I Went to a NASCAR Race by Myself

I once went to a NAScar race by myself. On purpose.

Let me explain…

I thought it would make a good story. And the fact that I’m telling that story, three years after the fact, and publishing it on my own website, proves I was right. Right?

I don’t know how the notion came about. I’d been to IndyCar races before…with my family. I tried to go to a Formula One race with a college friend while we were studying abroad in Rome, but we got the weekend wrong, and then had to go to an art museum in Florence instead. Sigh.

So when the opportunity to attend a NASCAR race in the Poconos of Pennsylvania presented itself, I jumped at the chance. Naturally!

It’s all coming back now. I think I went alone because I am adventuresome and wanted to immerse myself in true Americana. That, and no one wanted to go with me.

I remember getting up early after a night of carousing and driving deep into the backwoods. I’m from the Pennsylvania Wilds, but even this seemed a little too much like West Virginia for my liking.

What I noticed, quite appropriately, on my way to the racetrack, was an overwhelming number of car repair shops along the remote, two-lane, country road. Perhaps being so close to the Tricky Triangle turned people into natural mechanics? What puzzled me was how in the world any car in need of repair ever made it that far off the highway to be fixed.

There was a long line to get into the raceway. Everyone but me seemed to expect, prepare for, and even enjoy the wait. Someone entertained us all by blasting AC/DC from his pickup, the back of which emitted charcoal smoke from a grill cooking meat, which mixed harmoniously with diesel fumes to create a sensory American flag.

I had a media pass, of course, the only way to do it. I asked at least half a dozen official-looking people where the media station was, and received at least a dozen different directions. The journey to the media station afforded me an eyeful of my fellow sporting enthusiasts.

Some (most?) people never make it to the race at all, and not not on purpose. They camp, they drink, they smoke, they eat, they sit in lawn chairs outside the track. They listen to the race on the radio!

That doesn’t mean they aren’t true fans. Not at all. These people have more fierce loyalty in them than the most diehard Manchester United fan. They show their support in logos on their shirts, their hats, their cars, and their skin, until they, themselves, are the embodiment of a decaled stock car.

It’s easy to see the allure. The sport lends itself to rivalries. With so many ways to score points, drivers are trading places on the leader board constantly while tradin’ paint. NASCAR.com explains the newly “simplified” points system:

The current system awards 40 points for a race victory, with three bonus points for winning and one bonus point for leading a lap. If a driver also leads the most laps (a one-point bonus) on the way toward a race win, he or she is awarded the maximum total of 45 points.

After the race winner, each racer is scored with a one-point drop from the winner’s base 40 points — meaning second place is given 39 points, third place receives 38, and so forth until the 40th and final finisher receives just one point. Each driver in the race is awarded one bonus point for leading a lap and one bonus point for leading the most laps.

NASCAR is fun and its fans are spirited. How could devotees of a sport with a “moonshine mystique, forever connected to bootlegging” not be? There are catchy phrases to declare with alacrity – “Bump n’ run!” “Rubbin’s racin’!” and the alluring names of drivers – a mixture of poetic alliteration – Jimmie Johnson, Kasey Kahne – and the reverential titles that stir fear and awe into those who dare to speak of “The King,” and “The Intimidator.”

Then there’s just “Junior.” And the fact that you get to write NASCAR in ALL CAPS, so it feels like you’re yelling all the time.

Had I had anyone to talk to at the NASCAR race I attended, I would have had to yell. From the time the race begins, there is an incessant humming, like you’ve entered a hive of baritone bees.

I indulged in a can of Yuengling while I wandered the pits. The NASCAR people were almost alarmingly generous in the liberty they provided a young journalist, armed with nothing but ignorance and a media pass. I always feel like I’ve gotten away with something when I get a media pass, as if I’m somehow going to be “found out” at the next security check. I held my breath at the pit-stop check point, only to be asked for my driver’s license, only to be told, “You look way prettier in real life than in that pitcher!” only to be admitted entrance to pit lane and nearly squashed by a pit crewman bearing down on me from behind with a fast-rolling tire.

I left a little early and listened to the rest of the race on the radio.