John Anderson stands at the front of his tented camper Friday night, drinking another Captain Morgan spiced rum and Coke, doing his drunken-best rebel yell.
Following a day-long downpour and now steady drizzle, with tens of thousands of fans already having arrived and encamped for a long weekend of NASCAR races, Dover International Speedway's surrounding grounds are a muddy morass.
Anderson's screams prod a Jeep driver from Lancaster, Pa., to keep on speeding around a slick field, skidding sideways and splattering muck on a parked Nextel semi. Anderson promised the guy a beer to do it. His two buddies in the tent, and each of the men's wives, all holler encouragement, too.
"Yeee-hah!" shouts Anderson, 35, who arrived here the day before from Saugerties, N.Y. (which is near the original Woodstock site), where he installs "metal fabrications" or something he couldn't quite articulate at the moment. His stringy, shoulder-length black hair is soaked, or it needs a good shampooing. Twice. His eyes are bloodshot from rise-and-shine partying. Despite rain-dampened spirits, the evening is young; hot dogs and hamburgers are on the grill, and a four-foot-long ice chest is packed with Bud Light.
Life is good outside the fast lane.
On any given Sunday during the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing's 40-week season, the sport's main event -- the Nextel Cup Series races, which travel to a different track each week -- caps off days of Olympian partying among fans. By the thousands, they converge on a chain of speedway properties across the nation, at nearby private campgrounds and retail parking lots days beforehand to create the biggest bash going, week after week.
The 140,000 fans who show up for "The Monster Mile," as this track's called, bloat Dover's population fivefold. Practically every hotel room an hour outside Dover is also taken. Thousands of motor homes -- awnings extended to stake claim on precious little party property before the next camper rolls in -- jam all available space within walking distance to the speedway. Pickup trucks with pop-up caps and tents on the back wedge in, some with makeshift plywood enclosures. RVs fly flags on fiberglass poles 15 feet in the sky -- Old Glory waving alongside the Confederate flag, both outnumbered by colorful NASCAR driver flags.
The boozing and partying begin as soon as the lighter fluid hits the charcoal. It's the side of the sport that fans watching NASCAR on television don't see.
But according to modern rules of society, politics and image, we are somehow not allowed to refer to any of this as Bubba or redneck, or disparage its place in the cultural sphere. After a decade of reinventing stock-car racing as the fastest-growing, second-biggest sport in America, taking it from niche to rich, NASCAR's moguls aren't about to turn the spotlight off its life-and-death race to the finishes, or handsome drivers, to reveal a pie-eyed fan festival.
But it's why many of those at Dover are here. "For the atmosphere . . . " Anderson slurs the reason he's gone to more than 20 NASCAR races from Dover to Daytona over the past decade.
"Drunk and stupid!" he clarifies, when asked what atmosphere. Like many fans, he wears his loyalties to his favorite driver -- a blue No. 2 Rusty Wallace hat and a flashy, race driver-style Miller Lite/Rusty Wallace jacket. "Everybody's here to have a good time!"
Three men on a beer run drive by in a golf cart, almost tipping out the guy seated in the rear with his arm around a life-size blow-up sex doll. "Can I borrow her a minute?" someone yells out.
Several campers down, behind the Home Depot back lot, a jury-rigged plywood and canvas shelter with three good ol' boys sitting in front sports a crudely made sign: "Show Us Your Boobs!" with the all-important addendum: "Women Only." A twentysomething guy with a huge cowboy hat zooms by on a Harley-like minibike, forcing fans on a walk to jump out of the way.
Wear Old Shoes
The "Big American Speed Circus" is what Jeff MacGregor calls it. A Sports Illustrated writer and author of the new book "Sunday Money," he and his photographer wife, Olya Evanitsky, toured for 40 weeks from one NASCAR race to the next a couple years back -- to 36 races at 23 tracks in 18 states. They'd park their 261/2-foot Lazy Daze motor home in the campgrounds and set out to peel back the layers of stereotype and mythology in search of what fuels this quintessentially American sport.
At the root of the NASCAR carrying-on is a tribal instinct, says MacGregor. "There is something in the core of the human spirit that needs to rub up intimately against members of the tribe," he says in a phone interview from his home in New York rather than slog around Dover International's sociological petri dish. "It's that bone-deep need to be together."
That said, he adds that much -- though not all -- of that togetherness has a distinctly "Animal House" quality.
"Imagine someone vomiting on your feet. You are going to see a concentration of alcohol consumption unlike anything you are used to unless you're a college sophomore," he says, conceding that every speedway has its own decibel and drunken intensity level, Dover being in the middle of the pack.
"But at the core of the sport is this drawlin' and brawlin' party-weekend sensibility," says MacGregor. "Go back to the roots of what this sport is and where it came from -- it is supposed to be a party and something approached with reckless abandon."
Good Ol' Girls
Saturday morning at 6, the fog is lifting and instead of pouring rain the fans began pouring through the front gates to the speedway. By 9 a.m., speedway traffic is backed up on Route 13.
Bruce Shrewsbury drove his camper down from Morrisville, Pa., a week early to get a good spot, went home, then came back. "Rednecks in Delaware? Uh-unh," says the 6-foot-plus, better than 250-pound conveyor-belt worker. "I would guarantee anybody who is making that statement has never been to a Nextel Cup event."
Many of these fans aren't Bubba stereotypes, or resist being thought of as such, thanks mainly to Bubbafication of the entire nation. Some seem to just revel in the role -- such as those early-'90s stockbrokers who'd dress down, get high and head to Grateful Dead shows, or dentists who will take the Harley to Daytona for Biker Week. Follow the money and you find at least some of these fans aren't blowin' their last paycheck for a weekend at the races. Hardly any have a rag for a gas cap.
Gate prices per person plus a vehicle campground pass at the Nextel MBNA America 400 at Dover cost $200 to $250 for the whole weekend of races.
Rick Daniels and four thirtysomething NASCAR-addicted Connecticut Yankee pals are camping in his 36-footer behind T.J. Maxx just outside the speedway gates.
He says they aren't Bubbas. "Why? Because we have all our teeth," Daniels jokes, adding that the "reality has changed. It has definitely broadened its appeal. It's big business now."
And the testosterone-loaded mythos of car racing has given way to a throng of female NASCAR junkies as well. According to a recent ESPN Sports poll, 42 percent of fans are now female -- a stat that doesn't go overlooked or unappreciated among its traditional male fans, and is evident at the races.
In the infield, bunnies -- as in Playboy, models, starlets -- stroll about as eye candy wearing big luscious hair and tight skimpy outfits that barely cover the cleavage. Not necessarily fans, usually they're guests or models working for sponsors.
The Race Girl trailer on the midway sells exclusively "Race Girl" logo clothes and gear -- feminine tops, T-shirts, hats, lots of them pink. More than a dozen people line up to buy something, many of them women, some men buying for women.
"It's unreal how many girls are into NASCAR, and how many young girls," says Amy Tripp, 21, a Race Girl saleswoman at the trailer whose dark-haired-model good looks will get her into the restricted drivers' infield later in the race.
Angel Taber, 28, another Race Girl model-saleswoman, says racing revs the libido. "You need the racing excitement, all the intensity and thrill," she says. "You pick a good-looking young driver and you go with it. There's nothing like it."
But the real NASCAR women are in the campgrounds, hanging out with drunk hubbies and tending to the kids, wearing Dale Earnhardt Jr. T-shirts. They're the serious fans who get heat flashes should the King, Richard Petty, appear in his black cowboy hat.
NASCAR, the full realization of modern capitalism, has myriad temptations: Sign up for a MNBA credit card -- the official credit card of NASCAR -- and get a free "Crank 'em Up!" T-shirt. Sign up for the U.S. Army and get an Apache helicopter simulation ride. Inside the U.S. Smokeless Tobacco exhibit, visitors pass closely by two gorgeous models, run into clipboard-bearing staffers asking questions, then take the pit-stop challenge, competing to be the fastest to air-gun a tire onto a sim race car.
Bill Enoch won twice. He's a 25-year-old from Edison, N.J., wearing a Ralph Lauren Polo T-shirt and a Yankees baseball cap. It's his first NASCAR race. He and nine buddies, all first-timers, rented a 38-foot camper and arrived Thursday. "Ten guys in a camper isn't as bad as it sounds," he says, adding that once you've passed out, cramped quarters are irrelevant.
Let the Good Times Roll
By Saturday night, with the main event on the track looming the next afternoon, the scene shifts into overdrive. The sky clears a bit, signaling a green flag for partyers. Time to go fast and furious.
Bonfires glow orange and reaffirm that primordial human impulse to light a fire -- among other primordial impulses. Maybe it's the incessant daytime VAROooom of race cars sending quivers to the gut that by nighttime, with alcohol, pushes rowdy to randy. At times it explodes into a full-blown carnality that's not exactly the PG-rated Disneyesque picture NASCAR proper projects.
Every NASCAR track has its "badlands" -- insider lingo for a hard-core party zone. Lot 10 is the speedway's largest, farthest and darkest campground. The first clue this is it is the '86 Chevy van heading into the entrance, its sides painted with "Bang Bus Party Boys." A regular stream of Roman candles and fireworks is the second.
Lot 10 is Mardi Gras without Bourbon Street. No real street, just slippery mud lanes and an endless flow of partyers on foot and on wheels.
A half-mile in, campers have cross-beamed two spotlights on the muddy roadway where a gantlet of 150 to 200 people, most males, twenties to middle-aged, hold out fists of Mardi Gras beads toward any vehicle with women. "Show us your [breasts]!" Some lift up their shirts, most don't.
"This is party central. Girls flash here all the time, man! It's outta control," says an enthusiastic Christopher Hudson, 22, from Smyrna, Del., selling $3-a-bag ice to campers to support the volunteer fire department.
Cops in patrol cars farther down the path pull over one flashing Delaware sweetie for being underage -- underage for drinking, that is. A little farther, a man wears a Santa Claus costume holding a sign -- "Hooters for Santa." When a Delaware state trooper blasts his warning horn and barges into "flash row," one guy mutters, "Oh God, always someone gotta save the world."
Mud in Your Eye
The Dover infield, on the speedway's northwest end, inside the concrete oval track, opens at 4:30 a.m. Sunday to waiting fans who paid a $60 overnight infield-line fee, plus $40 per person and $40 per vehicle.
Fans in the infield view the race from on top of cars or RVs, and often build on-the-spot wooden platforms and sit up there in lawn chairs and Barcaloungers. Until the race starts, infielders throw horseshoes and drink beer while bikinied girls sunbathe.
Dusty Shifflett from Edgewater, Md., built his 12-foot-by-4-foot platform on top of three pickups, and it tips slightly to one side and sways like a boat.
"Never been to the stands yet," says Shifflett, 28, owner of the BC Paintball store in Annapolis.
He's been coming to Dover for five years and this year brought several uninitiated friends along. "It's a good party," he says.
And there's the decadent fun, he says, like the 50-yard naked cartwheel dash last year, and this year when pal Joe Moschetto Jr. lost a bet at Texas horseshoes and had to dip his bare butt in mud and leave butt prints on people's windshields.
"I was drunk," says Moschetto. "Dip 'n' Stamp, we call it."
As race time approaches, John Anderson is slouched in a lawn chair at the back of his tent. He's healthier and quieter than on Friday night, ready to hit the grandstands.
Highlights of the weekend? Pouring beer down his wife Janet's shirt was fun, and there was that girl over beside the muddy truck who kept flashing him "as many times as I wanted her to," brags Anderson, grinning.
"Why'd you need to see 'em more than once?" Janet asks annoyed.
John pauses to consider his best response: "Well, it's like racing. I'm going to see as many races as I can."