Do you like your motors carbureted and your tracks circular? Your jeans cut off and your bologna fried? Your sunglasses wraparound and your national anthem Bret Michaels-ed? Then there’s a little-known spectator sport that I need to tell you about: it’s called NASCAR, and I hear it’s quite popular.
You may find this hard to believe, but prior to the Ford 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway a few months back, I’d never attended a NASCAR race. By most metrics, I should be a NASCAR fan. I enjoy loud noises, beer, and any combination of beer and loud noises. If I see a car emblazoned with the Tide logo drive faster than other cars over a period of time, I reflexively purchase Tide detergent in order to increase the performance of my laundry. Finally, I find it very cool that you can watch a race and then go out to your own car in the parking lot and know that your daily driver has a tangible connection to the cars on the track, in that it, too, has tires and an engine.
Prior to the race, I arrange to get a ride around the track in order to gain a little perspective on the sport. While most ride-alongs are in Ford Mustangs, I jump into an Explorer, which happens to feature Brett Bodine behind the wheel. And now, after several flat-out laps riding shotgun, I can tell you what those other Explorer reviews haven’t: the new Explorer pushes around turn 2 and could use more front spoiler. This is important information for today’s active families, especially those who drive in circles at 115 mph.
Then it’s back to my home away from home, a massive Keystone Raptor “toy box” trailer that I dragged to the RV parking lot behind a Ford F-150 EcoBoost. There, I don my latest eBay purchase, a sweet NASCAR race suit that was evidently once worn by someone who drove a Pontiac that was sponsored by Lysol. I stand beside the Raptor’s rear ramp with a beer in my hand, brazenly begging for attention. “Yeah, the Lysol Pontiac’s runnin’ real good today!” I inform passersby. “What time is it?” I ask nobody in particular. “Time to warm up the Lysol Pontiac!” I amuse myself, at least.
As start time approaches, I find my seat in the bleachers and survey the scene. NASCAR does an excellent job of hyping the gladiatorial tension before the race—who will win the Quest for the Big Trophy (as they call it)? It all comes down to this! Gentlemen, start your engines! Danica Patrick, go ahead and start yours, too!
The thing is, once you’ve kicked things off with fireworks, a military flyover, and Mr. Bret Michaels singing of rockets’ red glare, the cars have a tough act to follow. The green flag is dramatic, with the pack crossing the start/finish line and accelerating in thunderous unison. Then, for a few laps, the cars remain in formation—it’s easy to see who’s leading and who’s in last place, and it’s indeed thrilling when the wave of noise washes past and then recedes around the other side of the track.
Each time the herd gallops around the bend, I gain more respect for NASCAR drivers. I’m guessing that the average speed is something like 160 mph, and the cars are clearly on the ragged edge of control. You can see the slip angles, see the rear ends twitching and the drivers correcting five mini-slides in a single corner. TV just doesn’t communicate NASCAR’s nuance, and yes, I just used “NASCAR” and “nuance” in the same sentence.
Nonetheless, it turns out that it’s boring to watch someone drive 400 miles, no matter how fast they do it. Soon after the start, the order decays and I can’t tell who’s leading, who’s a lap down, and who’s so far behind he’s probably madder’n a gator with a toothache. It’s just a constant single-file parade of cars. So I excuse myself to see what’s happening down on the concourse behind the stands.
It appears that I’m not the only one who has a short attention span, because the concourse is packed, with lines at every vendor. I mean, you should’ve seen the line at the bologna stand. It was almost as long as the line at the salad stand. I’m kidding, of course—there was no salad stand. But there was a bologna stand. Which also sold foot-long corn dogs.
Over at another vendor, I decide to buy a genuine Homestead-Miami Speedway hat to shield my scalp from the Florida sun. The guy at the hat stand offers me a lipper of tobacco. I mean, it’s an obvious question: what good is a hat if you don’t have any tobacco? I decline his offer, revealing myself as the Yankee imposter that I am.
I’m not sure exactly how deep into the race I last, but by the time the fireworks commemorate Jimmie Johnson’s Best Driver of the Year Award (as they call it), I’m back at the Raptor watching football in the power pop-out living room (that’s right: power living room). Here’s my problem, I think: NASCAR is too polished for its own good.
Back where I grew up, in Maine, there was a small stock-car track that you could hear from my house. This little track put on a great show—for instance, the Screamin’ Demons class featured a first-generation Mazda RX-7 dueling with a Dodge Rampage while the announcer tried to explain what a Wankel is. In another race, an old Ford Torino went flying over the banking and then clawed its way back onto the track with a crowd-pleasing, open-diff burnout. Best of all was the intermission show, in which a Dukes of Hazzard–themed car chase was staged on the dirt infield. When the General Lee (which was something like a Chevy Celebrity) died, the Dukes improvised and stole Rosco’s police car so as to execute the climactic jump. That’s showmanship.
More recently, the local newspaper ran a photo of one of my elementary-school classmates providing an entertainment interlude between races at that very track. He was driving a monster truck named Crushstation. The truck’s body was shaped like a giant lobster. Is it wrong that, given the choice between watching a top-level NASCAR race and a performance by Crushstation, I find myself gravitating toward the car-crushing lobster truck?
I’ve always thought I was too smart for NASCAR. But a little introspection about what I really find entertaining—monster trucks, Screamin’ Demons, Dukes of Hazzard theater in the round—reveals that the opposite is probably true. If you want my fan dollars, NASCAR, you’re going to have to dumb it down.
Illustration by Tim Marrs