A British dandy descends into the heart of NASCAR, America’s number one sport
Author Thomas Patterson Illustration Andrew R. Wright
It’s the peak of summer in Sparta, Kentucky, just across the Ohio River from Indiana. Adding to the sweltering heat are the idling stock car engines at the Kentucky Speedway. In one of the sprawling complex’s back rooms, I’m standing among 43 of NASCAR’s finest drivers, the cast of a reality TV show called “Guntucky” and other assorted dignitaries, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and pizza magnate “Papa” John Schnatter. Heads bowed, they are all praying to the Lord that nobody will crash and die tonight. I’m praying for someone to bring me a gin and tonic, because as an Englishman a long way from home and way out of his depth, I could use one.
This is the pre-race meeting for the snappily titled 3rd Annual Quaker State 400 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, during which drivers figure out the best way not to gravely injure themselves while doing 200 mph around a 1.5-mile oval track. It’s been decades since I last prayed, but it’s a bit like riding a bicycle, and it seems rude not to join in. So, along with everyone else, I utter blessings for the race sponsors and pleas for nice weather, which seems a bit optimistic seeing as it’s lashing down outside.
Next, the drivers are whisked off to wave at 100,000 fans in the rain and then shake hands with some very important people, including Kentucky Lieutenant Governor Jerry Abramson and the Kentucky Speedway mascot, who is a man dressed like a horse. As the handshaking part of the event draws to a close, I wander off in search of gin and steak, medium-rare, please.
Do you know how hard it is to find a G&T and a nicely cooked entrecôte at the infield of the Kentucky Speedway? If you’re Papa John, I’m sure it’s pretty easy, but for a workaday hack like me it’s impossible—which is why I end up with a Miller Lite and a turkey leg the size of a toddler. A man in an NRA T-shirt laughs at me when I spill hot sauce on my cravat, which leads me to wonder what on earth I’m doing here, anyway.
The blame lies with an editor who thought it would be a lark to send me into the bleeding heart of the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing, which is apparently the No. 1 spectator sport in America. Who knew that roughly one in three Yanks were fans? Before I got here, I didn’t know anything about NASCAR beyond a hazy recollection that I’d once watched Days of Thunder in a hotel room in Gstaad, and that it was something to do with people from the Deep South driving around for a bit and then crashing into one another. My editor probably guessed as much, which is why he packed me off to Kentucky with the instruction, “Go and be English at NASCAR.” Did he expect me to get eaten alive or to come out a fan?
I’m attending the race courtesy of Goodyear, who are keen to have it known that they make all of the tires for all of the cars at NASCAR. Before bringing me to the Kentucky Speedway, they spent a day schooling me at their headquarters in Akron, Ohio, feeding me a dizzying array of statistics involving PSI numbers, compound rubber components and something called camber, which I thought was a type of exotic liqueur I’d once tried in Dar es Salaam but which turned out to be the angle of a wheel. I pretended to understand everything they told me, even though I still don’t know how to properly work the windscreen wipers of my trusty Bimmer.
Even in possession of vital information like the annual cost of financing a team (upwards of $20 million) and the number of tires Goodyear makes for each race (roughly 4,500), I find myself ill prepared to handle the visceral aspects of a NASCAR race—from the mechanics scurrying round like ants (albeit ants who can change a tire in 10 seconds) to the deafening sounds of engines that can pack up to 800 horses.
I haven’t brought earplugs, and I also forgot to pack the white suit I usually wear to the Oxbridge Boat Race, which is a real sod, as the Goodyear PRs wouldn’t stop en route to let me hire a tux. Still, I resign myself to making the best of an unstylish situation and throw myself into the day with befitting aplomb.
My agenda: figuring out just what the appeal of NASCAR is by asking questions apparently so stupid that I receive looks that oscillate between pity, despair and the kind of outright hostility I haven’t experienced since the time
I showed a former debutante my ribald impression of an Indian elephant.
When I ask one driver, a chap from Indiana called Ryan Newman, how he got started, he says by racing Quarter Midgets as a child. I ask him what a Quarter Midget is, which elicits a politically incorrect joke. (Only later do I find out that a Quarter Midget is a tiny race car designed for kids to drive, which sounds both adorable and terrifying.)
Not for the first or last time this weekend, I need a drink, so when a pleasant-seeming fellow with a smart shirt and slight paunch walks past, I consider asking him to fetch me a martini. My PR handler points out that the man I mistook for a steward is actually Tony Stewart—not only one of the top NASCAR drivers but, according to Forbes, the 83rd-highest-paid athlete in the world. Oh dear.
But it’s an understandable error: A common refrain among NASCAR fans is how “normal-looking” their heroes are. As one extravagantly bearded devotee says, they’re “like regular guys, you know, guys you can talk to.”
Certainly, the very legendary driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. looks as if he might be a good drinking chum, while Kyle Busch, whose name invariably comes with the word “winningest” attached, bears a striking resemblance to my old pal Charlie, who was kicked out of the Coach & Horses in Soho for downing a bottle of Worcestershire sauce and throwing up on the bar.
This is all well and good, but I’m still no closer to discerning whether there’s more to NASCAR than a bunch of extravagantly well-paid guys driving around and around in circles for hours.
For answers, I speak to an affable bear of a man called Tony Gibson, crew chief for Danica Patrick, the sole female driver in the race and the first woman in the history of NASCAR to win a pole in the premier league Sprint Cup series, in which the most talented drivers compete. Gibson, who cheerfully refers to NASCAR as “redneck racing,” is enjoyably blunt when describing the appeal of the sport.
“Let’s face it, 95 percent of people who are saying they’re race fans want to see them beat and bang and spin and wreck and run into one another,” he says. “They want to see somebody get hurt, they want to see somebody wreck, they want to see something that’s scary.”
Earnhardt Jr., who hails from the first family of the sport, agrees. “Fans worship speed, and there’s an element of danger and risking your life,” he says.
Apparently, as strawberries and cream are to Wimbledon, so are crashes to NASCAR. Yet surely there must be more to it than watching the occasional car drive into a wall. I head to the campgrounds outside the speedway, where fans are grilling hot dogs and hoedowning, as they say, to country hits. If anyone can shed some light on NASCAR’s popularity, I reason, these people can.
Some espouse their love of the drivers, some eulogize the crashes, but none can convincingly explain to me just what makes NASCAR so great. One fan, a 6-foot-5 chap named Tim, admits that he doesn’t even watch the races. “I only come for the atmosphere,” he elucidates. “Drink a little beer, hopefully see somebody get aggravated with somebody else.”
It’s an inspiring speech, but inebriated affray isn’t strictly what I’m here for. I walk back to the track, still a very long way from being converted. There is, however, one more well to plumb before I give in, a well by the name of Darrell Waltrip. Named NASCAR’s “Driver of the Decade” in the 1980s, Waltrip was the first driver to accumulate $10 million in race winnings, and he is now the lead analyst and chief NASCAR commentator for Fox. He is, as it were, my man on the mountain.
“Think about an engine turning 10,000 revs per minute, the noise, the sights, the sound, those big old cars going around a race track. There’s so many things going on,” says Waltrip, in the Southern drawl of his native Kentucky. “There’s the pit stops, the crews, the action on the track, the caution flags, the different rivalries….”
Though Waltrip’s rhapsody seems to last as long as an actual race, I hang on his every word. “Until you go and hear those cars, smell the rubber of the tires and the fuel burning,” he continues, “standing down by the track watching a car come at you and pass you at over 200 miles an hour, until you can feel that and grasp it and put your arms around it, you really don’t know what you’re missing.”
While I’m not yet sure I want to put my arms around NASCAR, I may be willing to give it a quick pat on the back. I ask Waltrip about the whole going-around-in-circles thing, which has been a sticking point for me. He lets out a small chuckle, in the way clever people do when they want to call you an idiot without actually saying it.
“There’s an incredible art to driving a race car; it’s a thing of beauty,” Waltrip says. “It’s like painting on a canvas. You’ve got to be able to paint a pretty picture. It’s a phrase I use all the time—the guy who can hold a pretty wheel and really wheel his car around that racetrack to perfection. That’s what you strive for every week when you’re a competitor. That perfect grace.”
Thoroughly inspired by this poet laureate of petrol, I head for the pits.
The race begins and I stand by the side of the track, watching the cars go around in a circle, as I’d known they would. But my word, they’re fast, faster than I’d thought 200 mph would look, and they’re louder as well. I realize then that Waltrip was absolutely right. Just as you can’t adequately describe the taste of a cool G&T to a person without the taste buds of an English gentleman, you can’t expect an Englishman to appreciate NASCAR until he’s stood in the slipstream of a stock car that has just reached transcendental velocity.
As the cars go around, I can feel the vibrations thundering into the depths of my very British soul. The drivers weave in and out of each other and tear into corners with daredevil precision, and I find myself hooting with a distinctly un-English lack of decorum as a car spins out and crashes in front of me. That perfect grace Waltrip described earlier may still elude me, but it was bloody fun to watch.
THOMAS PATTERSON is a screenwriter based in London. While he enjoyed his day at the races, he sorely missed his G&Ts.