"Itzdiodorint," Linda says.

"What?"

"ITZDIODORINT," she yells.

She's a thirtysomething blonde standing on a rickety wooden platform built on the roof of an ancient yellow school bus parked in the infield of Lowe's Motor Speedway in Charlotte, N.C. She's holding a beer in one hand and pointing with the other at the naked backs of two male friends, who are also drinking beers. Their skin glows with the fiery phosphorescence of incipient sunburn -- except for a happy face painted on their backs in some kind of white goop.

"What's that white goop?" I asked her a moment ago.

who are also drinking beers. Their skin glows with the fiery phosphorescence of incipient sunburn -- except for a happy face painted on their backs in some kind of white goop.

"What's that white goop?" I asked her a moment ago.

"Itzdiodorint," she repeats.

I can't understand her in this ungodly racket. Right now, this could be the noisiest place on Earth. Fifty yards away, 43 racing cars are screaming around the steeply banked asphalt track at about 180 mph. Each one, propelled by a 700-horsepower engine, sounds more like a plane than a car. When a pack of three or four roar past, they sound like dive bombers on a strafing run over Belgrade . . . or maybe like a huge band saw slicing through a pile of aluminum siding . . . or maybe like a swarm of giant gas-powered hornets angry that their nest has been attacked.

The cacophony is so loud on top of this bus that the only way to communicate is to lean into somebody's ear like you're about to whisper sweet nothings and then bellow.

"It's deodorant," Linda bellows into my ear. Her friends have painted happy faces on their backs in deodorant to create a happy-face-shaped gap in their sunburns. Still bellowing, she adds an editorial comment: "It makes them smell better, too."

That's good news, because they've all been camped out here in the speedway infield for three days, drinking beer and barbecuing and drinking beer and watching two NASCAR races and drinking beer and playing air guitar to tapes of Jerry Lee Lewis and Waylon Jennings. There are two busloads of them here from around Lexington, N.C., and they range in age from 16 to 63. They've been coming to races for more than a decade, camping in the same spot, partying with people they've met from around the country, who also come every year.

"We party, party, PARTY!!!" yells Linda's friend Lisa, a 31-year-old secretary who's wearing shorts and a low-cut T-shirt depicting legendary NASCAR driver Dale "The Intimidator" Earnhardt.

She's sitting in a lawn chair atop the school bus and suddenly she notices the bright red Budweiser blimp hovering overhead like a giant Christmas ornament. She stands up and theatrically raises her beer in a salute to the blimp and everything it symbolizes.

"Party!" she yells. "Raise hell!"

It's a popular sentiment here. The speedway is packed with 180,000 people for this annual Memorial Day weekend race, and a sizable percentage of them are drunk. People are partying in the plush corporate suites on the speedway's elite upper level. They're partying in the speedway's 52 condos, which sell for about $300,000 each. And they're partying in the grandstands, where sun-battered fans bask in an intense sensuous massage of tooth-jarring noise, hot exhaust fumes and candy-colored cars streaking past, spewing tiny chunks of charred rubber and asphalt.

Meanwhile, millions of Americans are watching this race, the Coca-Cola 600, on television. Stock car racing is now the second most popular sport on TV, trailing only pro football. Once stereotyped as a Southeastern redneck pastime, racing is respectable now, the fastest-growing sport in America. Seventeen of the 20 most-attended sporting events of last year were races in NASCAR's top circuit, the Winston Cup Series. NASCAR -- the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing -- is now a $2 billion business. Souvenir sales alone are expected to exceed $1 billion this year. Many of America's corporate giants -- DuPont, Kodak, Kellogg's -- eagerly pony up millions to promote teams, and Lowe's, the hardware store chain, recently spent $35 million to have the name of this track changed from the "Charlotte Motor Speedway" to "Lowe's Motor Speedway" for 10 years.

Still, many Americans don't understand NASCAR's appeal. They just don't get it. Why, they wonder, would anybody want to watch guys covered with ads drive cars covered with ads around in a circle for three or four hours?

I used to be one of those scoffers. But not anymore. Now, I've seen the light. It came to me in an epiphany as I stood on that yellow school bus: NASCAR racing is more than a mere sporting event, it's a modern-day Saturnalia, a quasi-religious tribute to the liberating power of the automobile, a ritual outpouring of America's insanely excessive car culture.

The scales of ignorance fell from my eyes. Suddenly it all made perfect sense. Of course, I was pretty drunk at the time.

"Want some moonshine?" Lisa yells in my ear as the cars zoom past.

"Sure," I yell back.

Somebody produces a Mason jar filled with raspberries floating in a clear liquid. I take a sip. It tastes like gas and burns like fire. I take another sip.

"Suck the nipple," Lisa says.

"What?"

She reaches into the jar, extracts a soggy raspberry and holds it out. It does look a bit like a nipple.

I slurp it off her fingertips.

It tastes great and the symbolism is perfect: Moonshine -- the illegal whiskey long associated with the Southern Appalachian hills -- was, quite literally, the mother's milk of stock car racing, the elixir that sustained NASCAR through its infancy.

She holds out another whiskey-soaked raspberry.

I suck, feeling like I'm receiving communion at the First Redneck Church of the Internal Combustion Engine.

Runnin' Whiskey

"About all your good dirt track drivers were involved in moonshine," says Junior Johnson. "That's kind of the way it started."

Johnson ought to know. He was one of those drivers. He grew up in the mountains of North Carolina, where his father made moonshine, and by the time he was 15, back in 1946, he was driving his daddy's hooch to market in a souped-up 1940 Ford, outrunning the revenuers on winding dirt roads.

"Growing up hauling moonshine, about all the roads was dirt," he says. "You didn't have no paved roads out in the country. So I learned to drive dirt very, very good because that's where I'd go when I wanted to get away from the law. I wouldn't stay on the highway. I'd go to the dirt, where I knew how to manipulate the turns better'n they did. The revenuers never did have the cars -- or the drivers -- to catch up with the bootleggers."

Moonshining is a cat-and-mouse game that's been going on in the Appalachian Mountains for more than 200 years. The Scots-Irish who settled the Appalachians have always made whiskey, and nobody much cared about it until 1791, when the brand-new federal government imposed a tax on whiskey. That sparked an armed uprising in the hills of Pennsylvania -- the Whiskey Rebellion -- that was suppressed by federal troops. Ever since then, federal agents -- "revenuers" -- have been chasing bootleggers around the mountains.

By the time Junior came along, in the mid-'40s, the ancient bootlegger vs. revenuer game had become a high-speed road race, and guys who could outrun the revenuers became local heroes. It was probably inevitable that they'd soon start racing one another -- and selling tickets to folks who wanted to watch.

Junior still remembers his first race. He was 16, walking barefoot behind his daddy's mule, plowing a piece of bottom land for the corn crop, when his brother pulled up in one of the family whiskey cars and announced that the local racetrack was about to start a race that it was ballyhooing as a showdown between bootleggers.

"I tied my mule to the fence post where I was plowing at," Junior recalls, "and I said, `You got to stop at the house so I can get me some shoes.' "

Junior fetched his shoes and finished second in the race. He instinctively knew how to drive on that dirt track -- it was just like running from the revenuers.

In those early days, a lot of races were haphazard affairs on makeshift dirt tracks cut out of somebody's cornfield. But in 1948, Bill France, a promoter who wanted to bring some order to the sport, founded NASCAR and laid down some rules, the chief one being that the cars had to be standard vehicles, the kind anybody could buy from showroom stock, not those rockets on wheels that they raced over in Europe and at Indianapolis.

In NASCAR's first official stock car race, held on a dirt track in Charlotte in June 1949, several of the drivers were bootleggers -- guys like Bob Flock and the great Curtis Turner. Glen Dunnaway won the race but was disqualified when judges discovered an illegal modification to his '47 Ford -- wedges in the rear springs, an old bootlegger's trick designed to help the car stay stable while hauling heavy loads. The other drivers didn't think that was a particularly serious sin. They took up a collection and presented Dunnaway with the money he'd have won if he hadn't been caught. From that day on, drivers have tried to bend, ignore or circumvent NASCAR's increasingly arcane rules about what you can and can't do to soup up a car.

Six years later, in 1955, Junior Johnson arrived home after driving back from a race and noticed that the fire had gone out under his daddy's whiskey still. He went down and lit the fire and suddenly the revenuers charged out of the woods and busted him. The newspapers played the story big -- RACE DRIVER ARRESTED FOR MOONSHINING -- and Johnson was sentenced to two years in federal prison. When he got out, he started racing again and became a folk hero across the South.

"I was probably the popular-est person in the sport at that time," he says.

In 1960, Johnson won NASCAR's biggest race, the Daytona 500. In 1963, driving without sponsors, he won seven major races, beating drivers backed by Detroit auto makers. In 1965, he won 13 races and Tom Wolfe profiled him in a famous Esquire article titled "The Last American Hero Is Junior Johnson. Yes!" Eight years later, the movie version appeared, with Jeff Bridges playing Junior.

By then, Johnson had quit race driving and become a very successful race car owner. Now 68, he's retired and living in a huge brick house on a beautiful 278-acre farm in North Carolina, not far from where he used to run whiskey. He's not the least bit embarrassed about his bootlegging days. He figures the moonshining connection helped NASCAR a lot more than it hurt it.

"I'm not sure it didn't stimulate the sport," he says, smiling.

He's sitting in his garage, wearing faded bib overalls over a light-blue polo shirt. On a table nearby are a couple dozen Mason jars -- but they're full of green beans, not moonshine.

"I think it did appeal to people," he continues. "I think that was the initial fan following: Here's a bunch of guys, most of 'em are bootleggers, and they're gonna race on some ol' dirt track. Let's go out and watch 'em! It was sort of -- inquisitive minds want to see who can outdo the other."

He laughs, lifts his blue ball cap off his head and scratches at his bright white hair. "I think the exposure of you being a good moonshiner and having the fastest car of anybody -- it was sort of a glorified thing, like Babe Ruth hitting his 714th home run."

Humpy Explains Everything

The green Army helicopter swoops down over Lowe's Motor Speedway and zooms toward three camouflage-painted shacks on the grass at the edge of the track. The choppers start shooting and one shack explodes into flames, sending a plume of thick black smoke into the bright blue sky.

Three more helicopters fly in, guns blasting. A squad of soldiers, members of the 82nd Airborne Division, leap out and sprawl across the grass. The choppers fly off and the soldiers charge forward, running over the logos spray-painted on the grass: NASCAR, Winston, TBS. They fire their rifles and the other huts explode.

"Let's hear it, ladies and gentlemen," the track announcer bellows, "for seizing the objective!"

The crowd cheers. The choppers return, hover overhead, lower ropes to the ground. The soldiers grab the end of the ropes and hang on as the choppers take off, towing them around the speedway in a bizarre victory lap.

"Okay, Charlotte," the announcer yells, "let's see how loud you can get for your armed forces!!!"

The crowd roars. As firefighters hose down the burning huts, the choppers drop the soldiers to the grass. They take their final bows as loudspeakers blare out George Thorogood's raunchy blues anthem: "Bad to the bone! B-b-b-bad to the b-bone!!"

Incredible! A mock battle staged for 180,000 NASCAR fans -- it's another Humpy Wheeler spectacular!

H.A. "Humpy" Wheeler, 60, president of Lowe's Motor Speedway, is the P.T. Barnum, or maybe the Bill Veeck, of NASCAR racing. He's legendary for his promotional stunts and wild pre-race spectacles -- cars leapfrogging over school buses, cabdrivers smashing into each other in junked cars, a trapeze artist dangling from a helicopter. And every Memorial Day weekend, he puts on a military extravaganza. One year, he staged a reenactment of the battle for Grenada that he swears was more exciting than the actual war.

He has a theory about this. "To be successful nowadays, you have to have a lot of stuff," he says. Stuff is all the little extras -- the souvenir vendors, the disc jockeys broadcasting live from the speedway, the drivers signing autographs and, of course, the pre-race spectacles. "Then, after all this stuff, there's the race," he says. "The race isn't secondary, it's primary, but in my opinion, you've got to have all this stuff."

That's just one of Humpy's theories. He has lots of theories. Humpy is a very smart man who has been around racing for 45 years, first as an unsuccessful driver, now as a very successful impresario. If you want to understand NASCAR, people told me, go see Humpy.

So I did. A couple of days before the race, I met him in his huge office, which sits high above the speedway. With his gray hair and easy smile, he looked a bit like Arnold Palmer. He sat there, sipping designer water and explaining the history and sociology of the sport while race cars roared around the track, taking practice laps.

"Three things were the springboard of this being born right here in Charlotte," he said.

The first was historical: Serving in World War II taught rural Southern boys that there was more to life than working on farms or in furniture mills. "They wanted more adventure, so racing attracted them." The second was geological: "There's a band of red clay that runs from northeast Alabama all the way into Virginia," he said. "You can make a red clay track so quick and it works so beautifully . . . Black clay or sandy loam does not work as well." The third factor was, of course, moonshining, which provided the sport not only with its first drivers but also with mechanics skilled at goosing stock cars to their maximum speed.

"And all those factors," Humpy concluded, "mingled into the start of this thing."

But there was one powerful factor working against the sport: class snobbery. Racing reeked of redneck stereotypes -- hillbillies, bootleggers, the whole Dogpatch, Tobacco Road aura that middle-class Southerners were struggling to overcome.

"In the '40s and '50s, the South was developing a middle class," Wheeler said, "and these people were trying to get away from the roots of the South. You did not want to listen to hillbilly music . . . If you drank, you did not do it in public. And you definitely didn't want to be involved in this racing business."

So the respectable Southern middle class ignored racing, hoping it would go away. But it didn't. It kept getting bigger, attracting crowds of 10,000, then 50,000, then 100,000. Still, some Southern newspapers refused to cover it. "They wouldn't run one line," Wheeler said. "They treated it almost like cockfighting, which was illegal in most places."

Eventually, money overcame snobbery, as it tends to do in America. Detroit car companies started backing race teams and drivers started making serious money.

Then, in 1971, in a great example of the Law of Unintended Consequences, NASCAR got a huge boost from the anti-smoking movement. When tobacco ads were banned from television, the R.J. Reynolds tobacco company started pumping money into NASCAR's top circuit, which was, not coincidentally, renamed the Winston Cup Series. Other corporations followed suit and soon the sport was flush with money. Funky dirt tracks were replaced by huge paved "super-speedways," complete with condos and fancy skyboxes, where the executives of NASCAR's corporate sponsors could rub elbows in air-conditioned splendor.

Now, there are super-speedways in such un-Southern venues as Las Vegas and Los Angeles and even Sonoma, Calif., a place more famous for cabernet sauvignon than for moonshine whiskey. (For Washington fans, the closest tracks are in Richmond and in Dover, Del.)

Meanwhile, the South was prospering and two Southern boys were elected president, Carter and Clinton, and redneck culture became something to be proud of, even for the snobbiest Southerners of them all -- the First Families of Virginia, the so-called FFVs.

"Something happened this past year that blew my mind," Wheeler said, smiling. "There was a big social event at the Country Club of Virginia in Richmond, probably the greatest gathering of FFVs you could have -- and the theme of it was stock car racing!"

Wheeler was invited. So was his boss, Bruton Smith, who owns several super-speedways, and so was Richard Petty, the now-retired King of NASCAR racing. Humpy stood there at the Country Club, he said, taking it all in, thinking, "We have come a loooong way."

Racing and Wrecking

"Gentlemen, start your engines," Bruton Smith says, and the drivers flip their ignition switches and 43 motors roar and growl and 180,000 fans stand up, cheering and screaming.

The cars are painted in gloriously gaudy colors and festooned with familiar American logos: Cheerios, Tide, Budweiser, M&Ms. They inch forward in two long lines behind the pace car. They slowly circle the track, each car wiggling back and forth to warm its tires, which makes the two lines look like enormous, multi-colored snakes slithering across the asphalt.

Then the pace car turns off the track and the starter drops the green flag and the drivers stomp on the gas and the cars shoot forward. They roar into the first turn, going well over 100 mph, and they start jockeying for position, cutting each other off and driving like maniacs about six inches from each other's bumpers, and generally breaking every rule you ever learned in driver's ed.

They zoom around for three laps without any mishaps and then the blue No. 44 car spins out in a cloud of smoke, skidding across the track and into the grass. The other cars swerve and dodge and somehow manage to avoid a collision. Officials wave a yellow caution flag and the cars all slow down.

The 44 car, a rolling billboard for Mattel's Hot Wheels, limps around the track, dragging a twisted piece of metal behind it. The driver is Kyle Petty, a member of NASCAR's royal family. Kyle, 39, is the grandson of Lee Petty, who won 55 NASCAR races, and the son of Richard Petty, "The King," who won a record 200 races, and the father of Adam Petty, who recently started racing on NASCAR's junior circuit, the Busch Series. Kyle has won only eight races in his 19-year career, none of them in the last four years, but nobody seems to hold that against him because he is a genuinely nice guy who raises lots of money for charity with his annual celebrity cross-country motorcycle race. And besides, he's a Petty.

I talked to him two days ago, because I'd heard he was an articulate guy and I wanted to learn what it was like to drive a race car.

"It's so hard to describe to someone who's never driven something with a lot of horsepower," he said. He's got long hair, tied back in a ponytail, and three earrings -- a look that is unique among Winston Cup drivers, who tend to resemble tax accountants. "You get thrown around. It's a lot more physical than driving down to the grocery store. The cars don't ride well. They're real rough riding. The steering wheel's jerking around all the time. It's just tons of horsepower. There's a lot of things you have to learn to control. It's a lot more physical than you would think . . . It's a lot more mental than you would think, too, because every lap is different. The situation changes every hundred yards. You're behind somebody or in front of somebody, or somebody blows a tire. Every hundred yards on the racetrack your thought process rolls over into something else and you're analyzing that picture. On Monday [the day after a race], you're as exhausted mentally as you are physically."

After a while, you get used to driving 180 mph, he said. "I can't say as I ever notice the speed until I'm wrecking. Once the car gets sideways and you're out of control, then you realize how fast you're going because you know you're getting ready to hit something."

When that happens, you have to keep steering. "Even when you start to wreck, you're still driving," he said. "You're trying to turn left, you're trying to turn right, you're back on the gas, you're hitting the brakes, you're trying to make the car do something so you can get some semblance of control over it, so it won't do maximum damage."

Maximum damage occurs when you hit something straight on, absorbing all the impact. You want to hit at an angle, he said, so you can sort of ricochet off. He knows this stuff from painful experience. In 1991, he hit the wall at Talladega Superspeedway and suffered a compound fracture of his left femur, which put him out of action for several months. But that wasn't his worst accident, he said. The worst came a couple of years ago at Indy, when he ran over some debris and cut a tire and lost control.

"I went head on into the outside wall and bounced off and came back across and hit the inside wall, and I got hit three or four consecutive times," he said. "The first blow kind of knocks the air out of you and you're trying to regain control and then, when you get hit again, it's like being stunned with a jab and then catching a right hook." He smiled and shrugged. "That's probably as hard as I've ever been hit."

Crashes are a big part of NASCAR's lore -- and its appeal. As veteran driver Dave Marcis put it: "People say they don't come to see accidents, but they do." Car crashes are, of course, among the most frightening aspects of everyday life -- they kill more than 40,000 Americans every year -- and NASCAR drivers are flirting with death for the entertainment of the fans. They are, in that regard, the American equivalent of bullfighters. Over the years, a couple dozen drivers, including the great Glenn "Fireball" Roberts, have been killed by injuries sustained in racing accidents.

These days, 8 percent of cars fail to finish the average Winston Cup race because they've been disabled by accidents. Most of the accidents are minor and the drivers, who are well protected by harnesses, helmets, belts and bars, tend to walk away from even the scariest-looking wrecks.

Today, Kyle Petty's accident is no big deal, just a blown tire and a little body damage. He pulls his car into the pit road and his crew buzzes around it, changing the tires and doing some quick body work. In less than a minute, he's zooming back into the race.

Burning Money

"This is not a business for the weak of heart," said Felix Sabates.

He wasn't talking about the dangers of driving race cars. He was talking about the dangers of owning race cars. Sabates owns two Winston Cup racing teams, but when I spoke to him, a couple of days before the race, he didn't seem very happy about it.

"We're spending all this money," he grumbled, "and we're running like dog crap."

Sabates, 56, is a Cuban immigrant who has made a ton of money selling everything from talking teddy bears to giant yachts. In 1988, he became a NASCAR owner, hiring Kyle Petty to drive for him. Now, he has two Winston Cup cars: the No. 40, sponsored by Coors Light and driven by Sterling Marlin, and the No. 42, sponsored by BellSouth and driven by Joe Nemechek.

"You have three different kinds of owners, basically," Sabates said, sitting in the little lounge area of the huge tractor-trailer that transports the BellSouth cars to races. "You have the businessman that has outside interests and does this because it makes some sort of business sense -- at least some of the time. That's me. Then you've got the car owner that does it because he's an egomaniac and he just wants to say he has a Winston Cup car. And then you've got the car owner who lives off racing -- the only paycheck they draw is from racing."

That last category is in trouble these days, he said, because NASCAR racing is getting too expensive for anybody but the independently wealthy.

"If you're going to run up front week after week, you're gonna spend $10 million" a year, he said. "The sponsor pays $7 or $8 million and you've got to get purses and souvenir sales to raise the rest of the money." A race winner can earn a purse of a couple hundred thousand dollars; the last finisher will pick up only a couple thousand.

Most of an owner's money goes to pay salaries. For his two racing teams, Sabates employs 118 people -- 32 in the engine shop, 14 in the fabricating shop, where the bodies are built, half a dozen in the engineering shop, nine in the office, plus various others. Salaries are high, he said. Engineers make more than $100,000. A crew chief -- who manages each race team -- can command up to $500,000.

"For the average driver today, the salary is $600,000 to a million," Sabates said. "That's not a winning driver. That's a journeyman-type driver who's going to be respectable and not embarrass the sponsor. Plus he gets 45 percent of the purses and 45 percent of the souvenir sales."

And then there are the cars. Back in the early days of stock car racing, the cars really were stock cars. Drivers bought them at the showroom and drove them to the track and raced them. Not anymore.

"They're not stock cars," Sabates said, scoffing at the very idea. "There's nothing stock in there. General Motors sends us the front bumper and the rear bumper and the roof and the hood, and everything else we build ourselves. We buy big sheets of metal and raw tubing and we build the frames and we build the chassis. We have rules we have to follow -- it's got to look like a stock car -- but there's nothing stock on these cars, nothing."

Each of his racing teams burns through 17 or 18 cars during the 34-race season. "This year I have one team -- the BellSouth team -- that has wrecked six cars," he said. "Wiped out six cars. Five of them were totaled. None of them were the driver's fault."

Engines don't last very long either. Running at 8,500 revolutions per minute -- about four times the average street car's rate -- they're burned out after one 500-mile race. Sabates spends about $1.6 million for engines for each race team every year.

And don't forget the tires. A set of four racing tires goes for about $1,400, and you can easily burn through half a dozen sets in a race. Not to mention the tires you use in practice.

"My tire bill last year was $1.2 million," Sabates said. "Today, I went through $10,000 in tires in less than an hour."

Needless to say, spending $10 million a year doesn't assure you of winning a title -- or even a race. Last year, the two top drivers, Jeff Gordon and Mark Martin, won 20 of the 33 Winston Cup races. Most teams, including both of Sabates' teams, didn't win a single race. National Football League officials like to boast that on any given Sunday any team can beat any other team. That's not true of NASCAR's 54 Winston Cup teams.

"You've got 20 cars in a race that are capable of winning," Sabates said.

Are your cars among them? I asked.

"Not this year," he said, with a sigh. "Not this year."

Why not?

"You can't point fingers in this business," he said. "One week it's the car, the next week it's the driver."

For a while, back in the early '90s, Sabates was making money on racing. But that was before it all got so expensive. "I've had some really good years," he said, "but the last two years I've spent a lot of my own money."

Will you get that money back?

"No question I'm going to get it back -- or I'll close the doors," he said, sounding a tad peeved. "I'm not doing this to get my name on TV. It does help my other businesses, but on the other hand I need to use caution and prudence so I don't take what I make someplace else and throw it away here."

Working-Class Hero

"Clear," Ray Evernham says. "Clear."

I've got my scanner on and I'm eavesdropping on the conversation between Jeff Gordon and Evernham, who is his crew chief. It's perfectly legal. Thousands of fans are doing the same thing. In fact, you can rent scanners at the track. They're big earphones attached to a radio and they not only permit you to listen to the drivers but block out the godawful roar of the cars.

"Still there," Evernham tells Gordon. "Clear. Clear."

It's about as clear as mud to me. I have no idea what they're talking about.

"Okay," Evernham says, "you're the fastest car on the track."

That might be true. Gordon started in 10th position and now, 30 laps into this 400-lap race, he has maneuvered his rainbow-colored car into second place, just behind the leader.

This surprises nobody. At 28, Gordon is NASCAR's hottest superstar. He won 13 of the 33 Winston Cup races last year and took the title for the third time in four years. He's won this race, the Coca-Cola 600, for the last two years. He is an awesome driver, skillful, aggressive and very gutsy. He has millions of fans, including Felix Sabates, who calls him "the best stock car driver of all time."

But now, suddenly, smoke is belching out of the back of Gordon's car. It looks ominous. The crowd cheers.

"Let's find out what it is," Evernham tells him. "Come in."

Gordon turns onto the pit road and slams to a stop in front of his crew. They swarm all over the car, popping the hood, gazing into the guts.

"We gotta go," Evernham says. "Let's catch up and see if there's anything leaking out of the car."

Gordon roars back into the race. But not for long. The crew soon figures out what's wrong: A seal in the power steering system has blown.

"Take it to the garage," Evernham tells him.

Gordon pulls off the track and into the garage. The fans leap to their feet, smiling, cheering, making sarcastic little waves. Bye-bye . . . Good riddance . . . See ya later.

The Gordon-haters are pumping their fists into the air. There are a lot of them out there. Some of them wear T-shirts that show his car upside down over the words "The Way It Should Be." Some of this sentiment is the natural American tendency to root against a winner and some is Southern chauvinism; Gordon is from California. But there's also a lot of nasty grumbling that he's not macho enough.

"He's not a manly type person like most race drivers are," Junior Johnson told me. "He's more a kid. When he wins a race he acts more like a kid than a man."

Gordon-hating is a strange phenomenon. On paper, he's the perfect hero, the all-American boy. He's a great driver with an exciting go-for-broke style. He's also movie-star handsome and married to a beautiful woman who used to be a Miss Winston. He's accessible to fans. He signs autographs. He's unfailingly polite and soft-spoken. He's a devout Christian who attends church services before every race. He's what used to be called "a fine young man."

Which might be part of his problem. A lot of NASCAR fans don't really want a race car driver to be such a goody-goody. This is, after all, a sport founded by guys Humpy Wheeler calls "a bunch of wild men who would fight and drink and cuss and raise hell." Can Jeff Gordon truly represent the hopes and dreams of that segment of American society? Probably not.

Gordon-haters tend to be fans of Dale Earnhardt, the gruff, tough, seven-time Winston Cup champion from Kannapolis, N.C., which is just down the road from Charlotte. Earnhardt is called "the man in black" because he drives a black car and "The Intimidator" because he tends to intimidate people, particularly other drivers. Now 48, he's one of the older guys on the circuit, an old-fashioned driver who does a lot of bumping and scraping, which is how they used to drive in the old days, before the cars got so expensive that you didn't want to hurt them. To relax, he flies to Montana or Alaska and shoots the biggest, baddest beasts he can find.

"Earnhardt is tough," says Humpy Wheeler. "He's the real thing, he's a man's man, he's The Intimidator. He's the hero of the cabdrivers and the farmers and the shrimp boat captains and oyster dredgers -- the working people."

Being a working-class hero has made Earnhardt very rich. He earned $24 million last year, according to Forbes magazine. Gordon pulled in only a paltry $14.5 million.

After watching both drivers speaking in public, I had no problem choosing my favorite.

Gordon was holding a press conference to talk about his new race car, which was painted to advertise Pepsi-Cola and the new Star Wars movie. A reporter asked the inevitable question: Why?

"One of my favorite things as a kid was drinking Pepsi," he said, "and the second favorite thing was Star Wars . . ."

"That's funny," the reporter next to me said. "He never told us that two years ago when he was shilling for Coke."

The next day, I saw Earnhardt greeting a crowd at a Charlotte street festival that was packed with NASCAR fans, many of them wearing black Earnhardt T-shirts. The MC of the event asked if anybody wanted to ask a question. Dozens of hands shot up. The MC picked a guy who mentioned Earnhardt's love of hunting and then asked, "What's the biggest thing you ever shot?"

"I shot a car once," Earnhardt replied, his mouth curling into a grin beneath his walrus mustache. "It wouldn't run so I shot it."

That's it, I decided, I'm rooting for Dale.

Money Changes Everything

Forget Dale Earnhardt and Jeff Gordon. The most influential man in NASCAR today just might be . . . Robert Prebola.

Prebola is not a NASCAR driver. He's not a NASCAR owner or a NASCAR sponsor. He doesn't even attend NASCAR races. Prebola has a truly weird job, but it's a job that has changed racing radically, and not for the better.

Every Monday morning during race season, which runs from February through November, Prebola goes to his office at Joyce Julius & Associates Inc. in Ann Arbor, Mich. He pops a cassette of the previous day's race into a VCR and sits down with his TV clicker in his hand and his computer keyboard in his lap. Then he plays the tape, over and over again.

The first time through, Prebola pays no attention to the pictures. He just listens to the audio and painstakingly records every mention of a driver or a car or a sponsor.

"If [announcer] Ken Squier says, `There's the Valvoline Ford of Mark Martin,' that's a mention for each one of them -- Valvoline and Ford and Martin," he explains.

When he finishes annotating the audio, Prebola rewinds the tape and starts working on the video, making a record of every logo he sees.

"That's the hard part," he says.

He's not kidding. Every car is covered with ads. So is every driver. So are the walls of the speedways. Prebola logs each logo into his computer and notes how many seconds it is visible. The process is excruciatingly time-consuming, particularly during pit stops, when scores of logos are visible. For pit stops, Prebola has to rewind and go forward frame by frame, recording every logo on the car, the wall behind it, and the uniforms of the pit crew.

"A typical 16-second pit stop can take me five minutes," he says.

And a typical race takes him somewhere between 22 and 25 hours. The Coca-Cola 600, the longest race on the circuit, takes about 30 hours.

When he finishes, Prebola tabulates how many times each sponsor was mentioned and how often its logo appeared. Then he calculates how much this TV time is worth, based on the telecast's advertising rates. Finally, he publishes all this info in the newsletter he edits, Sponsors' Report.

In his report on the Coca-Cola 600, he noted that "210 sponsors joined forces to secure four hours, 12 minutes, three seconds (4:12:03) of clear, in-focus exposure time, 263 mentions and $25,564,320 of comparable exposure value." Not surprisingly, Coca-Cola did best, logging 10 minutes of on-screen time and 41 mentions worth $1,524,960. By contrast, TV Guide, co-sponsor of the car that finished 26th, copped only 32 seconds of on-screen time, worth a mere $46,080.

The sponsors, who spend around $10 million to back their teams, take Prebola's numbers very seriously. "They want to be able to justify the money they spend," he says.

The drivers also take Prebola's numbers seriously. And that's where the problem comes in. It has changed the way they talk. Eager to increase their numbers in Prebola's newsletter, they mention their sponsors in nearly every sentence they utter in public. They'll say, The DuPont Chevrolet was running great or, The Cheerios Ford team gave me a great car today.

"They're schooled in that," Prebola says. "They sit down with a PR person and they have fake interviews and they teach them to thank their sponsors. A lot of the older guys can't do it as well as the younger ones who've been to school."

This phenomenon reaches its most absurd on Victory Lane, where the driver who just won the race is compelled to channel his natural excitement into a series of carefully scripted commercials. Typically, he pops out of the car and showers his crew with a spray of Coke or Pepsi -- whichever he's being paid to promote. Then he utters his heartfelt victory statement, which contains almost as many brand names as a supermarket shelf. Then he poses for pictures making a happy thumbs-up sign beneath a ballcap bearing a sponsor's logo. Click. Then somebody removes that cap and plops on another one, with another sponsor's logo. Click. Then another. Click. And another.

Race drivers used to talk like bootleggers because that's what they were. Now they talk like highly paid corporate PR men because that is what they have become. Junior Johnson has been replaced by Jeff Gordon. And a once-wild sport has become tame.

"With the influx of a lot of money, you've lost the characters," says Kyle Petty. "There are no characters anymore. These people are all cut out of the same mold."

Petty, one of the few eccentrics left in racing, says the sport has become "homogenized." He blames it on sponsors, who demand that the drivers be as bland as every other employee.

"He's totally right," Humpy Wheeler says. "We have to be extremely careful not to homogenize this sport. What got us here were the characters, what got us here was the color. And we can't lose that. Our message to the sponsors is: Let these guys run a bit, let them be themselves."

He tells a story. It's about Kyle Petty's dad -- the King, Richard Petty, a man with a down-home Carolina accent and a genuinely colorful way of talking.

"I can remember a guy calling me back in 1967, when Richard Petty was a contract driver for Firestone," Humpy says. "He wanted to send Richard Petty to diction school. Diction school! I said, `Do you realize what you're wanting to do? Richard Petty won't be Richard Petty anymore. Would you send Yogi Berra to diction school? Or Casey Stengel?' He finally backed off. But you've got a lot of that thinking today. We need to get rid of it. We don't need cookie-cutter drivers."

`The Apocalypse Is Upon Us'

"We're redneckin' now!" Linda bellows.

I guess we are. I didn't know redneck was a verb but if it is, it no doubt covers what we're doing now, which is sitting on top of an old school bus, drinking beer and moonshine whiskey, sucking those raspberries and watching race cars scream around a track. If this isn't rednecking, I can't imagine what would qualify.

We're three hours into the race now, with maybe an hour still to come. The sun has set and a big orange moon hangs over the speedway. I stand atop the bus, gazing out over the infield. I can see scores, maybe hundreds, of huge motor vehicles -- buses and campers and trailers and vans. Thousands of people are perched on top of them. Most are stripped down to the least amount of clothing that is legally permissible. They're drinking and laughing and hooting and hollering. The infield is one huge party, a roaring Dionysian revel. It's a redneck Woodstock, a gearhead Grateful Dead concert.

Fortunately, Humpy Wheeler has already explained all this to me. "What it is," he said, "is a combination of a carnival and the county fairs we don't have anymore -- and there's some circus thrown in, too. There's camaraderie and fellowship. You see people you haven't seen since last year, people you park your camper by every year and become friends with and send Christmas cards to."

Not everyone understands the bacchanal in the infield, Humpy added with a mischievous smile. "If you brought somebody here who had led a cloistered life in, say, midtown Manhattan -- maybe taught economics at Columbia University -- after about two days of this, they'd say, `This is a sure sign that the apocalypse is upon us.' "

Maybe so. But if that cloistered professor taught anthropology instead of economics, he'd understand immediately. This big party in the infield is what anthropologists call a "saturnalia," named after the ancient Roman festivals, which were wild pagan orgies of eating and drinking and carousing.

Every culture has its saturnalias, some as wild as Rio's Carnaval, some as subdued as Thanksgiving. Most are celebrations of the harvest or the end of winter. This one -- the one that occurs at NASCAR races -- is a celebration of the automobile.

And why not? For Americans, particularly rural Americans, the car is a symbol of freedom. It's the machine that overthrew the tyranny of geography, that liberated them from the smallness of small-town life. It's the winged chariot that whisked them out of Hicksville and sent them barreling down the blacktop with the wind in their hair and their sweetheart by their side, heading for someplace better.

America is a car culture. We don't just drive our cars, we tinker with them, trade them, write songs about them, wash them, polish them, eat in them, sleep in them, make phone calls in them, apply makeup in them, make love in them. Millions of American men spend far more time grooming their cars than they spend grooming themselves.

Americans love cars. So it makes perfect sense for the Americans who love them most to celebrate them by gathering to party hearty while watching the best drivers race the fastest cars.

Now, after 600 miles, Jeff Burton zooms past the finish line to win the race, beating Bobby Labonte by a little over half a second. Dale Earnhardt takes sixth. Kyle Petty finishes 30th, nine spots ahead of Jeff Gordon, who lost a lot of time getting his power steering fixed. Felix Sabates' cars finish 32nd and 40th.

Suddenly, the roar of engines stops. The effect is shocking, as if you were walking on the beach and somebody turned off the sea. The speedway is strangely silent. In the quiet, I can hear my ears ringing and my brain humming the way it does after a long, loud rock concert.

The cops open the gates around the track and hundreds of fans wander across the hot asphalt oval and onto the lawn. They look like refugees -- scraggly and sunburned and carrying their coolers and their kids. Some snap pictures of their loved ones standing on the NASCAR logo that's painted on the grass. Others simply yank out tufts of the painted grass: relics of the holy land, pieces of the true cross.

A guy from the 82nd Airborne, looking a bit glassy-eyed but still dressed in his camouflage uniform and red beret, marches down the back stretch, lugging a road-

battered racing tire.

"Where'd you get that?" a fan asks.

"Wooohhhhh," the soldier answers.

I wander back to my car and fire it up. Buzzed on beer and bootleg whiskey and stoked on speeding race cars, I'm raring to go, psyched to roar down some Carolina two-lane blacktop with the windows rolled down and the pedal to the metal.

Fat chance. Instead, I find myself in the midst of the inevitable aftermath of a massive celebration of the automobile: a monstrous traffic jam that stretches as far as the eye can see.

So ironic! So cruel! It's a grim reminder of the dark side of America's oversize affection for the internal combustion engine -- traffic jams, pollution, road rage, strip malls, suburban sprawl, the whole wretched catastrophe.

Talk about frustration: A hundred thousand race fans who've just spent four hours watching cars shooting by at nearly 200 miles an hour are now inching along at about two miles an hour.

Dammit, where's that moonshine jar now that I really need it?

Peter Carlson is a Magazine staff writer.