For the longest time I didn’t understand NASCAR—even though I saw Talladega Nights twice. According to my friend, David, for whom NASCAR is nirvana on an oval track, NASCAR has at least one thing in common with, of all things, opera. Neither work on TV. He assures me that if I really want to understand NASCAR, I need to go to a race. If I’d just go to a race, just once, I’ll be hooked. I’m not sure I buy his argument on two counts: first, whenever he tells me about how much fun NASCAR is, he doesn’t actually talk about the races; he talks about the tailgate parties, the beer, the barbecues, and the beer. I secretly suspect that he never actually gets to the race itself, and has to record it at home so he can find out who won. Second, I once dated a girl who told me the same thing about opera (without the beer).
I did go to a race once when I was twelve. I spent the summer with my uncle. My cousin, who was several years older, took me to the demolition derby, which he drove in when he could find a car that still ran well enough that he could drive it, but was junky enough that he didn’t mind totaling it. At twelve years old watching a bunch of rednecks actually trying to total each other’s cars in a dirt ring is exciting, even inspiring. It’s primal. You’ve got to love it. The wooden stands, splintered and warped; no track, just as dirt field that had been plowed just the day before. The roar of the engines so loud it was only matched by the crowd every time an explosive collision sent bumpers and assorted nuts and bolts flying.
In contrast, NASCAR seems tame—or seemed tame until a recent trip up I-35 to Dallas. That’s when I found out what NASCAR is all about. On that trip, I found myself on a freeway with six lanes of traffic. Like the Light Brigade, I had an eighteen-wheeler to the left of me and an eighteen-wheeler to the right of me. Three lanes over was the off-ramp I needed. If I missed that off-ramp I’d be carried along by traffic for five miles before I could turn around—which in this traffic meant an hour detour. My heart in my throat, which believe me is as uncomfortable as it sounds, I hit the accelerator on my Hundai Accent. It sputtered as though to say, “Really?” Then with a shudder inched forward. I’d like to say I shot the gap. What actually happened was I barely slid around the eighteen-wheeler. In my imagination our bumpers touched, though if that had actually happened I’d be a greasy spot lightly sprinkled with windshield glass on !-45 right now.
Even so, sliding around that bumper I expertly, or perhaps accidently, tapped the breaks, neatly slipping in between two SUVs whose drivers were both texting, and made the exit ramp at speed. Ecstatic, instead of taking the ramp at the recommended speed of 45 MPH on the yellow warning sign, I hit the gas again—which made my little Hundai shudder and almost stall. Still, I had enough momentum to fly around that ramp, yelling “I’m going fast.”
At that precise moment I understood what NASCAR was all about. Grand Prix and all that other European sissy racing? Euro-trash in expensive sports cars driving through winding roads on their way to Monoco. Drag racing? Who has the biggest engine. (With all the Freudian implications.) NASCAR? The vicarious thrill of freeway driving.
On the freeway, it’s not about accelerating so fast your face melts, or taking that hairpin turn on two wheels. Its about weaving in and out of six lanes of traffic and getting around the other guy so you’re in front of him when you both come to a screeching halt at the next traffic jamb. Sitting there in bumper to bumper traffic (just like on NASCAR) you can then dream about what it would be like if you were driving this close to each other at 140 miles per hour instead of 3.