Confessions of a NASCAR fan

Apr 242006
Authors: JP Eichmiller

While most of the 100,000-plus fans in attendance for the Subway Fresh 500 at Phoenix International Raceway were concentrating on the cars rocketing around the one-mile oval at speeds in excess of 150 mph, my attention was elsewhere – on the women. More specifically, why were they spending a scorching hot weekend in the dust and desert instead of being poolside like any other rational human?

It’s not hard to figure out the attraction of the sport for men. The weekend’s events combined all the necessities needed to entice the lesser breed of humans, i.e. beer, fast cars and women dressed down for the heat. But what was the draw for the ladies in attendance?

“It is kind of like a soap opera,” said Heather Bruce, a 23 year-old Phoenix woman who was attending her third NASCAR race. “Somebody will run into someone else and you wonder if there will be any retribution.”

It was at about this time, while talking to Heather in the pit-stop area between moments of relative quiet on the track, that a NASCAR track official pushed us out of the way to make room for one of the 4000-pound rockets, which was diving out of the pits to make some heavy repairs. The car stopped inches from Heather and me, torn up on all sides and bursting geysers of antifreeze from below its hood.

“This is pretty scary,” Bruce said, as a team of mechanics in fire suits immediately took to the car with jacks and wrenches, tearing off pieces of the body and making repairs in hopes of returning the car to the track before the race was complete.

The soap opera analogy seemed logical enough for me.

Among the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup drivers, there are villains: Kurt and Kyle Busch, Jimmie Johnson. There are timeless heroes such as Michael Waltrip and Mark Martin. There are even heartthrobs whose images make it onto handbags and purses like Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kasey Kahne (Bruce’s favorite).

More recently, the sport has even held stage for spats between women as witnessed two weeks ago in Texas when Kurt Busch’s girlfriend received a verbal tongue-lashing from the beau of Greg Biffle after an on-track confrontation between the respective drivers. Yes, it seems obvious to any first-time observer such as myself, that NASCAR holds little difference from the average O.C. episode, save for the occasional blown engine and four-hour car chase.

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.with the throttle screwed on there is only the barest margin, and no room at all for mistakes. It has to be done right . and that’s where the strange music starts, when you stretch your luck so far that fear becomes exhilaration and vibrates along your arms. You can barely see at a hundred . The only sounds are wind and a dull roar floating back from the mufflers . The Edge . There is no honest way to explain it because the only people who really know where it is are the ones who have gone over. – Hunter S. Thompson

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There is no preparation for the roar exhumed from these 800-horsepower beasts. It is perhaps not unlike sitting under a jetliner as it lands, only sharper and more precise. The scream released from these machines carries a different voice as the driver maneuvers from the all-out straightaway into the slightly banked turns.

It is impossible to not recognize that what you are witnessing at a NASCAR race is not normal. Every piece of human instinct tells you to drive a car that powerful and fast into a corner while slowing to a neck-snapping 130 mph, is not right.

I have to wonder whether enduring such reckless behavior is harder on the passenger of the vehicle, or the loved ones watching.

“It definitely gets nerve-racking at the super speedways, like next weekend at Talladega where they are bunched up the whole time,” said Eva Bryan, fianc/e of the previously mentioned antagonist Kurt Busch, who drives the No. 2 Miller Lite Dodge for owner Roger Penske.

“During the race I like to sit on top of the pit box and debrief Kurt on what is happening in the race. It keeps my mind off of things, taking notes and such.”

Bryan, who has only been around stock cars for three years, is still getting used to watching the man she loves willingly throw his life on the line in pursuit of a piece of hardware to place on the mantel. More experienced drivers’ wives have learned to cope.

“It’s so out of my control – it is what it is,” DeLana Harvick, wife of Kevin Harvick told me moments after watching her husband take the checkered flag of Friday night’s Busch series race. “The way they do it, I am getting used to (winning).”

Perhaps there is something to that whole “women’s intuition” thing my mother used to tell me about; Harvick continued his winning ways the next night by taking first in the NEXTEL Cup race, thus completing the second weekend sweep in the track’s history.

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The unsung heroes of this sport are the ones you rarely see. I am talking about the oversized acrobats, who risk ass and limb to jump in harm’s way and complete pit stops for the drivers under the most pressure-filled of situations.

The life of these men and their actions on the track is a study on the manly connection between boys and their toys. On a good week, they may be limited to only working six days and 70 hours.

“On a typical week, we will work 11-hour days in the shop and 12-hour days while on the road,” said Jason Shapiro, the car chief for Tony Stewart’s No. 20 Home Depot Chevrolet. “If you can last 10 years in this job without burning out you are doing pretty good. My knees and hearing is shot and I can barely see anymore.”

Shapiro has been in the Cup series for 11 years now, endured a divorce and remarriage and continues to work while his wife attends to their newborn child back in North Carolina.

During the race, many of the crew pay little attention to what is occurring on the track. Then suddenly, a caution flag will wave and a momentum will take over the pit crew. Safety equipment and helmets are adorned. Gas tanks and air guns are put at the ready. Everyone stands tensely at the wall, awaiting their respective driver to slide into his spot; binders locked and brake dust flying.

The men jump into motion in a blur of action that is not done justice on TV. In as short as 12 seconds, four tires and a full tank of gas have been loaded onto the car and the driver takes off, engine screaming and wheels spinning. If the stop was a success, the crew is all high fives and hugs. If not, there are dejected looks and murmuring curses all around.

“This is a year-long commitment,” said Chris Williams, the gasman and mechanic for Kurt Busch’s car. “During the off-season we are working all week. We do three pit stop practices a week where we will run through five stops. The off-season is actually more work than during the season.”

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The appeal of NASCAR is difficult to define, yet inescapable. The crowds are larger than any you will find at a football or baseball game. The combination of brute force and speed becomes as addictive to the spectators as it no doubt has become for the participants. I fear for myself, that there will be no going back.

“This life is hard, it is not an easy sport to be a part of,” Shapiro said. “But I will tell you something. If these guys were told they were no longer going to be paid, they would all still show up the next weekend.”

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