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24 Hours of NASCAR

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My trip to Daytona was fun and educational.   By Hannah Wallace   OK, OK, OK, my trip to the Coke Zero 400 was free, for starters. And I didn’t have anything else to do.   It’s easy to be negative about NASCAR. God knows the sport goes against my instincts. I expect people in […]

July 11, 2008


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My trip to Daytona was fun and educational.
 
By Hannah Wallace
 
OK, OK, OK, my trip to the Coke Zero 400 was free, for starters. And I didn’t have anything else to do.
 
It’s easy to be negative about NASCAR. God knows the sport goes against my instincts. I expect people in my world to say, “NASCAR? Blech.” And then take a nibble of scone and go back to their Balzac.
 
Y’see? I try to be open-minded and I’m a snot in both directions. Wonderful.
 
But when it gets right down to it, I look at NASCAR with the eye of a formalist critic, and I think, “Why not? Perhaps it’s beautiful unto itself.” Sure, I’m not into it, but I wouldn’t be signing a contract or scarring myself or eating botulistic sea urchin. I’d be watching cars. Loud ones. Going fast.
 
So this is how it went:
 
6 a.m. on a Saturday is an ungodly hour. Eyes slitted and glassy, hair at unfortunate whorls and upward angles. Coffee and curses. CCB and I dragged our cooler full of beer and 36 hot dogs into the car and headed to rendezvous with CCB’s coworkers.
 

Of the five of us in the borrowed, un-air-conditioned Tahoe pulling a borrowed (at that point unbeknownst to us), un-air-conditioned RV, 20-something Air Force veteran Pico was the lone NASCAR fan, our tour guide. I was the lone woman.

 

 

CCB, me, Pico and another of CCB’s lunatic coworkers before the race.

 

When we finally got to Daytona, eons after we’d headed out, we pulled into a huge pasture already half full of Winnebagos, food stands and souvenir merchants. My first thought? “Ooh, corn dogs!”

The quality of the crowd? So consistent, it’s almost striking: Everyone was nice. Everyone smiled and waved, struck up conversations like it was a church picnic. Offered help when the generator kept shorting out the RV’s air conditioning. Joked with strangers and slapped them on the back. (My sole complaint, really, is the apparent compatibility of NASCAR and the Confederate battle flag. One complaint, yes, but it’s a biggie.)

 Pico quickly located friends he knew from other races: 80-something Larry and his son, Kenny. We set up camp right next door: canopies, chairs and coolers.

 

We ran into our neighbors Larry and Kenny at the Speedway.

 

And then? We waited. Through the hottest part of the day. Surrounded by acres and acres of people and vehicles. Horseshoes and sunscreen. Barbecue smoke and the hum of infinite generators. Larry and Kenny telling stories of their experiences in the pits, the cars they built with castoff parts, Kenny’s daughter breaking records at DeSoto Speedway. Hours and hours.
 

A shirtless three-year-old named Denver begged to play horseshoes with us. Said sometimes he drank his dad’s beer.

 

I show off my form playing horseshoes the entire afternoon.

Eventually, almost without word, the tens of thousands began the half-mile migration to Daytona Speedway.
 
Row 26. Before the race, Pico gave us instructions—most important: Boo Kyle Busch. Why? “Just don’t like him. And he wins a lot.” Here, too, the crowd was ridiculously friendly, conversation up and down the stands. It’s as though everyone has their favorite player, but they’re all rooting for the same team.
 

The engines started, and I actually found myself hopping with glee, waiting for the green flag to drop, remembering years ago hearing the Daytona 500 pack roaring like a fleet of fighter jets down the backstretch. Over and over and over again, the sound tickles your adrenal glands, makes you smile despite yourself. I never want some weird social mindset to get in the way of that kind of excitement.

 

The crowd watches the blurry things on the back stretch.

All night, Pico ran up and down the row of us, explaining bump drafting and restarts.
 
In the end, Kyle Busch won. The bastard.
 
6 a.m. on a Sunday is even worse than Saturday. Especially if you slept outside, uncovered, on a mattress, and awoke to a merciless morning sun frying your back. Water, water, water. Must find water. Chucked everything back in the RV and moved out.
 
Back home at 1:30 in the afternoon, and oh sweet merciful mother: air conditioning. Cold shower. Nap. Lazy Lobster via Ashley’s Food Delivery. Mario Kart. UFC and Iron Chef on television. At long last: civilization.