf cart. I believe her. It definitely looks like the biggest TV on the planet. The screen hangs absurdly over a 2,000-acre-wide landscape of sharply angled road, 140,000 empty stadium seats and clusters of ungainly R.V.s.
The R.V.s house the hoard of race fans, a.k.a. the DARFs (dumb-ass race fans, as they’re known teasingly by insiders who work the NASCAR route), that camp both along the outskirts and within the boundaries of the stadium in the days leading up to the races.
The day before the Sprint All-Star race — a race that doesn’t count for points: it’s just a grand ole spectacle for the fans, and it gives the drivers the opportunity to win a purse of 1 million dollars before the big race, the Coca Cola 600 the following weekend — folks congregate around their trailers with their posses, chewing on watermelon slices and corndogs and downing beer they’ve stashed in plastic coolers. Some are already staking out the rooftops of their trailers, getting a bird’s-eye view of the lots, of the track, of the swiftly multiplying throng.
There are a lot of American flags out. A couple token Confederate flags. I don’t want to make this a Southern stereotype, so let me get a few out of the way. It’s mostly white dudes milling around. White dudes showcasing some pretty impressive guts. Most of them are wearing gold wedding bands — even the youngest among them are. A couple of ritzy tagalong wives clomp by in mules or cowboy boots, clutching their big sunglasses and bedazzled phones, but as a rule the women spectators match their men; their figures melt off their bodies like sloppy soft serve. (Speaking of soft serve, if you ever go to NASCAR, be sure to treat yourself to a pulled-pork sundae.)
Afternoon light slants through the haze. It’s hot out. No one is making much commotion but clearly everyone is psyched to be there; 40,000 people grin absently to themselves as they pick their way through the rows of vehicles. And there’s something ritualistic about the atmosphere — there’s a definite NASCAR pilgrimage vibe going on.
They say NASCAR is the sport that brings its fans closer to the action than any other. NASCAR fans have access to the drivers, to the cars, to the engineers, the mechanics and even to the track itself. Many of the drivers, like driver No. 2, Brad Keselowski, further encourage driver/fan interaction via regular Twitter feeds. “Twitter’s had a large effect on myself personally, and on the sport in general,” Keselowski says at a press conference. “It’s a great opportunity to connect with a larger fanbase.”
I’ve never smelled gasoline so strongly, and it’s not in a “My dad’s pulling into the gas station; get some quick inhales in” way. Gas clogs the already-steaming air.
It’s loud, too.
The pit is a hive. Dozens of men in jumpsuits rev engines in repetitive, two-toned whines. Noise coagulates in the pit. You think you won’t get used to it, but you do.
It starts to sound good. DAY 2: Saturday
You can’t start a racecar until the “Gentlemen, start your engines!” shout-out. Drivers get rolled out of the pit and onto the track all slow and gentle by their teams — about a half-dozen guys decked out in emblazoned suits push each vehicle, often with just one hand. Each of their gestures seems almost exaggeratedly sacrosanct. But you can understand the care: No one wants all that time and talent totaled.
Most drivers’ windows are covered with mesh. Racecar drivers are generally pretty skinny dudes, and once tucked into their ultra-safe seats (there’s one guy on every team whose sole job is driver safety), they look a little more “machine than man.” Especially because of their helmets: There’s this hose of oxygen that extends from the tops of their helmets to help flush out the carbon monoxide they get on the road. It looks futuristic circa the past; there’s a little Death Race 2000 aesthetic going on.
Here’s something I learned: There are no bathroom breaks when you’re racing. The Memorial weekend Coca-Cola 600 race lasts about five hours, and for racecar drivers mid-race — as for Lisa Nowak, the former astronaut who wore Depends on her way to murder her ex so she wouldn’t have to make any stops on the way — there’s no good time to stop for a leak.
They barely stop for a tire change. Each pit team trains to time any fix within twelve seconds. Even when it’s happening right in front of you, like when No. 22, A. J. Allmendinger, gets a flat in the first round at the Sprint All-Star, his team is so synchronized that it’s hard to catch each individual gesture — like the cars, their motions are a blur.
We watch most of the race from the stands. There are people of all ages around us. The sun’s gone down and the stadium’s all lit — we’re lit and the track is lit. The crowd whoops a bit as the cars rush by, but mostly they circle their fingers over their heads as if to push their designated car forward when they hit our turn.
It’s not like being at a hockey game or a boxing match. No one talks to each other during lulls in the action. The rowdiest it gets is when an old bearded man with a septum ring comes up to our row and yells, “Yeah!”
Case in point: When Carl Edwards’ car trails impressive seven-foot flames, the race halts, the medics arrive, and driver No. 99 squeezes out of his window. The crowd stands, extends their arms forward and points in the direction of the accident. In silence. Total Children of the Corn, except less pretty.
After a few beats, the Sprint All-Star takes off again. The drivers start to loop around our turn. The building noise of their collective engines gives me vertigo. I lift the earphones off my head to feel the throb of sound rush through me.
Be sure to tune in to watch the Coca-Cola 600 at the Charlotte Motor Speedway on Sunday, May 27, live on FOX at 5:30 p.m. ET.