What I like, or one of the things I like, about motoring is the sense it gives one of lighting accidentally … upon scenes which would have gone on, have always gone on, will go on, unrecorded, save for this chance glimpse. Then it seems to me I am allowed to see the heart of the world uncovered for a moment. —Virginia Woolf
My dad recently reminded me, after I told him my NASCAR adventures, that years ago he tracked down a collection of writings for me called Ladies, Start Your Engines: Women Writers on Cars and the Road. I imagine he thought to buy it for me because I was obsessed with Matchbox cars as a kid, and my adolescence was fueled by visions of Jack Kerouac and cross-country drives—I wrote a poem when I was sixteen, right after my high school graduation, about escaping in a life-sized Tonka truck—but my romance with cars had cooled over the past decade, the victim, perhaps, of my college love affair with the sidewalks of New York City, and the untimely demise, in my second year of grad school, of my little red Toyota Tercel in an encounter with a Volvo station wagon on I-95 during Hurricane Lloyd. This morning I took the book off the shelf for the first time in years, and rediscovered the above epigraph by Virginia Woolf. Though not a scene unfolding through the window of a passing car, my NASCAR weekend was undoubtedly a chance glimpse into something already in motion, with its own life that is indifferent to my own, and letting it unfold before me was very much like staring into the fiercely beating heart of a venerable creature.
So we’re down in the pit. I’m coming to terms with the fact that I like not only the deafening growl of the stock car, but also, more disturbingly, the smell of burning fuel. KL is beginning to realize that in bringing me along, he may have created a monster. I should point out that the primary reason we are at Texas Motor Speedway is that KL’s dad, a devoted NASCAR fan, was tragically required at work in Fort Smith on race weekend, and so passed along his tickets to his son. KL, motivated by a loving combination of generosity, desire to share all that this part of the world has to offer to this green newcomer, and, perhaps, need of some similarly skeptical company down in the trenches, bought me a set of tickets to accompany him. I think he knew that I would love all his old family friends, and that I would love the part of NASCAR that is essentially a 3-day tailgating party interrupted by the occasional race, but around the time he took this picture—
—I think he was beginning to recall the way I love cultural phenomena with a die-hard, all-or-nothing ferocity, and I imagine him thinking about the hours I’d spent waxing enthusiastic about karaoke to his puzzled friends, and the fire of obsession that flares in my eyes at any mention of sharks or dinosaurs, and I believe he may have thought to himself at this moment, “Oh. Shit.”
I also believe that he knew, as soon as my man Clint Bowyer won that evening’s Craftsman Truck Series race—only his third truck race, and man, did he ever smack it in the mouth—that the girl he drove to Texas had been lost somewhere in the ether of adrenaline and gasoline, and on his watch.
At this point, you might be wondering—but too polite to ask—who is this KL guy anyway? Is he Lady Z’s new boyfriend? And to that, I answer, “You know I don’t like to talk about my personal life in the Procrastination Salon, and that’s pretty damn personal, don’t you think? But yes.” And just in case KL’s gallantry has not sufficiently shined through my coy representations, consider that in addition to having to watch me go all googly-eyed over a bunch of race cars, he also realized early on that he would have to share my love and affection with another male for the weekend, and handled it with remarkable aplomb. Meet his rival, Manny the Akita—the Teddiest of Bears, the Bane of Armadillos, and the Prince of Puppies:
Manny protects the homestead of Rob and Mary, including their lovely kids Sarah and Jacob, and he and I are a little bit in love. I don’t know if you can tell from these photos, but he is roughly the size of a truck. Cuddling with him awakened all my barely dormant Julie of the Wolves and Belle and Sebastian fantasies, and my dreams that weekend of engines roaring and tires squealing were weirdly interrupted by the occasional glimpse of mountainous, Japanese snowscapes in which Manny and I lived happily ever after on fresh fish and frozen cherries.
But I digress.
Saturday, we woke early to get back to the racetrack and stake out our parking spot. The parking lot at Texas Motor Speedway is, according to Rob, the largest parking lot in the world—larger even than that at Disneyworld. It is, honestly, the size of a modern city crammed to medieval density. There are campgrounds around the outskirts of the lot that become RV villages for the weekend, and the rest of the lot fills in gradually each day, achieving critical mass on Sunday afternoon during the Nextel Cup Race. My people—Rob, Mary, Robert, Rob’s sister Lisa, and her husband Terry—park in the same place every year, in between the same pair of trees and the same ditch. Rob drove us to this patch of land each day with the casual determination of a nomad returning to a perennial home, and we set up camp. One thing you absolutely must understand about NASCAR: much like medieval Europe, it is a flag culture. The flags one erects on one’s vehicle and tent identify each family unit by a unique set of declared affilitations and loyalties, and thus serve not only to announce to the community who you are, where you’ve been, and what you stand for, but also to help you locate your homebase after exiting the racetrack in the obscuring shadows of Texas twilight, or wandering over to the far bank of port-o-potties in a midday drunken stupor. Here, then, is our little manor:
I think the campsite first felt like home to me when Terry—a native Arkansan who became my fast friend as soon as he saw me alight from Rob’s truck in my Razorbacks hat—added the Hogs to our canon of totems. Of course, as soon as the flags were up, there was little to do but drink beer and bond till racetime. This may sound flippant, but I assure you that the ritual of NASCAR Drinking and Bonding is quite serious. First of all, the drinking begins early and keeps on going until a.) the booze runs out or b.) the weekend is over. There is no other option. KL and Rob reminisced about KL’s first trip out to the racetrack several years ago, when the group came out after Sunday’s race to discover, to their great indignation, that someone had apparently ripped off the remainder of their 20-some cases of beer, only to realize after some basic recollection and calculation that, no, they had simply imbibed it all.
Plus, at a NASCAR race, you can bring as much alcohol into the racetrack as you can carry, provided it is not in glass bottles. Seriously. At times, the crowd looked like that at an airport, with people wheeling around suitcase-sized coolers. At Sunday’s race, I staggered up to the gates, past all manner of police and security, with a 24-ounce cup full of whiskey in my hand, a hand-rolled cigarette hanging off my lip (and Lisa puckishly yelling, “Hey girl, you gonna put that joint out?”), and a tote bag full of beer. It was oddly exhilarating, the closest thing to a true suspension of the everyday laws of civil society I’ve ever experienced. As Robert said the first day I got there: “That’s NASCAR: Check you for glass, not for guns.”
I cannot possibly overemphasize the importance of the NASCAR family unit in such a universe as this. Without my tribe’s loving guidance and provision, I would likely have forgotten to eat, I would almost certainly have gotten lost, and it’s possible I might have gotten my ass kicked by wandering into the wrong place while talking the wrong shit. In fact, both Saturday and Sunday nights, I witnessed the sad spectacle of individuals severed from any homing unit, wandering around looking for their cars in a haze of despair. On Sunday night, we gleefully heckled a couple of sad-looking vagrants huddling against the cruel universe in their oversized Jeff Gordon rain ponchos, only to see them emerge a couple of hours later from a nearby ditch, as if they had actually given up all hope of ever finding their vehicle and had just decided to lay down and die.
And with that, I bring this latest installment to a close, because—what do you know?—the Homestead Race is about to begin on TV. Tune in tomorrow for mimosas, corn dogs, and the noble victory of our knight in shining orange, one Tony Stewart.