Learning to Love NASCAR…or Die Trying
A Special Sportsman’s Daily Report: Dan Milch files from inside the Checker Auto Parts 500 – literally inside, as he rode shotgun with NASCAR veteran Ricky Rudd.
Phoenix, AZ (Sportsman’s Daily Wire Service) – With the season’s Nextel Cup finale just one week away, there was a lot riding on Sunday’s Checker Auto Parts 500: would eventual winner Jimmie Johnson hold his 30-point lead en route to becoming the first two-time winner in the Chase format (he would), will his Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon close the gap (he didn’t)…and would I, your correspondent, manage to finish the race without needing to be airlifted to the nearest psychiatric hospital (continue reading).
While tensions at the Phoenix International Raceway ran high, no one was more tense than I, as I sat strapped in next to Ricky Rudd who let me ride shot-gun as he nears the end of a long and fairly uneventful career (he will be retiring from the sport following next Sunday’s race in Homestead, FL). Just moments before start time I began having second thoughts, but to run screaming from a high-performance race car in front of 80,000 excitable NASCAR fans didn’t strike me as a smart career move. So there I remained, nauseous and sweating, but vaguely determined to see it through and finally get to experience – and understand – what it is that makes NASCAR the hugely popular sport it is (second only to the NFL in terms of TV ratings).
The Back Story
NASCAR has everything a fan of the major three American sports could ever want: speed, intense rivalries, top-tier sponsors, and the ever-present threat of deadly eight-car pileups. And to anyone whose knees have buckled at the cost of even minor body work, seeing someone else about to get hit with an outrageous auto repair bill is a guilty, though genuine, thrill.
I’m no longer surprised when a Volvo-driving, Chardonnay-swilling, soccer-dad feels the need to disclose – usually unsolicited – his love for NASCAR. After all, as John Kerry said on the campaign trail several years back, “Who among us doesn’t like NASCAR?” But I’ve never quite figured out how I’ve managed to resist its obvious allure. First off, I’ve loved to drive since the first time I found myself terrorizing pedestrians and fellow motorists as the blood drained from my knuckles as I tightly clutched the wheel of my dad’s carrier-sized Buick. I’ve since logged hundreds of thousands of miles negotiating some of the world’s most harrowing highways and back alleys, from the Long Island Expressway as a Motorhead concert was letting out, to the Autobahn, where I topped out at 130 mph in a rented Audi with a carload of neo-Nazis in hot pursuit. I once lead a squadron of police cards on an exhilarating 40-minute chase that ended with me shivering in a watery ditch, surrounded by 30 cops with drawn guns (they never would have caught me if I didn’t have to pick up some dry cleaning). Almost nothing beats the rush that comes from gripping a contoured leather steering wheel…all it takes is a half mile run to the convenience store to get the testosterone flowing. And to complete the picture, I’ve been on both ends of road-rage.
I’ve covered wars, famines, and major sports events, often from a participant’s viewpoint to give readers the benefit of firsthand experience. There’s nothing quite like riding in an F-16 to appreciate the firepower at your disposal, dramatically lowering your carbohydrate intake to appreciate the deprivations of famine, or consoling a high-strung standard poodle moments before show time to grasp the stakes of a nationally recognized dog show. Attending a NASCAR event as a spectator seemed to have limited journalistic value and even more limited appeal; reporting as a member of a pit crew had possibilities, but what better way to get inside the world of NASCAR than to get inside a NASCAR?
In order to prepare for what sounded like an incredibly repetitious trip (312 times around a track with no changes in terrain or scenery), I visited my mechanic, Franco Zefirrelli, to get a sense of what lay ahead, and to get a primer on NASCAR itself. Franco explained the scoring system, the tactics drivers use, provided me with a run down of the personalities (warning me to avoid Tony Stewart, whom he likened to a surly jackal gnawing a lifeless carcass), graphic descriptions of famous flame-outs, and a detailed history of the catalytic converter.
As luck would have it, just two weeks before the race I spent half a day in a driver’s safety class – what at first seemed a small price to pay for lowering my car insurance premiums. The class was given by a gnomish, knuckle-dragging type impressed with his hard-earned wisdom, who seemed to see himself as the only thing standing between civilization and all-out vehicular mayhem. I wasn’t sure of what value I’d derive from a last-minute refresher on driving protocol and road etiquette, but I figured I’d be prepared should Ricky draw a blank on who gets the right of way entering the final turn.
What I Learned: Random Observations to Startling Revelations
1. First, those flame-retardant suits the guys wear, they could use a lot more slack in the crotch area.
2. You couldn’t find a bunch of nicer guys than Ricky Rudd’s pit crew – total pros and completely unflappable, apart from the little incident for which I’ll take full responsibility. They’re preparing a $150,000 high-performance car for one of the most important races of the year, and I’m asking if they’d give my Toyota hatchback a quick oil change and check the tires. I was lucky to escape with just bruises.
3. I’d like to report that the stands are a representative cross-section of America, with people of all races, ethnicities, and socio-economic backgrounds clustered for a common purpose – to watch cars circle a track in an ever-present haze of airborne pollutants while silently calculating its contribution to the inexorable shrinking of the Polar ice caps. But I’m afraid to report that a quick survey of the stands confirms the stereotype – floozies in halter tops and guys with beards, beer-bellies, and sh*t for brains.
4. Ten minutes in I’m looking for a radio, a CD player, maybe an iPod jack., but I can’t find anything remotely having to do with music. 312 miles without tunes? Crazy.
5. Here you have the best, most experienced drivers in the world…and no one signals. And people wonder why cars crash.
6. I don’t care if the person cutting you off is the school librarian or someone’s blue-haired grandmother, never be surprised when someone flips you the bird. Though I’ll admit, I was shocked to see how many other drivers gave me the finger for no reason at all.
7. An hour into the race, the kidneys are starting to act up. I asked Ricky when he planned on making a quick run for the head. He just kind of smirked. Four hours and no bathroom breaks? How is that possible? (For an explanation, see “Four Out of Five NASCAR Drivers Depend on DEPEND”).
8. Cars are barreling down the track at breakneck speeds, you’d expect to see road kill. I asked Ricky later why you didn’t see the occasional possum or raccoon flattened on the blacktop. Apparently the critters do dart onto the track, but the cars are going so fast they wind up somewhere between pureed and liquefied, rendering them unrecognizable as conventional road kill.
9. “Are we there yet? Are we there yet?” I admit, if I asked Ricky once I asked him a thousand times. I know it’s irritating, but the thing never ends. Mile after mile, lap after lap, without a Stuckey’s or Cracker Barrel to break up the tedium.
Riding next to Ricky you’re amazed at the speed and the hair-trigger reactions under intense pressure. Kobe steps to the foul line and needs to make two to tie the game with two ticks left on the clock, yeah, that’s pressure…but if Ricky Rudd hits the “back iron” down the stretch – which in his case means he’s just hit a steel-reinforced concrete wall traveling close to 125 mph – he’s not just leaving the floor with his head down…he’s lucky to leave with it still attached.
Apart from the competition, drama, and relief that we made it without needing the attention of an emergency burn unit, what ultimately sold it for me was NASCAR’s unmatched consumer value relative to the other major spectator sports. Think about it: the field is made up of some 40 cars, each costing millions of dollars to build and maintain; tires cost $20K per race, factor in driver and team salaries and travel expenses…and on top of everything, with gas at over three bucks a gallon, it’s roughly the equivalent of a car payment just to put a car across the finish line. And forget about the healthcare premiums, which are through the roof – most insurance carriers view a death wish as a pre-existing condition. That’s a lot of product for the average fan sitting at home.
To sum up, I just spent over four hours inhaling car exhaust, gasoline, motor oil, burnt rubber, sweat, urine, and stale beer. It was as foul and disgusting as it sounds, and I’ll never want to subject myself to something like that again. Thanks to the miracle of TV, I won’t have to; which is why I look forward to joining the millions of NASCAR fans next week from the comfort and safe distance of my living room, sucking down Buds and watching my man Ricky Rudd ride off into the sunset…or into the stands as he negotiates the treacherous second turn at Homestead, whichever comes first. Gentlemen, start your Sonys.
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