I became a gearhead when I was twelve. It happened overnight as I read every word in a copy of Road & Track my dad brought home from a business trip. I became obsessed with power and speed and began hunting for ways to get a taste of it. It didn’t take me long to discover NASCAR (National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing) and find out that I could get my fix on TV every Sunday.
The first race I ever watched in its entirety was the 1999 Brickyard 400. I can’t tell you who won, but I do remember that it was rather boring (theBrickyard, though iconic, does not make for the most dramatic racing). Still, I couldn’t turn it off. Forty-three 850-horsepower V-8s screaming at 8500 rpm was music to my ears, and I couldn’t get enough of seeing these cars race side by side at speeds I could only dream of experiencing.
The Daytona International Speedway is fifty miles northeast of my home. We have driven over twice to see the premier event of the NASCAR season: the Daytona 500. The multi-camera perspective and comprehensive coverage that the major television networks offer allows you to see everything that happens around the track, but only two of your senses are engaged. You cannot feel the vibrations in your chest or the rush of the wind as the pack of cars flies by you at 200 miles per hour. You cannot smell the burning rubber. You cannot taste the exhaust fumes. For a gearhead, that is intoxicating.
Not everyone understands NASCAR. And in some ways, it doesn’t make a lot of sense. Despite the name, a “stock” car is anything but—a few stickers on the front of the car distinguish the Impalas from the Fusions from the Chargers, but they share almost nothing in common with their showroom counterparts. Fifty years ago, that wasn’t the case. Teams would go to the local Chevy dealer, buy a few cars, and proceed to rip out anything inside the car that added weight and wasn’t needed for operation. Under the hood, the stock engine would remain, but would be tuned by some of the most talented mechanics that ever lived (none of them formally trained). Squeezing that one extra horsepower out of the engine could win a race.
Today, all the cars are regulated by a rulebook which covers everything from how much fuel you can have in the tank to what degree the rear spoiler has to lean back to how high the car has to be off the ground. Yet stock cars still use the same basic antiquated technology of fifty years ago—carbureted, pushrod V-8s, four-speed transmissions, and live rear axles. And while the rest of the world enjoys watching multi-million dollar state-of-the-art Formula 1 cars race through the streets of Monaco, NASCAR drivers keeping turning their cars left almost every Sunday at tracks tucked away in the mountains of east Tennessee or popping up on the sprawling plains of Texas or lying just off a quiet country road in South Carolina—some of which have been around for over fifty years.
The basic recipe really hasn’t changed since 1948. But this simplicity is part of the allure of the sport. Many of the same things that the mechanics do to tune the engines on the race cars are the same things you would do to your $2000 Camaro at home. They’re the backyard mechanic tricks your dad taught you as you peered over the hood of his pickup when you were growing up. Those who get involved in racing on Friday nights at the local short tracks find an even deeper connection with the sport as they continue to take part in the very thing that gave birth to it in the first place. People love NASCAR because it is not another world—it’s the same comfortable and familiar world that they come from. They know it, they relate to it, and they live in it.
Of course, not every fan comes from the same background. The sport’s image has been gradually changing over the past decade. But a lot of the stereotypes remain true of NASCAR devotees—mullets and handlebar moustaches still adorn the “good ol’ boys” who pull up in 4×4 pickups on race day, and as you scan the crowd of 200,000 you no longer wonder how Budweiser or Marlboro stay in business. When it comes time to sing the national anthem, they take their hats off and put their hands on their hearts. And as the military jets fly over, their cheering almost drowns out the deafening roar of the F-15s. It’s a lot of fun to be part of the crowd—the passion is infectious and energizing.
As in any other sport, NASCAR fans cheer for their favourite drivers and teams, but there is a solidarity that transcends these loyalties and unites them in a way that other sports don’t. Perhaps nothing illustrates this better than what happened in 2001 when Dale Earnhardt, famed driver of the #3 Goodwrench Chevrolet, and at that time probably the most recognized icon of the sport, died tragically in a last-lap crash at the Daytona 500. The world of NASCAR was violently shaken.
No event in NASCAR history brought fans together like the death of the Intimidator. I don’t think you can underestimate the role that event played in shaping the sport. Today, when you’re sitting in the stands on race day, you are not surrounded by 200,000 disparate individuals: You feel connected to these people who have come from all over to watch this race. Those sitting next to you may offer you a beer as they ask where you’re from and tell you about their drive across the country to be at the race. Families and friends share in the experience together, happily enjoying each other’s company.
And this is perhaps the greatest delight of NASCAR. Everybody loves the racing and comes to see the excitement on the track, but that’s not what it’s all about. Whether you’re sitting in the grandstands at Darlington, Bristol, Daytona, or Talladega, you get the feeling that maybe, in some way, this is a little more like how things are supposed to be. People are sharing something, living an experience together.
Nobody comes only for the race. And there is something that’s just right about that.