BRISTOL, Tenn. – Mix one part pro wrestling-type hype, one part raw power and one part mind-numbing circuits of a half-mile track.
What do you get?
It’s hard to say exactly. But this much we know: That combination of man, machine and sport brings 155,000 people together to watch.
The fans dig NASCAR, especially at this banked track in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, just a rebel yell from the states of Virginia and North Carolina. Even in a down economy, Bristol Motor Speedway reaches a near-sellout Aug. 21 for the Bristol 500, or, as the sponsors would like you to say, the Irwin Tools Night Race.
When that many people get together to tailgate and drink beer – some spend all week camped near the track – no telling what might happen.
The thought worries me a little. But I have come to experience NASCAR, and I know the risks. I am aware of the sacrifices:
b I’ll have to drink a Bud or a Keystone Light to fit in. I can accept that.
b I’ll be subjected to the extreme noise of 358-cubic-inch race engines for three hours. Hey, I’ve been to Aerosmith and Van Halen shows, in their prime.
b The wrong person might mistake me for a Kyle Busch fan. Now, that concerns me.
On a Saturday night in the heart of stock-car-racing country, an announced crowd of 155,000 – that number still blows me away, sorry for the repeat – packs the stands. Track promoters are stung that 5,000 tickets remain unpurchased. It is the first time since 1982 the August event hasn’t sold out.
It’s drizzling rain as I approach the monster stadium along U.S. 11E, the Volunteer Parkway. For $10 I can park on the grassy slope of some guy’s house, so that’s what I do. At other places along 11E you can park your RV for the night for $150 and use the porta-potty. That’s called “camping.”
RVs and campers are parked practically atop each other in the Earhart Campground east of and adjacent to the track. It’s three hours till race start, and some folks are barbecuing, or playing bag-toss, or just sitting and chatting, can of beer in hand.
I see a couple of interesting T-shirts that you wouldn’t wear to an Obama rally. One says, “I’ll take my freedom, you can keep the change.” Another says, under a Confederate flag, “Sometimes you have to admit you were right.”
Jackie Lama, enjoying the NASCAR phenomenon, is standing next to a sedan. The former Hawaiian says he’s living in the hills of eastern Tennessee, writing a novel. He’s been here since Wednesday with his girlfriend.
“This is Americana,” he says, eyeing the scene with a hearty laugh. “One hundred percent in your face.”
I tell him about the Sharpie wall next to the stadium entrance. It’s a 100-foot-long poster board with room for fans to comment next to each of tonight’s 43 drivers in the Sprint Cup race – the week’s main event.
Message for Dale Earnhardt Jr.: “Jr., if you don’t do nothing else tonight – drive it like you stole it,” from Deb and J.P.
For Kyle Busch, booed the night before after he bumped the lead driver and won the Nationwide series race: “Too bad your mom didn’t …” Nope, can’t use that one. This one works, without the accompanying art: “Read my finger Kyle.”
Lama instantly summarizes my description. “Like inside the truck stop of the world’s largest urinal.”
In Row 40, Seat 15 of the Waltrip section, I meet fans who come to point one or another of their fingers at Kyle Busch or Jimmie Johnson or Jeff Gordon. And I meet fans like the guy from New Jersey sitting behind me, who works as a spotter for a stock-car team in the Northeast.
“I like them all,” he says of the racers. “So I’m happy no matter who wins.”
Each driver gets a chance – live – to introduce himself to the crowd just before the race. Driver Brad Keselowski, the victim of Busch’s bump, causes the biggest stir.
“I’m Brad Keselowski,” he begins and tells us he’ll be driving the No. 12 Penske Dodge. He concludes with, “and Kyle Busch is an a--.”
The crowd goes into a frenzy, and I’m waiting for the chairs to start flying and someone to get thrown out of the ring.
After the high-octane rush of V-8s accelerating to the start, you sit back and watch the cars go in counter-clockwise circles for 500 laps. You can try to converse in shouts, but mostly you just point when something exciting is happening.
After 500 laps, our friend Kyle Busch once again celebrates, bringing on more finger-pointing.
Then, you try to go home. For me, it’s a 40-mile trip to a campground off I-81. But on U.S. 11E, it’s a parking lot moving at the speed of a glacier.
I’m left wondering, at 2 a.m. when I reach “home” weary and bleary-eyed, whether it was all worth it.
My ears work, my head only slightly aches from the remnants of my Bud, and nobody mistook me for a fan of Kyle Busch.
I give my finger: one thumb up.
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