NASCAR 101: A Weekend Among the Faithful
Friday, June 1, 2007; 6:22 PM
-- In order to experience NASCAR, to watch men race stock cars at speeds approaching 200 mph, you have to crawl along the jammed roads leading up to the track at 1 or 2 mph, if you can move at all.
Follow the RVs and the SUVs with their destinations finger-scraped into the dusty rear windows. "'Dega Bound," for Talladega, and "Daytona Bound" are two popular inscriptions.
Watch the fans lean out the windows and holler at each other when they see friendly flags attached to car antennas, 8 for Dale Earnhardt Jr., 24 for Jeff Gordon. By the tens of thousands, watch them shuffle toward the oval, like faithful to the revival.
And you realize: People who say NASCAR is like religion in these parts have it backward.
"WELCOME RACE FANS. NO SERVICES SUNDAY," offered the marquee at Eastaboga Baptist Church, just off Speedway Boulevard in Talladega, Ala., one weekend this spring, when the air smelled like what would happen if you used an exhaust pipe as a humidifier.
The two race weekends at Talladega _ the next is in October _ and the two at Daytona Beach, Fla., are generally acknowledged to be among the ultimate experiences for fans of the sport.
Actually, some would say "sport."
NASCAR has exploded into mainstream popularity, embarking on a $4.5 billion TV deal, its richest ever, and expanding its circuit of races to include stops outside Los Angeles and Chicago and, this summer for the first time, Montreal.
Yet it remains to much of the country an object of curiosity at best and derision at worst, the pinnacle of a certain Southern stereotype.
Even onlookers who approach NASCAR and its fans with an open mind, wonder: What on earth would compel anyone to spend four hours watching 43 cars make an extended left turn?
There is no way to answer the question without coming to one of the races, indoctrination by immersion. You can go to Dover, Del., where the faithful will gather this weekend, or to little Bristol, Tenn., or Miami or Charlotte or Darlington, S.C.
We took the plunge at Talladega Superspeedway, 2.66 miles of track that enclose 212 acres of infield, where RVs fan out like survivalist camps for the race weekends in April and October.