Adam at the Races: the NASCAR Air Guard 400
In the glimmering imagination of American pastimes, where all things are still possible, where God, country, and a championship trophy are one and the same, there exists a belief among certain people that the NFL is the keeper of this country’s most sacred sport. Maybe so. Or maybe those people have never attended a NASCAR race. Bar-B-Que, cheap beer, rock ‘n’ roll, corporate sponsors, steel, concrete, cars, and gasoline, these are things that no American should go without and they are central to NASCAR’s identity. As the most popular form of spectator motor sports, it has come a long way from its origins on the winding back roads of the south, where moonshiners and bootleggers built modified engines designed to outrun police.
The top trophy in NASCAR is the Sprint Cup. It is given each year to the driver who has accrued the most amount of points over the season based on races won and laps led. Following a final race of the regular season, only the top twelve drivers, in terms of points, are eligible for winning The Cup. This year that final race was held in Virginia at the Richmond International Raceway. The event was designed as a promotion for the US Air Guard; a division of the military I didn’t even know existed until this race. Then there was the fact that it was to take place on September 11th. And so it was in the spirit of a quest to seek out the truest of all American sporting events that I decided to attend the Sprint Cup Air Guard 400.
The “race” is actually an entire weekend that typically it includes two events: a Nationwide Series run and a Sprint Cup run. The Nationwide Series is like Sprint Cup’s little brother. It is sort of a warm up to the main event, but with younger drivers. The Nationwide series sometimes draws the big name racers from the Sprint Cup as it also allows for certain experimentations with the cars. Apparently Friday’s race featured a special car from Kyle Busch, one of the sport’s “bad boys.” In recent years he’s thrown temper tantrums as well as had several confrontations with drivers on and off the track. Busch is a somewhat unpredictable personality who knows how to draw media attention. On Friday he drove a pink Toyota covered with images of bunnies, kittens, unicorns, ponies, and baby seals. He finished ninth. The qualifying laps are also an important part of the weekend. Each of these events is a separate cost for attendees. For even more dough, race fans can get a pit pass and walk around the pits looking at cars all day before the race starts. For the right amount of money or the right press credentials one can gain access to a true race weekend. This writer had none of the above. No tickets to the Friday race or the qualifying laps, no pit pass. Despite insistences to the Richmond Raceway PR guy, credentials were denied for something along the lines of not having the proper motor sports background, or waiting too long to apply. Fortunately I had tickets for the main event, the Saturday night race, the Air Guard 400.
These were the circumstances as I landed at Richmond International Airport on Friday to rendezvous with a partner in crime, Curtis McGee. We arrived at the Saturday event around 3:00 PM, two professional sports enthusiasts heading straight out on a highway to the danger zone. At least that’s how I envisioned it. The reality was that we were NASCAR novices getting dropped off by my associate’s wife in the middle of the tailgating mayhem with a camera and a twelve-pack of Wittekerke Belgian White.
The most important aspect of the weekend besides the race itself is the tailgating. In Richmond, cars and campers extend for miles outside the grounds. Locals charge $20 for parking in their front yards. There are crab bakes, keg parties, and girls gone wild auditions. Closer in are decommissioned stock cars, go-cart races, monster trucks, official merchandise, and food/beer vendors. Next to tailgating, the most important part of the race weekend is beer. Ticket holders are allowed to bring their own coolers into the event. It’s even encouraged. We cracked beers and headed toward will call. A band played adult contemporary country music in a tree-shrouded, Astroturf-covered VIP area that we didn’t have access to. At will call there was a woman getting arrested. The dirt on her back suggested perhaps a fight had taken place, but she seemed reasonable enough. This didn’t stop the cops from cuffing her hands behind her back and driving her away in a golf cart. There were police everywhere driving around in golf carts.
Continuing across the lot, we passed through the deep lair of VIP parking. This is the domain of the hardcores, and the weekend festivities appeared to have taken its toll on many of them. Beer-bellied middle-agers snoozed in fold-out chairs next to their smoldering grills. Sunburned families that wouldn’t have been out of place at Disneyland passed by. Leather skinned jailbirds with white power tats, goatees, and thirty-mile stares followed.
Our seats were good ones in a lower section on the pit side of the track. The first thing you see when walking into the arena is the fence—a twenty-foot piece of crosshatched wire that is curved at the top. It is designed to keep the cars from flying into the stands. It doesn’t always work; several fans have been injured over the years.
Sitting there staring at the track, beer in hand, sun shining above, the importance of salesmanship began to reveal itself. Without advertising there would be no track, no big paydays, and no NASCAR. There are of course the numerous big money sponsors that adorn each car. Times Square on wheels. Then there was the huge voice bellowing from both the impossibly tall Jumbotron in the middle of the infield and white speaker towers surrounding the grandstands. The voice urged us to buy everything from hamburgers to car parts. As this was happening a semi truck crawled across the track at a snails pace, a hamburger billboard plastered to its side, followed by several other smaller vehicles. The voice was so loud it was impossible to converse on any meaningful level. We tried a last ditch effort to get through to the infield pits. This is the only part of the track where alcohol is not allowed and protective ear wear is required. Yes, required. A special pass is also required and, of course, we didn’t have those. Security at this event was no joke. Police and security almost matched motor sport enthusiasts in number.
There were two stages set up in front of pit row. One was for the driver introductions. The other was for the pre-race Night Ranger concert. For those who don’t remember, Night Ranger had a hit song in the ‘80s called “Sister Christian”. They played that song. No one cared. Singer Jack Blades made the mistake of trying to talk to the audience and saying something like: “You’ve been spending to much time at NASCAR!” This drew some of the biggest boos of the evening. The crowd was quickly appeased by a searing cover rendition of “Crazy Train.” Night Ranger’s guitarist, Brad Gillis, played with Ozzy Osbourne for a short period after the death of Randy Rhoades. Gillis is a very proficient player and his solo was spot on. If nothing else, Night Ranger are a brilliant cover band.
As the drivers were introduced, the cheers and boos rose and fell depending on the driver. The Virginia drivers predictably drew howls of approval. But some of the biggest cheers were reserved for a driver who hasn’t won a race all year and hasn’t even been a Sprint Cup contender for several seasons. That driver is Dale Earnhardt Jr. Of all the merchandise sold in and around the raceway, his is by far the most prominent. His appeal is somewhat of a mystery considering the winless streak. It no doubt has something to do with his name, and Jr. holds a sacred position in the NASCAR family legacy. The senior Earnhardt was tied for the record number of season championships with Richard Petty when he was killed on the final lap of the Daytona 500 in 2001. Thus the Earnhardt brand is both an emotional and lucrative force. In NASCAR it is sometimes difficult to separate the two.
After being introduced, each driver then circles the track in a convertible and waves like royalty. In ancient Carthage these men would have been covered in gold dust and given ostrich plumes and fattened goats. Today they are given vast sums of money, private jets, and a fleet of automobiles. Looking up, skydivers were tumbling to earth with giant American flags trailing behind them. In the crowd, tiny American flags were waving everywhere; each entrant was given one on the way in. A blimp with another giant digital flag hovered overhead. The skydivers landed twenty yards from where we stood and the Air Guard singers struck up “God Bless America.” The song ended, and now it was time to pray. The Air Guard chaplain launched into what seemed like at least a ten minute prayer that covered the US soldiers, the NASCAR racers, the victims of 9/11, and of course Jesus. Once again, there seemed little separation between any of these. It was meant to be a solemn moment but it was difficult not to devolve into drunken hysterics as Curtis leaned over and said, “little baby Jesus” in reference to Talladega Nights. The prayer ended and the National Anthem began. With the final bars wafting over the masses a fleet of fighter jets shot overhead and fireworks exploded from the top of the grandstands. September 11th is the new 4th of July. Somewhat anticlimactically a salesman in a brown UPS truck buzzed around the track giving us all a big thumbs up signal.
Then the words we’d all been waiting for. That’s what the voice of God said over the loudspeaker: “Now the words you’ve all been waiting for!” Another Air Guard person was introduced and exclaimed: “Gentlemen, start your engines!” There is nothing that can prepare someone for the sound of 43 high performance V8 racecar engines firing up in unison. It is one of the greatest thrills known to humanity. Like a huge Angus Young power chord, it awakens some form of primal electricity. From that moment forward it was impossible to stop smiling like a complete asshole. The entire crowd was smiling too. Smiling, hooting, hollering, laughing, and for the most part completely ripped.
One by one the drivers left the pits. Tony Stewart hit the throttle briefly and almost rammed the car in front of him. Like Kyle Busch, Stewart is considered to be a naughty competitor. He’s also one of the best. In fifteen years he’s won two championships, been in several fights with other drivers and at least one with a fan. He makes no secret of his affection for NASCAR groupies, or “pit lizards” as they are known. In a quote to a Rolling Stone reporter in 2008 he claimed: “Pussy, money, cars, that’s all I care about.”
The peak of the weekend was hitting full force as the cars made their way around a warm up lap on the way to the green flag. And once that green flag is passed the noise and speed increase five fold. It is difficult to describe the power involved in these machines. There is very little about NASCAR that could reasonably be called healthy, safe, or that other term that has become ubiquitous: green. But for the devoted, the thrill of speed and potential danger is the ultimate drug. Stronger than any end zone celebration or heavyweight knockout. Unlike the NFL, where a defensive miscalculation can result in a penalty for, say, nudging the kicker during a field goal, a miscalculation in a NASCAR race can result in death. In fact, on a scale of danger in sports, soccer would be right at the bottom and NASCAR would be at the top, followed closely by professional hockey.
Unlike in most arena sports, NASCAR fans are not required to stay in their seats. A low level pathway runs alongside the track wall with only the fence separating people from flying pieces of steel, rubber, and track debris. At times, cars seem to run mere inches from the side of the wall. Top speed depends on the racetrack. In general, the longer the track, the higher the speed. Richmond is a short track, but with cars approaching 150 MPH on the straight-aways the vehicles weaving in and out of each other make the Brooklyn/Queens Expressway seem like the parking lot of a go-cart track. They almost slide through the turns, resembling sleds made of two tons of combustible metal. Most of the crowd walks in the opposite direction to the racers: against the rush blasting of wind, furious noise, and exhaust. Earplugs are absolutely critical at this location. I’ve been to hundreds of rock concerts and this was louder than any of them. Sunglasses are also helpful. The sun had set an hour before, but the random pieces of track flying through fence are incessant. All the officials, security guards, and police were wearing sunglasses. There are 400 laps in the Air Guard 400 and by the first 100 your eyes will be burning with exhaust. The exhaust rises in clouds above the grandstands, it permeates everything.
For a short track race there was an exceptionally low number of race cautions: just one, when David Ruetimann spun out on lap 54. Not a single crash. Another car pulled into the pits with his tires literally aflame. The pit crew pulled the smoking wheels off and threw them aside. The efficiency of a pit crew is nearly as important as the driving when it comes to victory. A good crew can change all four tires and make other needed adjustments in under fifteen seconds.
In the end, Denny Hamlin won with his Coca Cola Fed Ex Toyota. He’s won a lot of races this year, more than any other driver. The “real” race for The Cup would start the following week. The truth is, even before Richmond, the point leaders were already so far ahead of the pack that it really didn’t matter who won. Still, when the smoke rose from Hamlin’s tires as he performed the obligatory spinout in Victory Lane, we knew we had got what we came for. What really matters is that somebody won. It wasn’t Jesus, it wasn’t the sponsors, it wasn’t even the fans. Everyone knows what happens each time a NASCAR engine fires up on an asphalt track in front of 100,000 people: America wins.