Escapes: Debunking Misconceptions About NASCAR Races

NASCAR racing returns to Richmond this weekend. Television can't capture its true sights and sounds, so bring your earplugs.
NASCAR racing returns to Richmond this weekend. Television can't capture its true sights and sounds, so bring your earplugs. (Getty Images)
By Scott Vogel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Dear Escapes,

My son has been begging me for years to take him to a NASCAR race; he says we're in luck because the circuit is coming to Richmond this weekend. There's only one problem: I'm just not an auto racing kinda guy. Please help!

Wimped Out in Washington

First, Wimped Out, I want to commend you for your honesty. Now that NASCAR has achieved near total dominance over the cultural landscape, fewer and fewer men are willing to step forward and admit their inadequacy. That's not to say you aren't an insufferable elitist and/or a poor excuse for a father, of course, but your candor is admirable.

I always find that most of NASCAR's haters are folks who've never seen a race live -- which is not to be confused with a Fox telecast of a race, with all that boogedy-boogedy-boogedy jibber-jabber and endless talk of men named Kyle, Denny and Shane. On TV all you see are four-wheeled billboards (the Taco Bell Chevy, the Crown Royal Ford) endlessly orbiting a speedway infield. In person, you see, well, the same thing, but you also get a front-row seat to the American zeitgeist circa 2009 and all the $3 hot dogs you can eat.

Still not convinced? Escapes took in a race in Martinsville, Va., recently in hopes of debunking some misconceptions about the circuit. To wit:

NASCAR is not a sport but a four-hour snoozefest. Untrue. Yes, things tend to start slowly, what with all the bands, invocations and salutes to local community paragons in matching T-shirts, but once you get past lap 137 or so, the afternoon trips along at lightning speed. I won't lie to you. As in boxing, there are long stretches during which nothing much happens; when it does happen, you'll likely miss it (also as in boxing). But things are never dull. Thanks to a peculiar alchemy borne of four hours spent baking in the stadium sun and a stomachful of $3 hot dogs, you will actually come to care who wins. NASCAR races tend to have a predictable arc (driver breaks out of the pack, narrowly escapes crashing, staves off a late challenge, wins), but genuine drama somehow obtains, and in a way it can't when constantly punctuated by Home Depot commercials.

I will not have anything in common with NASCAR's hysterical fans. A common misperception. Never fear, NASCAR's marriage of competition and commerce is something all Americans can readily comprehend. And if you're worried about making small talk with fellow attendees, don't: No one can hear anyone else over the roar of the track.

The noise will be loud and relentless. This is not only true but a mammoth understatement. For one generation, the ear-splitting decibel levels will bring to mind the mother ship's landing in "Close Encounters of the Third Kind"; for another, it will be the front row at a Jonas Brothers concert. But all will agree that earplugs are nonnegotiable. (They ought to be as obligatory as seat belts in cars.) Some fans prefer wearing radio headphones tuned to an FM broadcast of the race; also popular are those multiple-channel numbers (rentable at the track) that let you eavesdrop on conversations between drivers and crews.

The sight of thousands of people waiting with bated breath for a car crash will send the wrong message to my son. Don't worry, unless it happens right in front of you, your first indication of a crash will probably not be the cataclysmic fireball your son has dreamed of seeing but the merciful reduction of noise from a full roar to a dull roar when the caution flag goes out. (See, everyone has a reason for anticipating crashes!) And while eventually a wreck will indeed occur within your line of sight, it won't be anything like what the video games prepared you for: You'll barely hear it (see above), and there won't be endless replays of the moment of impact (although a distant JumboTron will do its best to pick up the slack).

I've heard the merchandise midway is a minefield for parents, what with liquor companies sponsoring drivers, etc. Oh, come now. Just because your son wants to buy a Jack Daniel's cap does not in any way mean that he won't someday learn to prefer Crown Royal. Now, it's true that you can't purchase that cap without visiting the NASCAR midway adjacent to the track and steering junior past gaily decorated booths offering free samples of cigarettes, Red Man and spearmint Skoal. It will no doubt disappoint him to learn that such freebies aren't given out to minors, but never fear, he won't walk away empty-handed. Within minutes, clueless samples hawkers had handed my 8-year-old son packets of Goody's Cool Orange headache powder (not recommended for anyone 12 and younger, by the way, according to the company's Web site) and a couple of cherry Tums tablets.

I will not have any fun. What, you've read this far and still have doubts? Trust me: When the race finally reaches it climax and Jimmie or Jeff or Robby takes the checkered flag, you and your son will feel an uncommon sense of elation, and not just because the damn thing's finally over. He'll see you caught up in the denouement, cheering as the winner does backward doughnuts on the track, shedding, however briefly, your wimp image. He'll smile at you approvingly from under that Jack Daniel's cap, and you'll know it was all worth it.

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