DOVER, DEL. — I'll say it right up front. I've never been a big fan of NASCAR racing. Upon arriving at Dover Downs the other weekend for the All-American Heroes 400, I knew almost nothing about the sport.
Sure, I'd heard a few names, and was saddened by the recent death of the reigning king, Dale Earnhardt. A friend had given me a crash course about the essentials: restrictor plates (which slow gas flow to the engine), sponsors (who are everywhere), and why Jeff Gordon was so hated in some circles (for being a pretty boy).
What I didn't know, however, was that NASCAR racing is perhaps the only sport in the world in which there's a dress code for the press. That I learned two hours before start time, as I approached the gate and met a very stern ticket collector.
"Gotta have long pants and shoes," she said, much like a bouncer at a nightclub.
(Later I learned it's a safety issue: Sparks can fly from the pit area and leave nasty burns on uncovered legs.)
Regardless of the reasoning, there I was, at my first NASCAR race, and I was resigned to shop for shoes and pants in the parking lot, which by 11 in the morning had become an ocean of cars. Publicists from Winston, the sponsor, wore "Welcome Smokers" T-shirts, and passed out free cigarettes.
It was an important race in the stretch run of the circuit, with several drivers fighting for a championship so I was determined to get inside.
Sure enough, after an hour groping through the the restless crowd, I found the trailer I had been looking for. It was white and extra wide, with a huge sign: "NASCAR Shoes."
Chris, the guy who worked there, promptly set me up with a pair of black high-top NASCAR racing shoes, size 13. He offered some checkered NASCAR pants to complete the outfit, but I settled for something slightly more conservative: a pair of Dale Earnhardt Jr. sweatpants, No. 8 emblazoned on the side.
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What happened next was a blur of smoke, gasoline fumes, and roaring engines. When the cars start screaming, all conversation comes to a halt. The earplugs go in, or the headsets come down, and everyone enters their own private world. For 400 laps.
From ground level it's impossible to tell what's happening. The cars whiz by so fast you don't know who's chasing whom. The pit stops, which take in the neighborhood of 15 seconds, are a blur of activity. Turn your head and you might miss them.
Crashes, of course, draw the most attention. Nothing sets the crowd off quite like the sight of a driver emerging from the smoke and fire, walking defiantly toward his pit crew.
In this race, it was Earnhardt Junior, who got off to an early lead. Earnhardt is one of a cadre of young racers who has broken into the elite ranks. As the drivers have gotten younger, the sport has mushroomed in popularity. It now ranks second to the NFL in TV ratings.
The son of the legend had some car troubles, however, and Jimmie Johnson, a rookie, sneaked in for the victory. The win pulled Johnson into second place in the overall standings, behind Mark Martin, a veteran from Arkansas who honed his craft the hard way: on the short tracks of the Midwest.
After the race, I talked to Martin, and he seemed like a down-to-earth guy. Perhaps his humble nature comes from a frustrating career as the best driver never to win an overall championship.
"When it comes to competition and getting your heart broke," he said, "I'm the eternal pessimist." As he walked off alone after meeting with the press, I couldn't help thinking he was the makings of a Waylon Jennings song. The next week, as it turns out, he lost his overall lead to Johnson.
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But what I learned, after a trophy had been hoisted and the fans had filed out to the parking lot, was that it hadn't really mattered who won the race. It was a bit like going to a concert or the circus everyone felt good afterward.
In the parking lot, I met a fan named Ellen Spencer, from Clearfield, Pa., who was sitting next to her son-in-law. She explained how the drivers are the reason she happily shells out $150 per ticket to go to the races.
Her favorite is Dale Jarrett (who finished third), and she was wearing a T-shirt with his image to prove it. "A lot of these racers are good people just like you and me," she said. "Dale's a family man. His father was a racer. I like the things he has to say." When I left Ellen to go to my car which I never would have found if not for the help of a nice fellow who drove me around in his golf cart I had mixed feelings about NASCAR.
There was something disturbing about the debauchery of the whole scene, not to mention the overcommercialization of the sport. The omnipresent Confederate flags bothered me, as did the homogeneity of the crowd and participants.
But as I drove through Barclay, Del., and passed a man standing in his yard holding a "Honk if you love NASCAR" sign, I must confess, I honked my horn, just like all the other people who were driving home after a long day at the races.