Thursday, September 23, 2004

Gas Station Karaoke: Staggering Through Nascar America

Posted by Hello
(published in Me Three)

Thirty miles from the track, I get the sense that something big is happening. Bubbas stand out by the interstate, stone faced and serious. They have flood lamps hooked up to gas powered generators at their feet turning the night into noonday around their pick-ups, where signs hang off tailgates with three foot tall letters reading “I Need Tickets”.

Further in, smutty fog the color of diesel fuel clogs the valley. Road signs become illegible through the smoke screen of charcoal burning, cigarettes smoldering in the grass. Pup tents have been erected in the median of the divided highway, church lawns have become refugee camps for luxury trailer. Every green space is choked with discarded cans of Coors Light, wads of toilet paper, Frito-Lay bags. I get the sense that I am intruding, and if nothing else I better keep driving.

Closer to the track, stout policewomen herd in the drunks that wander around the streets, their fishbelly white bodies catching headlights on shaky legs before they move on to pass out in gravel lots or on air-mattresses. RVs fill every space imaginable around the speedway in one great spiral that goes on all the way up past interstate 81N. Tonight 160,000 race fans lay with drunken jitters while the sun is on the other side of the world. The ones who can’t sleep, the true fans with their bellies full of nitro walk the landscape like zombies from a third rate horror film. Hungry. Restless.

As I pull up the hill towards my campsite, the gas stations are alive with Budweiser reps giving away free beer. Skoal reps are pushing smokeless tobacco into dirty overworked palms. A Karaoke machine is set up in the corner of the Qwik-Mart parking lot where braless women in their forties warm over Tanya Tucker while their men eye approvingly. This is NASCAR America. And it’s growing.

I sleep in my clothes. I want to be ready.

When I was asked to come to Bristol motor speedway for the fall race, what race fans call the night race, I wasn’t really interested. It was an invitation I’d turned down before, and with so much writing to do I didn’t think I had the time. I was curious though about the change that had occurred in my family over the last year.

My relatives’ homes over the last twelve months have slowly become shrines to the sport. Toy cars line up on mantles where wedding pictures have been in the past. Fantasy NASCAR teams have replaced fantasy football teams as a long distance bonding ritual. Holidays have become times to debate the new point system, which drivers wreck others on purpose, how the sport is totally rigged or inevitably geared toward whichever team has the most money to spend.

In a way NASCAR has become a much bigger part of their southern culture than it had been in the past when it was something of a novelty, like watching Bill Dance fishing for smallmouth bass on Sunday afternoon. That’s the reason I came to Bristol. I moved out of the south against my instincts, so now anything that seems intricately southern draws me in. I’ve become obsessed with the idea of meeting Little Jimmy Dickens, making my own lye soap at Dollywood, or squirrel hunting one last time. Bristol fell into this line. I had to do it. Just once. Just to show “my raisin”.

The morning of the Friday race, the minor league Busch series race, the population of Bristol, TN has increased eight fold. The ground temperature at eleven in the morning is in the upper eighties, but feels like a hundred degrees since everywhere you look there is concrete and aluminum sided vans reflecting the heat, walls of sunburned flesh meandering.

In all directions semi-truck trailers are hawking voodoo dolls of the most hated drivers. Arms crowd next to arms; tattoos meet tattoos, as the sea of blue-collars crush into one another to buy radio shack race scanners at four hundred dollars a pop.

Friday morning is not without its share of celebrities. An oak tree of a man, bearded and steely-eyed, named Chocolate signs gas cans for a hundred dollars a piece. He is the crew chief for number eight, the most popular driver on the circuit. Even with the connection to number eight, Chocolate has to share time with the Texas Bikini Team, who have sweated their masquera off by noon posing with deacons and circuit court judges.

The fans look like a fat clown convention. Number forty in lipstick red. Number thirty virgin white. Number twenty four in neon green. Every shirt is an overstated mural to Chevy or Dodge with a huge bright picture of cars, flaming tires, and a driver’s face. Checker flag bikini tops hang inches above hot pink paunches. Their is a sea of out of shape bodies in every direction, hungry, hot, ready to see someone killed in their car.

Because of the walls of people gathered around the mammoth racing complex, you can only walk in staggers. If you take three steps, two have to be to the side to move out of one person’s way, then the other. Bristol on race week becomes one of the largest cities in Tennessee, most of its rag-tag citizens living within the same two square miles away from showers, fresh food, and running water.

I move through the odor of sour mash and body odor back up the hill towards my campsite. Confederate flags whip in the wind above number eight flags, upside down twenty four banners. At the gas station, a crowd has gathered to hear a sixteen year old sing Trisha Yearwood. Some of the wifeless men are working hard to get her top, offering a string of number forty-eight beads.

The night of the race, I feel less out of place. I have a racing hat on, sunglasses that slant backwards, and most importantly, a race scanner with matching earphones. The contraption looks like something a pilot would wear, with a microphone jutting down from one of the coconut shell sized headphones. It does serve two purposes though.

One, it blocks out the noise. The race track is surrounded by mountains, and is itself a deep concrete bowl that only amplifies the rumbles and squeals of the engines. Without earphones, you walk out deaf.

Secondly, the earphones and scanner allow you to hear every word between the driver and pit crew. The majority of the fans look like they work on an aircraft carrier, they set and eaves drop on every turn with spare batteries at the ready in their sweaty laps.

Fighter jets fly over the track as a local politician rambles against gun control. Children sing the national anthem as best they can remember it, then are quickly bused off the track. The speedway added an additional twenty thousand seats last summer, and there is still only standing room. The speedway has over twice the attendance of the Superbowl, every seat waiting for blood and exhaust. The cars are ready. The switches wired to engines flip on, and the race begins.

An hour into the race it becomes clear to me that the race itself isn’t the attraction. There is no sense of competition. Driver eight, who was badly burned two weeks earlier to the point of limping, is supported by a good ninety percent of the fans. He is a legacy, he’s young and good looking, and he’s bound to win. His victory comes not only from the fact he has the most money, but also because the race is totally rigged. If any driver gets too far ahead of him, the race goes under caution. This means all the cars have to get back in a close line and circle for four or five laps. All leads are lost. The reason is always bogus: debris on the track, oil in pit row, things that can’t be proven. The fix is in.

The real entertainment in the race, for me and the 160,000 air traffic controllers surrounding me, comes from eaves dropping on the hustled hillbillies at the wheel. You get to hear unedited slander and spite on every turn.

One crew chief tells his driver, “If you go down on that thirty-eight car and show him your nose, he’ll let you by. He just wants to get his car out of here in one piece.” Bristol is notorious for its short track wrecks. Drivers have been killed below us, some just flying in to the race. Their names are lent to grandstand seating now.“Don’t try anything smartass though,” the crew chief warns. “He’s a big fucker.” The drivers know there is no place to hide after a wreck. They’ve been surrounded too.

After two hours, the race ends with number eight burning his tires in a scarring victory. Everyone’s dreams have come true, and the hundreds of dollars spent seem worthwhile.

Walking with 160,000 fans on the highway, you can only take baby steps. Up the hill at the track, people look like a million African fire ants stirred to a frenzy. From the air, it looks like an evacuation from some great disaster, thousands after thousands forcing their way back to backyards and overpasses to sleep.

With nothing left to do, I walk into the gas station by my camp site and buy a six pack of cheap beer. It cost twice what it would any other time, but most of the crowd is sweating blood from thirst and joy so no one minds. Worn out and stinking, I sit on the grass by a mini-van that is hawking cold pizzas.

The Karaoke machine is blaring an off-key Stand by Your Man while huge bodies lean on each other in the dark. Next year there will be more race fans, there are plans to add a third race, additional deep fryers and cigarette cartons have already been ordered. I finish my last beer and go off to find a dance partner. This is NASCAR America, and I’m taking it all in before the sun finds its way back.