By Al Hoff

The excitement starts miles from the track’s epicenter. There are plenty of ordinary day-trippers on the road, but by the time drivers on eastbound Interstate 94 hit Kalamazoo, they’re surrounded by cars festooned with flags, window clings, bumper stickers, and hand-lettered signs. Motels, gas stations, and fast-food joints hang enormous banners, and five miles from the speedway, the message is clear–ain’t nobody here but race fans.

It’s a Saturday last August and 160,000 stock car racing fans are converging on the tiny town (pop. 1,027) of Brooklyn, Michigan. The area goes into a frenzy twice a year when the Winston Cup, NASCAR’s all-star series, comes to town. The crowds have gotten so huge that this year, by governor’s decree, the state two-lanes around the speedway have been converted to one-way three-laners. Some locals scream foul and complain to the local paper, the Adrian Daily Telegram. One angry resident snorts,”It looks to me like the state is giving the Speedway carte blanche control over state and federal highways just because it’s NASCAR.” But others stick signs along the roadway bellowing, “Welcome Race Fans.” After all, the average race fan will spend $175 this weekend.

NASCAR Winston Cup racing has been called America’s fastest growing spectator sport. How big it’s getting was just an abstraction to me until the day about a year ago that I happened to drive past the Charlotte Motor Speedway in North Carolina. A single structure three-quarters of a mile long on one side, the track holds 200,000 people. I could only imagine what a place like that would look and sound like full, but I wanted to know. A few months later I got my chance.

Legend has it that stock car racing grew out of moonshining, out of the races those bad boys in souped-up hot rods had with the law. In the 1930s and 1940s, stock car races were disorganized, staged haphazardly with arbitrary rules and purses that rarely materialized. But a mechanic from Daytona Beach, Florida, “Big Bill” France Sr., recognized the sport’s potential. In 1948, France formed the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing to unite pro racers under one governing body whose rule was law, one that could guarantee the prizes and declare a definitive champion.

For its first 30 years, NASCAR racing was car and driver “teams” puttering from track to track, sponsored mostly by local businesses or automotive products. Occasionally it kicked out a media darling like seven-time champion Richard Petty. What pushed NASCAR’s popularity skyward was television. Today there are cable channels devoted entirely to motor sports, but it was only 20 years ago that a network–CBS–broadcast the first full coverage of a NASCAR race. It was the season opener, the Daytona 500, complete with a knuckle-biting, jaw-dropping finish that included three drivers throwing punches in the infield.

In 1981 the upstart cable sports channel, ESPN, signed up to broadcast NASCAR races live (the networks had locked up other pro sports), and it quickly learned how to make cars driving in circles exciting television. Its biggest innovation was the use of multiple cameras and quick editing that put viewers in and on the race cars, above the pit stalls, and flat on the track itself.

Television provided stock car racing with an intimate, coherent narrative during a race, week after week, throughout the season. Ratings grew steadily. Corporate America noticed and poured money into NASCAR sponsorship and cross-promotion. Stock car racers became TV personalities, TV fans went to races, national print media began to cover the sport–the loop was in motion and it spread out wider and wider. Now the three networks and three other cable channels have all gotten in on the action.

NASCAR is still privately owned, by the France family. They set the rules, run the races, coordinate the spin. NASCAR is also an umbrella term covering all manner of fandom, activities, and merchandise. Today it sanctions 2,000 auto racing events a year in 12 divisions at more than 100 racetracks. Winston Cup is the big leagues, with 30-plus races in a February-to-November season, open only to the best drivers. NASCAR runs two other national series, the Busch Grand National Stock Car Series, in essence the training ground for Winston Cup drivers, and the new Craftsman Truck Series, where modified pickup trucks race. Most other NASCAR-sanctioned races are regional events.

NASCAR’s press kit purrs, “As the sport has grown, our fan base has moved toward premier marketing demographics.” It’s not a bunch of yee-hawing good ol’ boys watching Carolina grease monkeys tear up dirt tracks anymore. NASCAR is urban, suburban, women, kids, MBAs, computers, Madison Avenue, and plenty of disposal income.

Over the last decade, attendance at NASCAR events has shot up 91 percent. More than six million fans attended the 33 Winston Cup races in 1998 (an average of 190,000 per race). Tracks can’t add seats fast enough. (Since last summer, the Michigan Speedway has added 13,000 new seats, bringing its total to 173,000.)

Going to a Winston Cup race is no spur-of-the-moment activity. Long-distance fandom is inevitable, with races scattered at 20 tracks across the country, and many fans travel hundreds of miles to attend a race. Tickets, at $65 a pop, sell out far in advance. A month before the race last August I begged and bugged my Michigan connections: “Can you get me tickets? Can you get me tickets?” Finally, somebody knew somebody at the speedway, and $130 lighter, I had two tickets to the Pepsi 400, one for me and one for my baffled husband.

By eight in the morning on Sunday, race day, a small city has grown up around the track. Spectators pour off the highway, park, and unload coolers. Beside the parking area is a massive campground, a latter-day Hooverville of tarps, tents, pop-up campers, RVs, and converted school buses. Outside the gates, most church services have yet to begin. Inside, the first beer of the day is shoved into a foamie and popped open right in the parking lot. It’s a long walk to the ticket window.

Nearly everyone wears a T-shirt, tank top, ball cap, bandanna, jacket, or other tribal marking heralding his favorite driver. Traditionally, a fan supports one driver, devoting the intensity that might ordinarily be focused on an entire pro sports team onto just one man. With so many different “teams” on the track, NASCAR lacks the us-versus-them mentality of other sports. Only the attendee who is not visibly supporting a driver is regarded with suspicion and mild contempt. People are staring at me, but it slowly dawns on me that they’re simply trying to see where my allegiance lies. I’d feel less conspicuous with four heads as long as I had on a race shirt.

Racing T-shirts are profusely illustrated front and back, from neck to hem, armpit to armpit, in kaleidoscopic swirls of race cars, corporate logos, driver’s heads, slogans, numbers, statistics, dates, times, and locations. Most shirts cite a single driver, racetrack, and date, and by midmorning, plenty of fans are already decked in brand-new shirts commemorating today’s race.

There are two exceptions to the Crayola-colored crowd. Fans of racer Dale Earnhardt, “The Intimidator,” favor black T-shirts with menacing graphics. “If you can’t ride with the big dawgs, stay on the porch.” A scattering of scrawny, shaggy-looking men are attired head to toe in unmarked black, oblivious to the summer sun. They sure look like the kind of guys who would get behind a driver called the Intimidator. A 30-ish guy strolls past in a Hawaiian shirt and crocheted Pabst Blue Ribbon hat. Anywhere else, that’s a hipster. Here, it’s hard to know. Might just be the funniest guy down at the plant.

Judging by apparel, Earnhardt, Jeff Gordon, Mark Martin, and Rusty Wallace have captured the most fans, with Gordon especially popular among the women and kids. NASCAR swears 39 percent of its fans are women, and the crowd seems to confirm it. Most of the women are coupled with men, but intriguingly, while united in affection or marriage, according to their T-shirts the gals aren’t beholden to their man’s driver.

Now, Gordon, every time his mouth drops open, he remembers to thank God, his crew, DuPont, Pepsi, and Chevrolet. In a highly publicized sport struggling to maintain a balance between cannonballing daredevils and polite family men, Gordon has become a flashpoint for old-style versus new-style NASCAR. Where once good driving was all that mattered, and some roughness and rowdiness in drivers was acceptable, even cherished, today’s drivers have to be decent racers but also clean-cut corporate spokesmen and media stars. Gordon is the new model driver–pretty, articulate, and telegenic, equally at home in high-tech garages, at corporate shindigs, or on late-night talk shows.

Gordon squeaks just a bit too clean for fans of stock car racing’s rougher, rowdier past. He’s from California, where he showed early promise, winning his first Quarter Midget race at age eight, already selling T-shirts printed with his name to raise money for parts. When he was in his early teens and had maxed out all the racing opportunities in California, his family relocated to the Indianapolis area. That makes him something of an outsider in a culture where southern racing dynasties pass on the traditions.

In a sport where most of the top racers are over 40, Gordon, at 27, has already won two championships (1995 and 1997) and by the Pepsi 400 is well on his way to a third. He’s the most popular driver in the sport and the media adore him.

An abnormally uncluttered T-shirt reads in block letters, “Anybody but Jeff.” If half the fans have come to see Gordon win, the other half have come to see him lose. Lacking driver affiliation, I’ve already decided I won’t buy his Ken-doll shtick. “Anybody but Jeff” will be my race-day mantra.

Beyond the ticket gates, a narrow alley of merchandise follows the curve outside the grandstand for about a quarter mile. Each race team travels with several semis, the trailers of which unfold like Transformers into souvenir stores. Passage through this mobile mall is near impossible, but newcomers plunge in, fighting forward till they reach the trailer of their choice, whereupon cash or credit buys the freshest merchandise–clothing, die-cast cars, hair scrunchies, computer mouse pads, Christmas cards. The trailers themselves are rolling billboards, not just for the racing team and sponsor, but also for automotive paint. The lacquered colors are rich, deep, and blindingly bright. When a crowd surge shoves me into the side of the Quaker State trailer, the sharp details of my own startled face stare back at me from the big green-and-white Q.

Sales of licensed NASCAR merchandise exceeded $950 million in 1998. Unlike in basketball, say, where licensing profits are shared equally throughout the NBA, in NASCAR drivers make their own deals, with NASCAR and sponsors getting cuts. A driver can have additional, personal, agreements. When Jeff Gordon finishes a race and all eyes are on him, he takes off his helmet. Then he drinks a Pepsi.

Profits from licensed merchandise often represent the majority of a driver’s income. According to Forbes magazine, in 1996 Dale Earnhardt, a good driver and a fan favorite, made $2.5 million from race purses and salary and $8 million from product endorsements; his souvenir licensing company brought in $30-$40 million.

Such economics leave the racer beholden to his fans to buy merchandise. Skill and performance matter, but a driver has to make fans feel like part of his team, loyal enough to buy countless T-shirts and knick-knacks. There are plenty of other drivers a racing fan can adopt.

With so many fans diving for their wallets, free goodies are rare. The Detroit News distributes a 12-page newsprint race guide. Pepsi trades a Pepsi-logo temporary tattoo for filling out a cola taste survey. No free Pepsi: 16-ounce bottles are selling for $3.25. Bayer hands out Alka-Seltzer and extra-strength aspirin. No doubt a few of those will get eaten by afternoon’s end.

Fresh-faced Winstoneers are handing out cigarettes–with proof of age and a trade-in of a pack of a competing brand. Troubled times for the tobacco giants, but the benefits of motor sports sponsorship remain extraordinary. Since 1972, R.J. Reynolds has sponsored the Winston Cup Series for approximately $30 million per season. Plastering its logo on cars, drivers, tickets, the surface of the tracks, and dozens of racing-related products the company cops priceless TV exposure.

Along the grandstand, every hundred yards or so, there’s an essential amenity–water fountain, restroom, hot dog stand. Fans can bring their own food and drink, and I wish I had: $3.50 for a tiny hot dog, $4 for a 12-ounce can of Miller beer, $6 for the 16-ounce tall boy. Fenced off from the midway is the corporate hospitality section, a cluster of striped canopies with free snack food, strictly off limits except to those with plastic access passes.

DeWalt, the yellow-and-black power tool people, have set up a stage and are giving away hats and coffee mugs to those passersby skilled enough to complete a timed task with one of their tools. Drill holes. Table-saw a plank. The longest line of contenders is for the high-speed lug-nut air gun. Familiar to race fans, it’s used to change racing tires in seconds. Everything looks easier on TV. A lot of brawny men walk away looking sheepish and without the free hat.

Most of the other booths are enticements to sign up for something: fan clubs, sweepstakes, a credit card with a favorite driver’s photo on it. “Win a 38-foot RV!” Altruists can step into a tent and be typed for bone marrow. A popular NASCAR owner, Rick Hendrick, has leukemia, and there’s a push for fans to show support with their very blood. The tent is doing good business, and presumably, the typing is unaffected by blood alcohol content. I lie all over a form from some telephone company, authorizing them to switch my long-distance service. For my creativity, I get a Michigan Speedway beach towel checkered like a racing flag. It’s worth it. At least I have some race thing to carry around and the sight of so many fans toting seat cushions is a tipoff that I might need some extra butt padding.

Stand 13, section 91, row 42–waaaay up high, second to last row from the top, our seats are right on the edge of the grandstand. From the aisle, it’s “excuse me excuse me” past about 20 people. The railing affords a dizzying view of the pavement several stories below. Grandstand seating supported on stilts never inspires much confidence and it seems impossible that this flimsy-looking aluminum structure will withstand the excitement of shoulder-to-shoulder boisterous race fans.

The seating sweeps in a giant C, from where I am, at the end between turns one and two, up past the the front stretch, where the skyboxes cluster, and completely around turns three and four, about a mile away. From my tippy-top perch, I can see the entire oval track and every single race fan: 160,000 people, a verifiable tickets-sold number. I get kinda dizzy again.

The Michigan Speedway (formerly the Michigan International Speedway) has sat here in the shadow of the Big Three, 70 miles southwest of Detroit, since 1967. This and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway (hosting Winston Cup races since 1994) are the only NASCAR Winston Cup venues for much of the Ohio Valley

and central midwest.

NASCAR assigns the races to tracks each year. No long-term deals. With more tracks than race dates, tracks must meet NASCAR’s increasingly fan-friendly requirements: good security, alcohol-free sections, available parking, increased restroom facilities for women. A shabby or poorly managed track doesn’t cut it, so tracks make improvements out of private funds, eager to keep their highly lucrative Winston Cup dates.

NASCAR racing draws much bigger crowds (and higher TV numbers) than the other professional auto racing leagues, like CART (Championship Auto Racing Teams), IRL (Indy Racing League), and Formula One. All motor sports are a celebration of speed, power, and noise, plus driver derring-do, but stock car racing reverberates closest to the national soul. While the other leagues have exotic engines and foreign drivers, NASCAR is quintessentially American. It trades on its colorful past, a southern-fried version of the American dream, where some farm kid from backwoods Georgia who is good with cars, plain old Fords and Chevys, can grow up to be a millionaire hero driving those very same cars around the speedways.

The season’s biggest race is the opener at Mecca: Daytona Beach, Florida. That’s followed by pilgrimages to historic shrines in places like Darlington, South Carolina, and Rockingham, North Carolina, and to shiny new slabs in Las Vegas and Dallas. Every track is unique–long, short, flat, curvy–each advertising its special danger: “The Track Too Tough to Tame,” “The Monster Mile.” The drivers line up differently at each race–anyone can win, anyone can wreck, even die. The configurations are endless and unpredictable–fans tingle all season long, consumed with a delicious anticipation.

Michigan’s allure is a track that’s long and wide, with 18-degree banking in the turns–a fast, roomy racing surface where cars can run three and even four abreast at average speeds above 150 miles per hour. Two weeks before this Pepsi 400 the Michigan Speedway made headlines the hard way when, in a freak accident during a CART race, a car’s axle spun into the stands, killing three fans.

Past the safety fence around the track, inside the oval, is the infield. Here, fans with special tickets can park their truck, RV, or trailer as early as Thursday evening for a full weekend’s entertainment–qualifying time trials, testing sessions, the Busch race on Saturday–plus a better chance to observe or schmooze with drivers and crews, who keep their mobile garages and personal RVs parked on the infield too.

Most infielders watch the race action from atop their vehicles, some of which have custom-built viewing platforms. Others just pull a patio chair up against the fence and watch the action from there. The infield has a party-hearty reputation, but from my perch it looks orderly, with grids marked out by paved roads upon which kids bicycle up and down. I can understand the attraction of bringing an RV to the event: your very own kitchen, bed, beer cooler, toilet, even satellite TV.

I can just see the exit, or bottom, of Pit Road, where the cars are lined up, ready to race. Pit Road, with its temporary base camps for the drivers during the race, runs along the edge of the infield parallel to the front stretch of the track. A logo-covered, jumpsuited crew mans each driver’s pit stall (essentially an assigned parking space), with tools, cold drinks, and data-collecting computers. A driver might have dozens of support staff, but during the race only seven can work in the stall. Two tire carriers, two tire changers, a jack man, and two refuelers–all fiercely trained and coordinated by a crew chief who sits above the stall. On a good day, the driver pulls into Pit Road just to get more gas and fresh tires. A “good” pit stop–changing four tires, refueling, cleaning the windshield and front end, getting the racer a cup of water–should take less than 18 seconds. On a bad day, the crew might have to replace the battery, pound out damage, or even take the car off the track to a garage area on the infield. Grandstands behind the pit area, proximate to the start-finish line, are a hot ticket, and thanks to them I can’t see the pits.

Around noon, half an hour before the start, each race car and driver is introduced over the loudspeaker, but the fans pay little attention. They don’t need anybody to tell them who and what is racing. Suddenly the crowd lurches up. Seven huge shiny red tow trucks pull off the bottom of Pit Road, lights flashing, heading around the track in a V formation. The fans roar and hoot and wave their hats. It’s a vehicular burlesque–a titillating acknowledgment of primitive desires. “I’m just a straight-up truck now, but next time you see me, wink wink, I’ll be sweeping up the metal carnage.” They circle the entire track before pulling over onto a cleared area of the infield, where they join some fire trucks and ambulances.

The loudspeaker asks all to stand for the invocation and flag salute. No awkward pretense here about separation of God and NASCAR. Nearly everyone who has a hat to remove does so. (Many have already removed their shirts.) Everyone stands quietly, while a local minister hits the mike and prays for a goodly time. “Lord, we ask you to bless Pepsi for sponsoring this great race.” He continues, thanking other sponsors and praising Roger Penske, who owns the speedway. (With more than a million dollars collected at the gate today, Roger Penske’s probably saying a few hallelujahs of his own.)

Then, solemnity and prayers for the three CART racing fans beheaded by race debris two weeks earlier. For Mark Martin, starting in fifth position, whose father, stepmother, and half-sister were killed in a plane crash seven days ago. For NASCAR Busch Series racer Gary Laton, injured here in practice on Thursday and now moving his arms and hands again, praise the Lord. For driver Jimmy Spencer, still sidelined with a head injury from a Winston Cup race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The minister beseeches, “Let’s have safe driving.”

The roll call of the dead and injured humbles the crowd a bit. People nod and murmur, and so soon after cheering so lustily for the tow trucks, those harbingers of wreckage. The invocation wraps up with an astonishing burst, “If you’re a race fan that loves Jesus, shout amen!” A few calls go up. Some big-lunged gal bellows out “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Somebody else sings “O Canada.” High above assorted air machines–the Goodyear blimp, helicopters providing coverage for ESPN, and two small putt-putt planes trailing commercial banners–three Falcon fighter jets from a nearby Air National Guard base fly over in a prearranged salute.

The crowd goes wild. The race cars are pulling out onto the track. These aren’t the money-buys-technology, open-wheel fantasy race cars of European playboys. “Stock car” means something off the current Detroit line. Chevrolet Monte Carlo. Pontiac Grand Prix. Ford Taurus. Cars accountants drive. Truthfully, of course, the only stock parts are the trunk, hood, and roof. Beneath the skin of these suburban chargers is raw Motor City power–358-cubic-inch V-8 engines, 700 horses, a stripped-down cage of steel roll bars, and no cup holders. The tires alone cost about $350 each, and the average car uses 50 per race. Car price tag: $125,000, souped-up and ready to rumble. Parity rules. Each car must meet precise power, weight, and structure specifications, so every car is theoretically equal and the best driver wins.

Winston Cup racing is a simple sport to follow. There are about 50 professional racers, but the number of slots per race varies. Today there are 43. Two days prior to the race, each driver takes a solo lap as fast as he can go. The driver with the highest speed wins the pole position–that is, when they line up to race on Sunday, that driver will be on the inside front. The second best lap time gets the outside front, the third best lap, the inside of the second row, and so on.

Each race is a set number of laps. Here, the Pepsi 400 is 200 laps around a two-mile track, or 400 miles. Each track is different, though each race is designed to last about three and half hours. The driver who goes the distance first wins the race and receives the bulk of the purse. The remainder is split up among the other drivers: the higher they finish, the more money they’ll take home. And each driver receives points based on his position at the finish. The season champion, the driver who takes home the Winston Cup in November, is the racer who has accumulated the most points, not necessarily the most wins.

This is my first look at the cars. They do look like regular cars but for their incredible, super shiny paint jobs. Miller Lite. Kodak. BellSouth. STP. Budweiser. McDonald’s. Every spot on the car but the roof and doors is for sale to sponsors, as are the driver’s uniform, his pit crew’s uniforms, the toolbox, and space on support vehicles.

A team is a number, a car manufacturer (Chevy, Ford, Pontiac), a driver, a crew chief and other mechanical crew, marketing personnel, and most important, a sponsor. Most team owners are involved in the day-to-day operations of racing (some are former drivers); the driver and sponsor are marketed as a unit. Sponsorship provides most of the operating costs of a team, and the owner receives a share of the race purses and the licensing deals. A few drivers own or co-own their teams, but the trend is toward individuals owning multiple teams.

The team’s primary sponsor pays for the privilege of slathering most of the car and driver with its logo, but a driver can solicit secondary sponsors as well, who buy smaller pieces of car and driver real estate. A company sponsors a race team (a minimal $6 million dollar annual commitment) and its figurehead, who becomes their most visible employee, driving a frequently televised, car-shaped replica of their logo. Sponsorships are renewed annually. If a driver doesn’t do well at the track, acts churlish or high-hatted in his public relations duties, or doesn’t make a difference in sales, the sponsor walks or finds a new driver. With no long-term contracts, even the biggest stars in NASCAR must toe the line. Tradition mandates that drivers be friendly, accessible, and respectful to their fans. Fans who feel like part of the team support the driver’s sponsor. Does it work? More than 70 Fortune 500 companies seem to think so.

The race is beginning. I feel it in my feet, in my legs. The energy is running through the aluminum. As the pack–43 cars led by a pace car, which keeps them at a controlled speed–nears this section, the entire grandstand surges forward. I fear for the stability of the stands, but I crane forward too. I can’t help myself.

The cars weave from side to side sharply, scuffing their tires, menacing and angry-looking. They rumble through three warmup laps, taking them “slow” at 70. They run their laps in two long lines that wiggle and go in and out of focus. Now I have some perspective on the track surface itself and see how four cars could race side by side, door-to-door. As they shimmy through the last set of turns, heading back to the start line, the crowd lets out a huge noise, a giant thirsty guttural howl from 160,000 open maws hungry for the start.

The pace car pulls off the track onto the top of Pit Road, the light atop the score pole flashes green, and the loudspeaker shrieks “Green! Green! Green! Green! Green!” The cars hit the start line a quarter mile away, accelerate, and then almost instantly burst through the first turn. There is an explosion of engine noise and crowd screams. The stands shake then throb when the pack shoots past. It’s a big, smelly, hot, loud, scary Sensurround instant, and I scream too. The entire speedway unites in noise and motion. Like an oceanic undertow, the force buffets and pulls, bodies shaking with the same furious power as the cars.

In less than a minute, the engine roar barrels up the front stretch and the cars hurtle by me again, faster still. By the third lap the pack is a blur, whizzing by too fast for the eye to focus. The start-up excitement past, the spectators settle down, reclaim their seats, open a fresh beer, and take off some more clothing. Only 197 more laps to go.

Stock car racing is a spectator sport. Baseball, football, basketball, golf, tennis–a fan can buy the same equipment and execute the same motions, however poorly. Driving a Taurus is an activity anyone can relate to, but how many of us can race 40 buddies at 180 miles per hour? Fans watch a race with intense fervor, though you can hardly see a thing. The track is too enormous, and a casual observer can’t even tell which car is leading. The car in third place passes the car that’s in twenty-seventh. Binoculars help, but most people follow the action with radios or scanners that monitor the constant communication between a driver and his pit crew.

To participate is to sit in a bowl of noise, stench, and heat and stare straight ahead. For four hours. The midway behind the grandstand is a ghost town. Something, like a crash, could happen at any time. The dull roar is unending, relentless, vibrating the seats. The sun beats down. The cars slam through the turns, again and again, always spinning left. It’s hot, feverish, hypnotic, the air thick with fuel exhaust, burning rubber, sweat, spilled beer, and cigarette smoke.

Like a good party, the atmosphere is friendly, boozed up, and a little rowdy–the balance could tip at any time to ugly disorder but doesn’t. (A minor incident to my right involving some nogoodnik dropping empty beer cans off the stands is quickly squelched by security people, of whom there are many.)

I can feel my mind unhinging and recalibrating. On the pole, track apron, backstretch, behind the wall. Pit, rub, lap, T-bone, go green. Racers with solid, manly names with just a touch of whimsy–Sterling Marlin, Rusty Wallace, Darrell Waltrip, Lake Speed. Names combined with make, sponsor, and number become a kind of poetry–the Ernie Irvan Skittles Pontiac, the Buckshot Jones Double Zero Chevy. The constant repetition of numbers, colors, names, sponsors, and logos breeds easy familiarity and trips easily now off the tongue. “The Johnny Benson Cheerios car’s got trouble on the front straightaway.”

Fall into NASCAR, and an enormous world of secret signs and signifiers comes into focus–mysterious number decals in car windows, inside-joke bumper stickers that say “No Drafting” and “Ride With the Big Dawgs,” television ads that poke fun at pit stop mechanics. The speedway gods live all week at the supermarket, their smiling faces plastered on ice cream, cornflakes, and toothpaste. The simplest image triggers a hard-coded pop-up menu of cross-checked drivers and corporate slogans, the word associations these sponsors spend millions to wire. Tide? “Ricky Rudd, Tide Machine Taurus, Surge of Power.” These walking logo men, speeding TV commercials, interview-giving billboards, cease to look strange. A grown man dressed up like a gas station or home improvement warehouse generates excitement, not sneers.

I’m in a cluster of chattering young go-getters from K-mart. Their being here may have more to do with corporate largesse than actual fandom. Few wear racing-related caps or T-shirts, and their focus drifts off the track frequently. The sunburnt man in front of me has lost his focus too. He is slumped forward in that almost-teetering-over pose passed-out drunks assume.

The man beside me is not with the K-marters. His face and upper body are a deep crackly brown, the kind of tan you get working all day outdoors. He’s been utterly silent throughout the race, staring ahead at the track, his head dominated by an enormous scanner headset, topped off by a black Dale Earnhardt GM Goodwrench cap. He is, no doubt, a Serious Race Fan.

At lap 50, the Serious Fan leans forward and nudges the guy in front of him awake. Sunburnt Man gazes blearily at the Serious Fan, who says, “They’re gonna pit.” Sunburnt Man expels air in approval, while the Serious Fan retreats back into silence, his head bowed, eyes closed and hands clutching the radio tighter to his ears. A glance at the track reveals nothing but the same old buzz of revolving cars. After a minute Serious Fan looks up to pronounce “Good pit.”

The fans come alive for drama. The loudspeaker blares “Caution! Caution!” and the crowd shoots up with a collective gasp. “Burton’s engine blew,” somebody with a radio hollers. “They’ll pit now.” “Take two tires?” “Maybe four.” Fuel. Tires. Restart. The stands buzz, the tedium of “green flag racing” over.

Wrecks, spinouts, engine failures, blown tires, and debris on the track all matter. Like musical numbers, they break up the obvious narrative and let chaos in. Any incident brings out the yellow flag, and drivers are restricted to a low speed behind a pace car till the situation clears. Cars that were spread out all over the track bunch up behind the pace car. When they “go green,” it’s like starting the race all over again. Damage to the leader’s car is a startling plot twist: his story is over, but 42 others start a new chapter entitled “Now I Might Win.”

NASCAR’s recent years have been free of fatal accidents. The last Winston Cup racing-related deaths were in February 1994, during a bad week when two drivers died in practice sessions at Daytona. Two drivers died in racing accidents, in 1991 and ’92, and in 1993, two other popular racers lost their lives in helicopter and light plane crashes. Cars do crash fairly regularly, at least once a race and often several times more. The slightest fender bump in a close pack of speeding cars can set up a ten-car pileup in an eyeblink. Remarkably, most often the drivers walk away from the wreck and go off to give interviews ten minutes later, thanking their crew for their hard work.

Despite NASCAR’s public insistence to the contrary, the fans do love a spectacular chassis-exploding wreck. Bring on the very visible real physical danger, followed immediately by reassurance, when the driver pops out of the smoking vehicle and waves cheerfully at the crowd to show he’s OK. Hurrah! Fans don’t want to see death, they want to see came-so-close-to-death-but-walked-away.

Injuries certainly occur–from minor foot burns to bruised ribs and broken bones to unique ailments like deceleration syndrome–in layman’s terms, the brain slams around inside the skull after a high-speed impact, fracturing it from the inside. That horrible injury happened to Ernie Irvan in August 1994 right here at turn two where I’m sitting today. The doctors gave him a 10 percent chance of recovery. Four years later, he has the pole, starting today’s race in first position.

NASCAR sets tough standards for the drivers, cars, and tracks to minimize the risks. After all, corporate America, which is footing the bill, isn’t paying millions to see its celebrity front man die in a horrific fiery crash live on national television.

During the caution period after Burton’s engine blowout, all the drivers on the lead lap make pit stops. Fresh tires can add speed. But more important, a well-executed pit stop can move the driver up in track position if he gets out of the pit before his rivals do. This time the order is indeed rearranged. Mark Martin still holds the lead, but Gordon has moved up to third place from sixth. Nobody dares to sit down. The green flag comes out on lap 185. Just 15 more to the finish, and 30 miles is all too brief at 180 miles per hour.

At lap 189, Gordon overtakes the second-place runner, Dale Jarrett. The crowd noise is building, like an inversion of the start. Fans are hollering, shaking their fists, jumping up and down shouting strategy. “The inside! Take him on the inside!” The stands rock with frenzy again. I’m stomping my feet and screaming at the leader, Mark Martin, to floor it, “Go! Go! Go!”

A Gordon fan turns around and laughs at me. “Gordon’s gonna win,” he whoops.

I flash with annoyance. “No way!” I snap back.

Two more laps, and when the cars blur by, Gordon’s rainbow car is riding Martin’s bumper. Seconds later, Gordon overtakes him and grabs the lead. I don’t just see it, I hear it and feel it, as a wave of human noise drowns out even the thundering cars. Unlike the united voice at the race start, this roar is divided: cheers from the Gordon contingent, howls of outrage from everybody else.

As the cars speed round their final laps, Terry Labonte surges past Jarrett and Martin and gets up behind Gordon, and I scream for him now. Anybody but Jeff! Alas, Gordon shoots ahead and with each successive lap gains more distance up front till he’s untouchable. Gordon crosses the finish line, and the losers follow. Interstate Batteries, Ford Quality Care, Valvoline, Exide Batteries–top five finishes, money well spent.

I slump, hit hard by the dawning realization that a pit stop can change everything. It’s not about cars going in circles. There was a pit stop, because there was a caution, because Burton’s engine blew out unexpectedly. The deck can get shuffled at any time. Begin with car parity, add 43 top drivers, and then it’s a dance of skill and luck with thousands of possible conclusions. Anyone can win, finish third, twenty-third, or last. That final lap counts, and it’s a crapshoot who’ll be on it. Mark Martin was ahead nearly the entire race. All that mattered was the end.

We all chug-chug our way down the endless steps out of the stands. Jeff Gordon is still eating up the mike in Victory Lane. “We don’t know why God is blessing our team,” he squawks. The huge guy behind me drawls out a contemptuous commentary.

“One thing today showed us, we can’t ever give up.” “Buuuhhhh-llllllllll-ssshhhhhh-it.” “And we won’t ever give up.” “Lih-uh-tull faaa-aaaa-got.” “And we’re in it until that checkered flag drops.” “Ffffuuuhhh-kin sssshh-it.”

The crowd is already talking about next week’s race in Bristol, Tennessee, at “Thunder Valley,” a tiny half-mile track with 36-degree banking. “Like racing in a soup bowl.” Saturday night, “under the lights.” The comeuppance Gordon needs, the win Martin deserves. I start to calculate the driving distance from my home to Tennessee. I can’t wait to get a T-shirt, catch the recap on TV, look up some data on the NASCAR Web site, and finagle tickets to more races.

This week’s party is over. Two guys shuffle by, each wearing a discarded tire around his neck. Staggering under the awkward weight, they struggle with their coolers and lawn chairs, T-shirts dangling from back pockets, ruddy with sun and booze.

Most fans trudge to the parking lot, their energy sapped from hangovers, sunburn, or disappointment, but others lurk around the infield, hoping to see a driver, crew member, or race car up close. A middle-aged couple covered with Jeff Gordon rainbows are pleading, just begging, a security guard to let them see the pit area, barely visible through a gate. There’s nothing and nobody left out there. These crews move in and out of town faster than a cheap carnival. The guard relents but only if they put on long pants. “Hot pit area, no shorts.” From their bags, each produces a pair of sweat pants, which they yank on over their shorts.

They dash through the gate, and can’t believe their good luck as they stumble onto Jeff Gordon’s pit. They photograph each other touching the cement. The guard orders them to come back, and grudgingly they do, but not before the man snatches up an empty pop can and stashes it in his bag. The pair is working on the security guard, trying to glean driver gossip, when one of Gordon’s Rainbow Warriors (no relation to Greenpeace’s less petroleum-oriented team of the same name) appears from the pit area. Rangy and good-looking, he wears his coverall unzipped and half off, hanging from his waist. He good-naturedly poses for photos as his admirers squeal with delight. He’s a celebrity, this man who changes tires for a living.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Nathan Mandell illustrations/Terry LaBAN.