The receding passion of the NASCAR fan

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The receding passion of the NASCAR fan

"Some fans are completely uninhibited, they’ll do whatever the hell they want to have a good time,” Rusty Speidel says over the phone. “They get geared up, they tailgate their brains out, they take the extra time out to travel.” Speidel should know. He’s one of the guys behind Rowdy.com, a NASCAR fan site based in Charlottesville. “They’re really loyal to their driver, to the point where I saw a guy and his wife the other day, they had both shaved their heads except for the [number] 88 in the back.”

Martinsville Speedway, Sunday, March 29

Eighty-eight is Dale Earnhardt, Jr.’s number, and Earnhardt, Jr. is a driver in the National Association for Stock Car Racing. That’s NASCAR, baby, our other national pastime. This is car country, gas and metal and engine-hum country, a nation carved from pavement by men and machines. We’re drunk on fuel and in love with chrome. We drive cars to watch cars drive.

The first of the two annual NASCAR races at Martinsville Speedway is held on Sunday, March 29. It’s the Goody’s Fast Pain Relief 500. Everything that can be branded at a NASCAR event will be, but the brilliant colors of the advertising are visual Demerol, numbing me to the all-conquering consumerism here, some three hours south of Charlottesville.

NASCAR’s basic idea is simple: Cars drive around an ovoid track, counter-clockwise always, for a certain number of laps, usually 500. The cars drive fast and continuously except for hyper-speed pit stops to change tires and refuel. First one across the finish line wins. Based on how well they finish, drivers are awarded points towards the overall Sprint Cup. The driver with the most points, meaning the most consistently high finishes in 36 races over 10 months, wins The Cup.

From the vantage point of his Charlottesville company, Rowdy.com, Rusty Speidel sees the change in NASCAR: “A ticket was $125 a pop… and now they’re giving them away for half that just to get you to come in.”

Martinsville Speedway, built in 1947, is the longest-operating track on the current NASCAR circuit, running its first official NASCAR Cup race in 1949. “The Pretty Paperclip,” as it’s called, is a .526-milelong oval—800-foot straightaways capped by tight, flat turns. It’s the shortest race on the circuit compared to other speedways’ one- and two-mile tracks, and one of the slowest. Racers average 80 to 90mph. Ninety miles an hour, that is, all tire-to-fender with 43 other cars, struggling to brake around the excruciating curves and accelerate down the short drag strip, bumping and scraping the whole way.

Five hours before the Goody’s Fast Pain Relief 500 starts, Route 220 South is bumper-to-bumper traffic, while along the road the parking lots for the Dollar General, the Family Dollar and Big Lots sit silent and empty, save for a bleary man resting his bulk on a cooler and holding a sign that reads I NEED TICKETS. At 9am the tailgating is well underway. Burgers and beer: the breakfast of those who watch champions.

A guy I know who drives a truck for a living back in Charlottesville has been a fan for 10 years, rarely missing a Martinsville race. He usually piles into a van with a bunch of friends and heads down for two or three days, watching the qualifying races on Friday and Saturday and camping in the muddy parking lots that surround the speedway. Drinking begins early and goes on well into the night. “Usually once the race starts I can’t tell who’s coming or going,” he says. “It’s the only place you can drink wherever you want.”

Here comes your man: Fans Pansy Pearcey, left, and Brandon Myers, right, celebrate Jimmie Johnson’s win.

Before the green flag gets snapped to start the race, the drivers parade slowly around the track on the back of pick-up trucks, the fans cheering loudly for their favorites or booing and giving the finger to the ones they despise. The passion of the NASCAR fan is directed 100 percent, full bore at one man, their man, that clean cut, All-American figure in the colorful Nomex fire-retardant suit and wraparound Oakleys, who leans on his car, laconic and glowing. His wife or girlfriend, a study in legs and heels and hair and as buffed and tuned up as his automobile, poses beside him for the cameras. Firemen stand at the ready because everything here burns, everything is on fire, especially the drivers in all their glory. The sky is toilet water blue. The air fills with light and the smell of sunscreen and cigarettes.

The cars. Only their shape and tires link them to the thing you drive to work every day. These are steel tube frames draped with sheet metal shells. The headlights are merely stickers. Inside, the driver is cradled in an oversized child’s car seat with two large arms on either side of where the head should be to prevent it from fatally rattling around. Surprisingly empty, the lonely interior holds just the driver and a maze of tubes and roll bars. Eight dials, 11 switches and the disembodied voice of the pit crew.

In the pits in the center of the track I run into Speidel and Tyler Sewell, a Rowdy.com co-founder. “[This is] the loudest thing you’ve ever heard,” Sewell says. “Gets you right here.” He hits his chest with his fist. On cue the engines start, a guttural rumble against the sweet aroma of 110-octane leaded gasoline. “Oh, that smells good, doesn’t it? There’s no other smell like that,” Speidel says. The wind picks up, the air fills with small bits of debris. The drivers get the flag, the race begins and as the cars accelerate, it sounds like a million chainsaws starting at once, ripping the air in two.

From the pits I see the cars speed by, 15 seconds per lap, and with the fumes, the noise, and the smear of color in my eyes, I  feel dizzy. NASCAR gives new meaning to the term “car sickness.” Five hundred laps can take three to five hours. Halfway through, I experience a disorienting monotony. As the cars circle endlessly, everything else seems to freeze, nothing moving but that spinning rainbow ring, no sound but the sound.

In the Bush days, NASCAR was the biggest thing around, spreading across the country like so much burnt rubber on hot concrete. It was the second most-watched sport on TV, broadcasting to 150 countries, with sold-out races and millions of new “mainstream” fans who spent $3 billion every year on NASCAR merchandise. During the 2004 elections, Republicans and Democrats alike aggressively courted NASCAR fans (see Mark Warner in 2003 holding a press conference in Martinsville, everybody talking about “NASCAR Democrats”). Indeed, current Republican gubernatorial candidate Bob McDonnell is here at Martinsville to mingle with the party base as part of his campaign kickoff tour. The next day he’ll attend a roundtable discussion in Martinsville on ways to help the economy in Southside Virginia. When I spot him, he’s heading up to the luxury suites, but says he’ll leave before the race is over. Gotta beat the traffic.

Things are different now than they were four years ago. “NASCAR is flat right now,” Speidel says. The 65,000-seat Martinsville Speedway is not full for this race. As NASCAR abandons Detroit steel for Toyotas and eyes untapped overseas markets like China, it’s rumored that Martinsville will lose one of its two yearly races. Might as well detonate an atom bomb in the hills of Henry County, economically speaking, if that happens. The latest census figures put Martinsville unemployment near 20 percent, as the furniture and textile industry dies out. The $170 million that NASCAR brings in every year is about the only thing going.

My pal back in Charlottesville, who never used to miss a chance to drink at the track, didn’t go this year. Couldn’t spring for it. But he asked me to bring him some pictures. “The fans are still fans,” Speidel says, “they just can’t afford or justify the cost of going like they used to. It’s typically a three-day trip for a lot of people. They fly or they drive in their motor home, and they park for three days, and they eat a lot of food. A ticket was $125 a pop in those days, and now they’re giving them away for half that just to get you to come in.”

The race noise is everywhere and constant but not always the same. If you stand along one of the straight stretches, when the cars are on the other side of the track, it’s oddly quiet. The noise, ghostlike just there, comes back in full, a big, bad, wide open, agonized Yaaaarrrrggghh! of frustrated power and speed, when the cars spit out of the turn in front of you.  

NASCAR is glory and recklessness combined. Requiring extraordinary skill, its speed and noise and power intoxicate. And yet the very real risk of death, the constant possibility that you could end up broken against the wall on a Sunday afternoon, can make it all seem absurd. And now, like everything else in the U.S. of A., NASCAR faces a waning moment. If the glory fades, is recklessness all that will be left behind?

Jason Hunt, pit crew member for Mark Martin’s #5 car, hangs a pit board sign in the pit lane prior to the Goody’s Fast Pain Relief 500 at Martinsville Speedway. Everything that can be branded in NASCAR is.

It’s hard to focus on that question amidst the volatile spectacle at Martinsville. The cars rocket around the track, gliding high on the straight stretch to let their flanks whisper along the right-hand wall, then diving nose first into the turns, kissing the inside wall on the left, only to slingshot out again. Bouquets of fire blossom from side vents and tires melt and burst.

Jeff Gordon leads for the first half of the race, then gives way in lap 156 to Virginia native Denny Hamlin, who holds the lead until, with 15 laps to go, Jimmie Johnson, a red-hot driver from California who’s won at Martinsville five times out of the last six, and has won the overall Cup the last three years in a row, takes the lead with a daring inside move to win.

Race over.

Five million dollars’ worth of metal sits battered and bruised. Six-thousand gallons of fuel swallowed and spit out and over one-thousand tires turned to molten rubber. The stands are carpeted with wrecked beer cans.

I’m in the front row right at the finish line and everybody’s on their feet and screaming, snapping pictures as Johnson spins donuts in his car. After his victory lap, photographers, crew members, and other drivers mob him, and the fans pack together against the fence that separates them from the track in mutual celebration. It’s barely possible to move. Johnson and crew spray Champagne, and from the stands an answering spray of beer comes down and hits me square in the face.

Forty-four cars speed along at 15 seconds per lap for 500 laps. The combination of speed, fumes and noise give new meaning to the term “car sickness.”

Two big dudes, one in a grey t-shirt, one shirtless, start to fight in the aisle. More people get involved, shoving and yelling and pulling at the necks of shirts. Suddenly they all go down, bringing with them an older woman who struggles to get up as four men battle around her. “There’s a woman on the ground!” a girl behind me shrieks. “Get her outta there! Go down and defend her honor!” Grey T-shirt is on the ground getting his face rearranged. Six punches land squarely before his assailant is pulled off. He gets up, face splotched with blood, eyes dumb with drink, and lunges forward wanting more, while his opponent, his exposed skin soft and white and his face round like a child’s, gets pulled away.

And then we all head out to our cars to wait in the long line to leave, some of us amusing ourselves by driving gleefully around the muddy parking lots, others sitting around campfires continuing to drink. “It’s like a tattoo,” my buddy told me. “Once you go … Man, you’re just hooked.” A week after Martinsville the whole grand carnival moves to Texas, and then onward, Alabama, Delaware, Michigan, Kansas…

On the track, Jimmie Johnson holds his trophy high.

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