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Give Grease A Chance
Baffled by NASCAR? Plan a visit to the auto racing capital in North Carolina and maybe you'll understand.

By Randall Bloomquist
The Washington Post
Sunday, May 23, 1999; Page E01
   


My moment came at the UAW-GM Quality 500 on a bright blue October Sunday.

I was wandering one of the narrow paths that crisscross the infield of Charlotte Motor Speedway when a crew-cut boy of about 12 approached me. His lips moved as he stared into my face, but his words disappeared in the hurricane roar of 43 cars going 160 mph not far beyond his shoulder. I loosened my right earplug and bent down, my ear to his lips. He gave it everything he had:

"I said, do you know how to get to the Turn 4 tunnel?"

"Sure!" I screamed. "Go up here, turn left and just keep walking. It's just past the medevac helicopter pad!"

"Thanks!" he screeched with a smile. As he turned away, I caught a glimpse of the "3" shaved into his haircut just above his left ear. Clearly a Dale Earnhardt fan.

I took a few more steps and stopped dead. Around me I saw it all: the garishly painted cars tearing around the 1 1/2-mile track; the grandstands packed with 165,000 people; the gaggle of shirtless potbellies following the race from atop a battered motor home, beers in hand.

Oh. My. God, I thought. I have become intimately familiar with a motor speedway.

How could this be?

I spent most of my working life inside the Beltway! Raised in the shadow of the Naval Academy! Former occupant of a Bethesda mailing address! I still read the New Republic, for crying out loud!

Put it down to a guilty pleasure, I guess, but the fact is, I have come to get a kick out of attending stock car races. This predilection apparently puts me smack in the middle of, well, Middle America. In this age of microprocessors and cloning, diversity and moderation, a simple-minded sport in which good ol' boys burn copious amounts of gasoline, rubber and industrial lubricants as they tear around an oval track is the hottest entertainment ticket in the country. Under the careful, crafty eye of the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR), stock car racing has gone from back-woods diversion to big-time boom sport, far bigger and richer than most of the sports that dominate the pages of certain metropolitan daily newspapers. NASCAR's premier event, the Winston Cup series, is the only sport to have increased its TV ratings every year since 1990. Seventeen of the 20 most-attended sporting events of 1998 were Winston Cup races. A staggering 180 million people watched the races on TV. The Winston Cup drew 6.3 million spectators to 36 events; the NFL drew 15 million to 240 games. According to the most recent figures, NASCAR is a $2 billion-a-year industry.

Simply put, Winston Cup racing--a series of 36 races held on 22 tracks all around the nation from February to November--is the new American spectacle. And rightly so. A Cup race celebrates our national passion for excess. It's a grotesquely commercialized event in which super-powered cars make dangerous amounts of noise while chasing millions of dollars in prize money before a vast crowd that spent lots of money to overindulge in sun, fun, food and drink. The cars are so heavily plastered with advertisements that you usually can't tell the brand of a car unless you read the program. Only in America, indeed.

As my own transformation proves, you needn't be a motorhead--or even work in an auto parts supply house--to enjoy a day at the speedway. A NASCAR race is an event, a happening, a sort of redneck Preakness. And while you can observe this fin de siecle phenomenon from the comfort of your living room, like all great art forms it demands to be observed firsthand to be appreciated in all its nuances.

"It's like the circus," says Richmond International Speedway spokesman Kenneth Campbell. "You can watch it on TV, but you really need to get out here and smell the elephants."

Lucky for you, the racing big top is readily accessible--and the smells derive more from fossil fuels and fermented hops than animal dung. The two closest tracks to the D.C. area, Dover Downs International Speedway in Dover, Del., and Virginia's Richmond International Speedway, host four of this year's 36 Winston Cup races. Pocono Raceway, near Wilkes-Barre, Pa., hosts two more events. And ground zero for NASCAR, Lowe's Motor Speedway in Charlotte, N.C., is just seven hours away by interstate highway and your family sedan.

So set aside your preconceived notions about NASCAR--a delightful number of which turn out to be absolutely correct--and let's go racin'!

A successful NASCAR outing requires a bit of planning. Every Winston Cup race is an event on par, in terms of size, complexity, fanaticism and expense, with a college bowl game or a pro sports championship. Tickets and accommodations must be arranged well in advance. For ticket information, call the various tracks or check out their Web pages (see Details at right). Grandstand seats at a Winston Cup race cost anywhere from $35 to $120. A chair-back seat with good sight lines runs about $75. Given the three- to four-hour length of the event, and the alternative prospect of wedging yourself onto an aluminum bench between two extra-large gentlemen clad in Dale Earnhardt tank tops and Confederate flag do-rags, that's probably money well spent.

When ordering tickets, make sure your seats aren't too close to the action. In NASCAR, the "front row" means a snoot full of exhaust fumes, tire flecks and plain old dirt. "Unlike other sporting events, you don't really want to be courtside for a race," says Jerry Gappens, Lowe's Motor Speedway's spokesman. "Though we do have some fans who like being down there where the rubber is hitting you in the face." That's not the only danger. Folks sitting in front are occasionally bombarded with chicken bones thrown by hooligans seated higher up. Don't take it personally--they're aiming for the track.

On a more serious note, there really isn't any safety reason to avoid a front row seat, despite the recent death of four spectators at an Indy Racing League event at Lowe's Motor Speedway. According to NASCAR spokesman John Griffin, there hasn't been a Winston Cup spectator death in at least a decade. And, frankly, if things do go horrifically wrong at a race, the danger spreads well beyond the first row.

In this age of imperious athletes and high-handed leagues, NASCAR offers its supporters and fans an incredible degree of access to the action. When planning a race outing, check to see if your company or any of its vendors are NASCAR corporate sponsors. If so, you might be able to score a tour of the garage area, or maybe even a pit pass. This most sacred of racing ducats takes you trackside and puts you within a few feet of the eye-popping, split-second ballet in which a car is refueled and serviced in the time it normally takes you to sneeze. It's like sitting in the dugout with the Orioles, but in super-fast-motion.

If your tendrils don't reach that far, consider buying an infield pass as a supplement to (i.e., not instead of) your reserved seat. Walking the infield affords both a different view of the race--and, oh, the humanity!

The infield is holy ground for racing hard-cores, the folks who follow the Winston Cup circuit in everything from $300,000 motor homes to rusted school buses with swivel chairs bolted to the roof. This part of the infield often radiates a wild joie de vivre and eccentricity, a kind of temporary playground dedicated to all sorts of fun. There are parties and cookouts everywhere. You may see a carefully crafted "Hooter's Try-Outs Here!" sign--a piece of plywood featuring two cantaloupe-size holes at chest height. Or a castle built out of beer cans. You might even run into a driver or two, as they often stay in their own palatial mobile mansions parked right there on the grass.

Speaking of accommodations, once you've scored your race tickets you must start working on living arrangements. Hotels and motels in the area fill quickly, even with two- and three-day minimum stays and jacked-up rates. This reality makes Richmond International Speedway a nice choice for Washington area residents. The Richmond races are held at night, and the speedway is about 90 minutes from D.C. You can drive down on Saturday morning and climb back into your own bed early Sunday morning--sort of like a trip to Kings Dominion, but someone else is taking the scary rides, and the fun house is inside out.

When making your travel plans, bear this in mind: You'll want to be at the speedway well before the start time. Traffic is brutal. In the two or three hours before a race, the roads surrounding a venue will totally lock up. Just ask 1998 NASCAR champion Jeff Gordon, who nearly missed last year's Coca-Cola 600 drivers' meeting because he got stuck in Charlotte's pre-race traffic jam.

"If the race starts at 1 p.m., be there at 8 a.m.," counsels Gappens. "It really is an event, and you need to capture that." Get yourself parked at the track and soak up some atmosphere, he says. Read the morning paper to get up to speed on the race story lines, have a tailgate brunch, saunter among the rows of souvenir peddlers and watch the oh-so-colorful racin' crowd go by. (And you thought the tube top was dead!) The speedways usually offer some sort of pre-race entertainment designed to encourage early arrivals. In Charlotte the race honchos are partial to military extravaganzas. My personal jaw-dropping favorite was a special forces hostage-rescue demonstration, which included a swarm of helicopters and a couple of Humvees. The object of the exercise was to snatch up the speedway's mascot, an anthropomorphic bolt named Lugnut, from the clutches of an unseen enemy. Smoke, dust, explosions, mock gunfire, deafening noise--the perfect speedway pre-race drama. And the crowd loved it, especially when the safe and sound Lugnut took a victory lap in a Humvee.

Actually, for the casual race fan, it's probably enough to arrive at the track three hours ahead of time. This puts you ahead of much of the traffic and gets you seated for the pre-race pageantry. The hour leading up to start time has always been my favorite part of any race. The excitement starts as the 43 gleaming cars are rolled into their designated starting positions, which are determined at time trials earlier in the week. The command to "start your engines" brings on a sternum-rattling rumble that only hints at the noise to come. Next come the warm-up laps. The field rolls into motion, moving as one, fender to fender. They begin to spread out as drivers swerve back and forth to warm up their tires. Watching the pack circle the course, it takes a minute to realize this sheet metal ballet is being danced at 80 mph.

After two or three laps, the field passes the start line and takes the green flag to commence the race. Suddenly 43 cars melt into one extended blur of primary and fluorescent colors accelerating toward 170 mph. The crowd is on its feet, screaming. They might as well keep it to themselves: Once the green flag drops, the roar of the engines blots out all other sound like some demonic white noise machine.

For the first several laps, the cars stay close and everybody looks like a potential denizen of victory lane. But eventually the pack spreads out; leaders emerge, the weak start to fall back. At this point the race becomes harder to follow. Why did that car make a pit stop? Is that guy the leader or has he been lapped? Why are they running under a yellow caution flag? Fortunately, there is radio coverage of every Winston Cup event. Bring your Walkman and you'll have a much better sense of what's happening on the track. If you own a hand-held police radio scanner, bring that, too. You should be able to pick up the chatter between drivers and their pit crews.

Another key to following the action is to choose a driver to call your own. Focusing your attention on a particular car gives you a personal stake in the race, and provides a focal point for learning about strategy and tactics--drafting, goin' high, etc. But choose wisely; your selection will say a lot about you to your fellow race attendees--especially after you've dropped $100 on hats and T-shirts sporting your guy's likeness and sponsor logo.

There are many ways to settle on a driver. You can go with personalities: Dale Earnhardt is the old-school tough guy; Jeff Gordon is the golden child; Mark Martin is the scrappy little guy who's always in the thick of it. Or pick a favorite consumer product. The brands touted on these high-speed billboards constitute a mid-American smorgasbord: Cheerios, M&Ms, McDonald's, Skittles, Skoal, Pennzoil, Texaco, Camel, Budweiser, Hot Wheels, Miller beer, Tide, Home Depot and the Cartoon Network. Redskins fans, for you it's easy. Root for the Interstate Battery car, one of two stock cars owned by Joe Gibbs.

A word about that term "stock car." While Winston Cup cars are based on the Chevy Monte Carlo, Ford Taurus and Pontiac Grand Prix, they are no more stock cars than Michael Jackson is a stock human being. Virtually every part of the vehicle is custom-built or modified for maximum performance.

Actually, go ahead and pick two or three cars to follow. The first time I dragged--uh, took--my wife to a race, she chose the QVC car as her standard-bearer. What can I say? She digs interactive shopping. Sadly, her vehicle blew an engine after 30 laps and rolled to a stop wreathed in bluish smoke.

My wife's response: "Oh, damn. Oh, well. We can go now, right?"

Even if you bring a radio, a scanner and a new-found devotion to Wally Dallenbach, you may well be bored by Lap 200, about two hours into the race. Sorry, race fans, that's the truth. There are a couple options. You can take a walk around the track. (You did get that infield pass, right?) Or you can leave. Don't feel guilty. If you aren't a serious fan, the potentially thrilling end of the race probably isn't worth staring into space for another couple hours. Remember, you came for the spectacle, the happening, the atmosphere. If you've had your fill, take off!

In exchange for missing a possible last-lap charge to the finish, you'll beat the otherwise unavoidable and truly hideous exit traffic.

If all the Winston Cup hassles--the cost, the traffic, the crowds--seem overwhelming, you might want to consider attending a Busch Series Grand National race instead. Busch races are typically held the day before the Winston Cup event, kind of like the JV playing before the varsity. The Busch Series features slower cars and lesser-known drivers, although some Winston Cup drivers appear occasionally. As a result, tickets are cheaper and the crowds are thinner. At Richmond International, for example, adults pay $35 for the Busch race, and kids under 12 are free. According to Campbell, the Busch crowd is typically half that of a Cup race.

No matter which type of race you attend, and regardless if you become a fan, your NASCAR experience will leave an impression on you--at least for a while.

"Bloomquist roars out of pit row and into Turn 1. He's back in this race! He's gaining on the lead pack! He takes the Chevy on the inside!"

My wife leans over from the passenger seat and glances at the speedometer.

"Okay, Jeff Gordon, we're on the freeway, not the speedway. Let's get home alive, please."

Randall Bloomquist, a radio program director in Charlotte, N.C., last wrote for Travel about his adopted home.

Details: NASCAR Races

Racin' is closer than you think. Four Winston Cup races are held within 100 miles of the Beltway.

* Richmond International Speedway hosts two '99 Winston Cup races, the Pontiac Excitement 400 (held last weekend) and the Exide NASCAR Select Batteries 400 on Sept. 11. These races and the Busch Grand National events, which are held the night before the Winston races, are run under the lights.

The remaining 20,000 seats for the September date, which go for $70 and $75, will be distributed via mail-in lottery in June. Tickets are plentiful for both Friday night Busch events. Adults pay $35, kids under 12 are free.

Richmond International Speedway is on the Virginia State Fairgrounds. Take I-95 south to Richmond and follow the signs. For ticket information, call 804-345-7223.

For general information on Richmond, including accommodations: 1-888-RICHMOND, www.richmondva.org.

* Dover Downs International Speedway in Dover, Del., is home to the Winston Cup's MBNA Platinum 400 on June 6 and MBNA Gold 400 on Sept. 26. Busch races are held the Saturday before these dates.

The June Winston Cup race is nearly sold out, but plenty of tickets are available for September. Reserved seats range from $40 to $84. Busch tickets are $36 to $70, with a $5 discount on seats purchased at least two weeks in advance. Kids under 12 are $5.

To reach Dover Downs, cross the Bay Bridge and follow U.S. 301 north to Maryland Route 302. Turn right on Maryland Route 454 at Templeville. Route 454 becomes Route 8 when you hit the Delaware line. Follow Route 8 into Dover, where you'll hang a left onto US 13 North, the track is about two miles down the road. Allow a minimum 2 1/2 hours to get to the Dover area on a race day.

For general information on Dover, including accommodations, contact the Dover Office of Tourism: 1-800-441-8846, www.state.de.us.

* Racin' 'round the Web: Despite its country boy image, NASCAR is out front and runnin' wide open on the Internet. A quickie Yahoo search identified 590 NASCAR-related destinations ranging from driver shrines to fantasy race leagues to chat rooms. At the center of it all is the league's official cyber outpost, www.nascar.com. This information- and link-packed site is an excellent tool for planning a NASCAR jaunt. In addition to racing news, stats and fluffy feature stories, nascar.com offers information on the various tracks, including seating diagrams, ticket info and directions. Some speedways, including Dover Downs (www.doverdowns.com/speedway), maintain their own sites.

Another worthy pit stop is www.thatsracin.com, which caters to serious NASCAR fans. Most useful feature: "That's Racin' Yellow Pages," a searchable database of hotels, restaurants, campgrounds, grocery stories and other amenities near Winston Cup venues.

Need help picking a driver? Several car jockeys maintain Web pages where visitors can study everything from the racer's photo to his stats to his family situation to, of course, his sponsor list. For a taste, check out www.jeffgordon.com or www.irvan.com.

--Randall Bloomquist

   
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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