Let the Racin’ Begin! (on the 2009 Shootout)



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One

Central Florida is an oval of extremes, the year producing moments of serenity and frenzy, pleasure and terror, satiety and abandon. It goes round real fast. A week ago, just before the last cold front mauled in, days were calm and smooth as a baby’s bottom, bathwater-warm at 80 degrees while lands to the north hunkered in ice and snow; yesterday morning the mercury sunk to 30 degrees–no big deal to any boot-and-gloved Yankee, but such cold is death in these regions, curling black the tendrils of gardens which were never meant to experience a freeze.

That’s just one example of our torrid round. Central Florida is marked or marred or made into a magnitude by the fleeting nature of all weather; warm today, cold tomorrow, warm again the next day. We have a short winter here, just a few months of mercury falls as Vandal fronts try their best to maraud down as far as South Florida (most of them failing, stalling about here). Spring comes with violent rain fronts often tipped with the swirlin’ menace of  tornados (our house lies close to the alley the worst of them roll across, a swath beginning in Tampa and hugging northern Lake and then over Volusia County (including the Daytona Superspeedway; in ’93 the Big One screamed through this town, damaging 200 houses in Mount Dora and uprooting half the oaks on this street). The orange groves go into bloom hurling a scent of such intoxicating sweetness that every living creature young and old, evolved and mullet-eyed acts like they’re on some Viagra binge. Then heats comes without rain, weeks of dryness which sparks wildfires across the rural midsection, tinging the scent of orange blossom with dark smoke; about the time the state seems ready to burn in one orange unison the rainy season arrives, with day after day of humid tumescence capped by thunder and torrents of rain. These usher in the hurricanes, the true archons of the Big Swirlin’ Oval, winds racing round ‘n’ round on a track bigger than this state, howling louder ‘n the Devil hisself. Then it’s just hot, months and months longer than anyone’s patience, sweating up the costumes of those few kids who forage for candy in the few houses decked out for Halloween and even makes folks turn on the A/C for their Thanksgiving gatherings. Then we’re back to the short winter season.

Which brings me to here, Feb. 7, 2009, temps in the low 40’s promising to creep back into the mid-70’s by afternoon; tonight it won’t get below 50, certainly a relief for everyone packed into the monster banked oval of Daytona Superspeedway for the Bud Shootout. A  relief too here in my town where it’s the weekend of its annual the Art Festival, the first of these season of Kulture Kollectives to exfoliate their pestilence across the state, Art for Money’s Sake, thronged by thousands who walk and gawk and hork down corn dogs and Coke over a weekend. Lots of bikers have started coming out too, weekend bikers I mean, white collar wannabe’s and retirees on gleaming fat Harleys, strutting their badboy washable tattoos in defiance of the vast suburban existence they are the offspring of.

Well, let ‘em have all the beach watercolors and egret earrings. My wife and I stopped walking the few blocks into town for the event years ago – nothing new, ever, to see there; most of the artists are allowed presence for their talent for creating visual Happy Meals, common-denominator paintings befitting the walls of cookie-cutter houses in developments which sprawl for thousands of acres. For us, Art Festival means a miasma of cars vying for parking on our street, cheery folk music or smooth jazz wafting from the PA in Central Park, and a real headache foraying out to buy dinner groceries at Publix.

Not for me: I’m headed out of town and away from such ugh-sub-urbane folly (that which Florida has aged into, no longer the frilly small-town girl with the gap-toothed smile who puts out in the back seat parked in dark, sweet-scented orange groves, become the fake-knockered club gal with a toy doggie and 16 maxed-out credit cards) and drive east the 35 miles to Daytona and its great oval sanctuary of bad-ass cars in howlin’ motion, round and round a huge heart of down-south America, the one we used to have years back when the romance of cars was still in its sweet heady hellbent youth.

Outside I can hear at 6 a.m. lots of traffic, vendors I’m sure laboring their rigs into to town, opening up their booths, stamping their feet while sipping steaming cups of coffee and talking of the money they hope to make that day. It’s always a dicey event for February, sometimes cold, sometimes hot, sometimes drenched in rain, under threat of tornadoes. A cold start for this one though it will hit it stride just when the weather is finding its own, with sunny skies promising such halcyon fairness that no one wonders where else one could live on this planet.

I’ve never been to Daytona Speedway – nor to any other race, I confess – so I wonder if what that sweet sunny note will do, beaming over the monster 2.5-mile track and all of those fans, some hopeful, many angry with bum turns in the sport, still gathered for this inaurgural Sprint Cup event which will have no bearing on the points standings but is the true warm-up, the only testing for the Daytona 500 to come. A big purse will make the driving more hellbent, this race; and with many teams unsure if there will be much racing for them after Daytona, the event next week will retain some of this hellbent flavor, the threat of racing’s damnation, which is not to race at all.

Yes, it’s revival time at Daytona: start of the next season, which for many has the ominous undertone of being NASCAR’s last season, at least in many of aspects of what racing has become—sponsors in flight, 800 team employees let go, the numbers of teams whittling down. Yes, there is the threat of damnation. Yes, the shout of “Start your engines!” sounds a little of Gabriel’s trumpet of judgment; yet there is also the hope of salvation too in that horn’s blast, the antiphonal howl of a crowed faithful coming out to the grand Oval, proclaiming with one voice their jubilant defiant faith in noise and motion, perching upon the great American axle which has turned our history for two centuries.

Enough sound and fury here! In every life there’s a door marked “Lecture on Heaven” and another marked “Heaven”; Which are you gonna choose, boy? I’m done talkn’ here; The Oval’s over there, in raw waking wild wooly fallen and virile Daytona.  Time to rouse the day and begin the pilgrimage; feed the cats & wake the wife, say hello to this day and begin getting ready for that other day, out and over there in the whirlin’ carnival of dreams whose tentpole is the core American need for motion, a freedom held in place by desire, going round and round the Maypole, flinging up and out and round and down on engines of flight at the County Fair, assembling in the great engine-throated, workin’-folks-voiced choir of  Daytona.

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Two

Late Saturday morning – my wife having driven off to Winter Haven to look for lace, me with a couple of hours to burn before driving over to Orange City where I am to meet up with Rick at his dad’s place – I put the Speed Channel on and opened the windows to a fine spring morning. Bright and calm, temps rising up from the recent cold spell in a way as to dispel all memory of winter. And on Speed its Speed Weeks in all its gusto, Daytona 500 practice at the track I will be at in a few hours, the stands still mostly empty as the No. 18 and 24 and 48 and 99 cars make their solo rounds. Joey Logano is fast, Jimmie Johnson is fast, but surprisingly it is Bill Elliott who is fastest, the oldest driver slated for the 500 next week, somewhat sponsored, vaguely remembered by the fans – though old fans know he has won a brace of Daytona 500’s in the past.

Watching those brightly colored cars gobble up track at speeds over 180 mph makes puts a tang in the air not unlike the scent of orange blossoms, soon to peal from groves just out of town – a line of that imaginal Viagra which perks everything into an excited readiness. I’m going racin’! I go over the wares I will pack with me: camera, check. Blackberry, check. (I’ve signed up for email notices from nascar.com, wondering if they will provide context during the race – nah; the Sprint teleboards around the track provided all of that.) Pocket telescope, check, Wallet, keys, wedding ring, check. Migraine pill, check. Sunglasses, sweater to put on later, check. Libido, check (though I promise to keep it in check.) Youth waving in the flags fluttering in the breeze at Daytona, check.

Outside the street is filling up with art festival faithful, every space up and down one side of Ninth Avenue taken by 10 a.m., folks streaming down the sidewalk in shorts and sweaters, stopping to use the Port-a-Potty in front of the house adjacent to ours which is being renovated, gawking at our garden which miraculously has survived several freezes over the past couple of months. Some friends show up who we have told to use our driveway since we’ll both be out. When I try to tell them about the race I’m going to attend at Daytona, they squint in the sunlight, trying to take my measure. “Well, you’re going to see how the other side lives,” says one. My wife and I can’t understand how they can go to that insipid art show every year. I say something about it being part of my job and something about how much I’m looking forward to getting a feel for the noise, looking over the shoulder of one of them at a heavy-breasted young woman in a shorts and a t-shirt walking by, hoping all of her amply-hootered sisters will head for Daytona rather than Mount Dora.

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Driving over to Orange City – which is just south of Deland and about halfway to Daytona from here – the rural swaths not eaten up by developments are brown and dead-looking from the freeze. But I have the windows open to a 70-degree afternoon, almost warm enough, with Thin Lizzy playing on the tape deck. I’d found the cassette in some thrift store on one of those forays my wife likes to make around Florida, looking for finds in malls of junk. Back in the late 1970’s I played in a band that did a pretty good rendition of “Jailbreak,” choppy and hard and loud. Jeff, our lead guitarist, really could wail on the jailbreak portion of the break, squalling and screaming on his Gibson Explorer guitar fed through a Marshall twin while the rest of us hammered the bejeezus outta our axes and kit. That’s what I’m hoping to hear in the racin’  — every horse loosed and hammering the asphalt, testosterone cranked up past 10. The eternal infernal maelstrom spinning round in delight.

There’s lttle traffic on my side of the road though I do get stuck behind a trailer that has “Rock n Rolla” painted on its ass end, testament to a driver’s unwillingness to grow old quite yet, despite the obvious fatuousness of the wheels he or she is driving. I wonder if I’ll ever be able to pass the bastard with all the traffic coming the other way (headed, I guess, to the art festival in my town). Such are my thoughts as I drive through the tiny burg of Paisley and that horrid swath where there used to be a trailer park before an F3 tornado in Feb. 2007 lifted it almost complete from its flimsy anchorage and scattered baby clothes and tatters of of fibrewall and body parts into a field on the other side of SR-44.

In the center of the worst emptiness, where the most trailers were obliterated, there’s a lone tree stripped of most of its limbs but still standing, with a red streamer tied high up; next to it someone’s set up a memorial which is a green dragon stolen from some amusement park, a snake whose coils amble the bruited turf like a set of waves ending in the widest of snarls – or is that the benign smile of the those who survive?

* * *

We make our approach to the Speedway following a map that’s included in the fan guide I’ve downloaded, SR-44 to US 1 to Sadler Ave. to Clyde Morris Road, slowly but eventually coming to a huge field in the middle of nothing where rent-a-drunks motion cars into long parking rows. The faithful stream toward busses and board, most in caps and jackets which either proclaim the track they are heading toward or the driver the revere. The numbers 88 and 24 and 9 are the most prevalent. Our bus lumbers out of the lot and crosses several roads where state cops are holding back traffic. I wonder, how many people are employed just to provide free parking? The $85-dollar price tag for our seats in Roberts tower start to whittle down when you consider the sheer numbers of bus drivers and gate attendants and security folks everywhere around the massive track.

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And then we’re there, unloading from the bus on the other side of US-92–International Speedway Drive—with that monster edifice just across the street, a cathedral of steel beams and wood bleachers built back in the 1950’s by Bill France Sr., who saw the future of NASCAR which our day is the apparent end of.

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However bad things are for the sport, the faith and vision of that man seems permanent on this sunny spring day as thousands pour past the gates and into the massive sanctum. There are hundreds of stands in the bowels under the stands selling hats and t-shirts, turkey legs and cheeseburgers (I buy two bottles of water for $8; later we’ll get a couple of corn dogs for $10.)
It’s a long hike to our section, so first we head up to the track-level walkway, the fence patrolled by security people to keep gawkers back a pace. The ARCA race is just underway, a bunch of guys I don’t know and Joey Logano who’s in second place.

We stand there taking in the massive oval track, the grandstands and tower on the frontstretch sides we’re on and the empty superstretch grandstands across from us, the pits, the garages and fan zone in the infield, the nation of trailers parked together:

And then the pack comes through Turn 4 and approaches, the hard whine of the turn gone almost silent for a moment entering the home stretch and then rising through the registers of sound into a noise I have never heard anywhere, not from any rock-n-roll band playing balls to the walls, not any jet passing over head: the sound of cars passing at 170 mph, their engines roaring so load and so fast that it’s a magnitude both of sound and something physical walloping against the chest, cascading over the ears – WHOOM WHOOM WHOOM WHOOM WHOOM!!!!,  a sound which terrifies and excites, maddens and is infinitely, dangerously satisfying.

And then they’re gone, roared off to Turns 1 and 2 and the superstretch, a ragged patch of brightly colored cars almost lost from sight from our vantage, far enough away to seem lost, the eye and attention moving to the Sprint telescreen where driver stats are scrolling, to the pits just across from us where one crew is desperately trying to get a car going again, to some chicks walking in front of us with perfectly white teeth and hair that seems ironed and bodies so impeccably young as to make the heart lurch—
And then everything leaps back to the track, ‘cause in Turn 4 the pack has become a sudden devolution, one car spinning until its broadsided by another car, sent careening so hard and fast into the wall we can see parts shower up into the air. The crowd’s roar is one of wounded surprise and secret glee, every attention diverted to the wreck. Cars which were ahead of the melee slow down under the caution, their howls subsumed to a roar. Nothing will happen for ten minutes or so as wreckers and ambulances and cleanup crews batten like carrion birds on the detritus of two seconds of fear and wonder.

People sit back down, huddle together (the stands are now in late-afternoon shadow), work on beers or Cokes, head for the loo. Just behind us a row of kids practice  spitting on the pavement, enjoying the license of racin’ to be all things not under parental law at home.

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Track chicks struggled to show a little skin in February.

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Rick and I meet up with Monte Dutton around 5 p.m., down at the ground level next to the elevator which heads up to the media room in the NEXTEL tower. He’s a little out of sorts because his laptop went dead on him on Friday and he’s been unable to file his blog with the sports department over at the Gaston Gazette. Still, he’s amicable, glad at last to meet us.

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Monte and Rick.

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Monte talks the way he writes, or rather he seems to be composing as he goes on about the sorry ARCA race (ineptitude creates those wrecks, he says; also, he says, there’s always a Sprint Cup or Nationwide driver showboating in the mix – this time it’s Logano, whom NASCAR really wants to promote to create a story line which, in Monte’s thinking, is so inequitable to equally talented young drivers who are of the wrong sex.)

He doesn’t think much of tonight’s Bud Shootout—most of the big purse money goes only to the winner, and the manner of awarding pole positions this year by drawing seems stupid and has nothing to do with racing. (Three of the front two row positions are drivers with terrible Sprint Cup records. All star, indeed.)

And he’s pissed at newspapers for whittling their coverage of everything down past the bone and for what remains of his peers more interested in important connections than reporting the important stories.

(As we talk, NASCAR president Mark Helton emerges from the elevator and heads toward a gawky green car which looks like an English cab. “I heard he’s been driving around in that thing all week,” Monte says, as Helton squeezes the vehicle’s swath through the crowds.)

I ask Monte if he’s excited about the season and he says Yeah, it’s about time we get started with this thing … I know he’s more excited about the open mics he’ll try to find around races in Bristol and Talladega and Charlotte. What used to be the soul of NASCAR he finds in the country songs he loves and performs, off the monied and center-stage track where Dierks Bentley will perform just before and after the Shootout. The guy’s all heart for racin’, but of late that heart seems broken and not sure what comes next.

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Three

Letting Monte get back to work, we head up to our seats in Roberts Tower and the end of the ARCA race. Our section is pretty tightly booked—just about every seat is filled, and the seats are packed uncomfortably close for homophobic real men like us. The sun has gone behind the frontstretch, which means we’re in late afternoon shadow; I go to put my hands in the pockets of my jacket and almost put one in the jacket of the guy sitting next to me. Uh, sorry bud.

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Up at this height the piercing noise of the race cars is diminished to a more comforting roar. One of the leaders spins out with a flat tire, hitting the wall of Turn One; we hunker down, waiting for the end of the caution and the finish of the race. Things finally get going, and the racing heats up, with Joey Logano fighting for the lead with James Buescher. Then with six laps to go when, coming out of Turn Four, third-place Pat Sheltra made contact with fourth-runner Justin Lofton and spun out, then getting hit by Larry Hollenbeck so hard he spun viciously into the wall. The accident red-flagged the race and two of the drivers had to be cut from their cars and taken to the hospital.

I read about that in the Orlando Sentinel this morning. From our vantage in the stands is was just another long delay as the sunset crept over the stadium. High above the Direct TV blimp (no brand, I guess, is ever secure) crossed a nearly full moon. Rick and I decide to head down and find something to eat.

We walk a good perusing booths which offer about the same fare before settling one where some teenaged girl with teeth brighter than the stadium lights serves us each giant corn dog and charging us $10 bucks. We walk and eat down the steel-girdered bowels of the stadium checking out the panoply of NASCAR fans–all the folks wearing caps or jackets bearing their driver’s number, guys loading up on beer, chicks with a cigarette and cellphone in hand, exhaling and communing with the vast pleroma of the connected.

Rick and I talk about the NASCAR This Week website and the things we’d like to see happen with it this year: expanded race coverage, adding more stuff to the members section, developing an email newsletter, developing the sub-text of Monte’s musical ambitions (he plans to play at an open mic near every track he covers this season and a CD of his songs may soon be available). Ramping up the traffic, getting – at last – the advertising revenue which is essential to making this venture successful. Corporate money is behind–at least, we’ve put so much energy and time into the site on company time–but companies have limited patience for projects showing low returns. This is a break-or-make-it-year for our efforts, at least. Monte, he’ll keep covering NASCAR whether we or anyone else extends his coverage to the Web or not. Or maybe not. He says that a lot of NASCAR writers have lost their newspaper jobs in the past couple of years. After covering motorsports for twelve years, I think he’d be happy just playing clubs and singing his songs. Like us, though, mortgages keep us optimistic about the business at hand.

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Over the past year, I’ve become a fan of the sport—without the enthusiasm, there is no energy to keep endless details of blogging up. I’ve become loyal to drivers—Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr.—for reasons which, like all fans, are only partially rational. They’ve caught my imagination. I think of races in terms of their winning them, paying most attention to the race where they are involved. Such empathies made me feel at home at the race, for all of my occupational affinities. Get this damn ARCA race over and get on to the Shootout!

After the green flag there was only two laps to go, and 18-year-old James Buescher held off Joey Logano for the win. (Logano, it was said in the Sentinel article, was in the ARCA race to get some super speedway experience, though Monte thought it was more a matter of showboats getting into races they were sure to win – sorta like the Nationwide Series …) The last cars under the checker flag were like something out of The Road Warrior, cars missing half their exterior from wrecks, baring their skeletal infrastructures, such as they are, amid flapping and flayed exterior plastic.

Rick and I get up and move about for the 2-hour interim between the races. It’s dark now and the speedway lights are on, flooding everything with a candescence that reminds me of a high school football game. Also similar to those games of my youth is the perpertual motion of fans who aren’t really there for the racing, young girls in gaggles, guys checking out the chicks, people buy beer and food, folks walking off the stiffness of the seats and the chill of the hour. It is getting cold, and I’m not sure the sweater and jacket I’m wearing will be enough. We walk all the way down to the end of the stands by Turn 4; there’s a film of debris on the walkway next to the fence, bits of rubber and plastic and parts from the wrecks.

The stands down at this end are nearly empty. I don’t know what the usual attendance has been at this event in years past, but today I’d say the fronstretch section is about a half to two thirds full. (The superstretch grandstands across from us are empty.) And the mood of the faithful who are here seems grumpier. Maybe it’s the chill of the night, maybe its the sour aftertaste NASCAR is leaving in folks’ mouths these days.

Not that the NASCAR and Speedway officials aren’t trying. As we settle for a while in this near-empty section, the Sprint telescreens maintain a perky attempt to entertain the troops, with footage from past shootouts and a dreary “NASCAR-oke” segment where two fans try to sing along with lyrics from some Motown songs, going way too far off key to be funny. The screens invite fans to text in their messages — minimalist missives such as “I luv you Keven Harvick” and “hi Mom” “go Smoke” play for a while then fade. In the infield they’re setting up the Budweiser stage where Dierks Bentley will perform and the driver introductions will be made.

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Sprint Cup cars, teams and drivers get ready to race.

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While all that’s going on, crews are wheeling out the cars for the Shootout, cars I know much about though have never seen – the #2 Dodge of Kurt Busch, the #18 M&M’s Toyota of brother Kyle, the #99 Afflack Ford of Carl Edwards (in alternate colors of green, not the red and white of the #99 Office Depot he more often backflipped out of last season.) All of the colors are brighter in the real, their hue more lurid, the spectra they occupy belonging to a grander archon than color. Menard’s car up at the pole position has a baby-vomit yellowish green to it. Legano’s #20 Office Depot Toyota is somehow paler and less substantial than the same car Tony Stewart drove last year. Stewart’s #14 Old Spice, driven for his new team, isn’t something I recognize, the color has yet to burn into my eye – sort of apple-ish or nipple red, I dunno. Jeff Gordon’s #24 Chevy is a more brilliant motley, and Jimmie Johnson’s #48 Lowe’s Chevy is of a blue deeper than royal, a high- atmospheric dusk-zoned blue which seems meant to soar.

Other cars work a different effect – they fade in the real. It’s hard to notice Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s #88 Chevy, its National Guard colors a blah red and white and green. Only the man who will drive offers any luminescence to the car, but what a bulb it will soon become …

Slowly the clock goes round. Hundreds of people pour out of the infield fan zone to gather by the stage. Dierks Bentley finally goes on, playing what is to me three songs of pop-country pablum, too country and too pop to be much of anything. Monte, who loves the outsider country singers and has even written a book on them, writes songs himself which would never make such as stage as this – stuff more about and for the folks who are in the trailer camp on the other side of the infield, suffering the blues of all it costs to have a heart that cares so much for this sport, despite all that is being taken away from them. I can’t tell if the band is really playing those songs anyway – it’s now in the low 50s and they’re hammering out such a smooth, hunk-a-chunk melody no able-bodied musician can crank out right away in the cold that it might as well be and probably is canned.

Maybe the fans lined up by the stage down and over from us care—kids, country music fans, chicks as devoted to their singers as they are to their drivers, oglers. Up here in the stands, the scatter of fans about us seem to be more engaged with their own conversations, either with each other or on cell phones. (Cell phones and racin’, bad bad mix to me.) Some seem to be getting drunk, at least their ebullience is getting loud and louder. Still, it’s too cold I think for genuine rowdiness—save that for the torrid summer steambath of the Pepsi – no, Coke Zero – 400 in July, when ya can get half naked and pour it to the brim in the roars of the rims …

* * *

We decide to finally settle in for the Shootout way way way up in the Weatherley Tower grandstand, a task which involves heading up about ten or fifteen stretches of steel stairs. Rick – who smokes – has to take a break about halfway up. We look out behind us onto the area just outside the entrance, where there’s another raucous fan zone, with a barbecue stand that loudly proclaims itself as the world’s biggest. It’s really a carnival here. …

We finally make up to the section and find seats in the middle of an empty row, panting somewhat. Whew. It’s a bit colder up here but the view is magnificent; we can see every part of the track, from finish all the way round to start. Bentley has finished his set and entire crews are now assembled around each of the vehicles, like clans, all wearing their colors. (The #20 crew in their orange suits look like a gaggle of rodeo clowns from here.) We face the front of pit row, where last-place-poll-lottery placer Jeff Gordon’s 24 is waiting. In front of his car is the black Jack Daniels funny 07 of no, not Clint Bowyer but now Casey Mears. Of all the switches in cars and drivers of late, I think this one is the hardest to accustom to, since that black ’07 with the Jack Daniels boilerplate had such strong visual cachet – a rebel car driven by a real Southern boy with a rebel grin, a car which slid under the finish of the ’07 Daytona 500 on its roof, sparks everywhere, way to go …

(Over dinner last night at the Outback in Ormond Beach, Monte tells me that all the cars are white, empty palates for the giant colored stickers which are excruciatingly applied over them bearing the day’s sponsors and colors and logos. I imagine a NASCAR Naked Race, all of those cars racin’ in the hue God—OK, Dodge and Chevvy and Ford and Toyota made ‘em, buncha white boys driving white cars in grand anonymity round some noctal track. Monte smirks—yeah right—then adds that the only Sprint Cup cars to be manufactured in the U.S. are the Camrys—Toyotas .. )

* * *

Much is ludicrous in NASCAR these days, homage to a business plan which is fat on good old corporate greed and a cynical view of its fan base. Apologies to my political peers to the zealous right, but NASCAR is a lot like the Republican party, serving the wealthiest interests by squeezing every penny out of the fans, and then turning around to coo how much fans are so important to it. Daytona Speedweeks has evolved into a big-ass marketing event, with tons of lard added in so more tickets can be sold. The Shootout used to be a Thursday afternoon event, and true competitors – the real All-Stars—went at it on the Great Oval. But then racin’ used to be off the media landscape as well; as soon as the big corporate money moved in, NASCAR morphed it into a premiere pre-season event, getting the big names but also rearranging the format to please the manufacturers, which meant adding some wild-card names who had seen no victory on the track yet, like rookies Scott Speed and Joey Logano.

And with the big big money going into the smallest number of teams, only three All-Stars raced on Saturday night—the oval triumvirate of Carl Edwards, Kyle Busch and Jimmie Johnson—the rest being former luminaries or accidental winners. Mears, Menard (on the pole position, fer Crissakes), Allmendinger, Labonte, Robby Gordon, who are they kidding? I guess when three drivers win most of the races, not even the also-rans form a large enough pack to make it a race.

Or so I opine. For the driver introductions they try to create some sort of Clash of the Champions mood, just shy of the sort of opening extravaganza you see at rasslin’ matches. Fireworks launch from behind the Budweiser stage and flamepots belch sulphur like the altar of the Wizard of Oz as a Name is called out and sent forth on the waves of pounding music. A little guy in a colored suit crosses the stage waving his hand, climbs down the far side and gets into a Corvette convertible and is wheeled down the frontsretch waving to all, leaping out at the entrance to pit row. Every dude in the pantheon is called out in the order of the pole – Menard and Sadler first, oh yayyy, Allmendinger, Speed. The true fidelities of the crowd are made obvious when Tony Stewart and Ryan Newman are called, even louder when Kutie Kasey is Kalled, a venerable respect for Jimmie Johnson; but Daytona’s heart belongs to Dale Junior; at least, the greatest volume of approval is reserved for him, doubling the volume over teammates Johnson and Jeff Gordon. Kyle Busch gets a fair number of boos and Carl Edwards, the one who many think will win the Cup race this year, gets the sort of applause one receives whose celebrity is sure but not really convincing.

I should mention here the silliest bit of corporate kiss-ass to the night. At the start of the opening ceremonies the Budweiser team was rolled out, six Clydesdales a-clopping and hauling an old red delivery coach packed high with cases of what I assume were Bud Tall-Boys—back my drinking days, everyone worth their testosterone would swing ‘em in rock n roll bars—with two guys in green suits and hats (looking like overgrown Munchkins) with a spotted Dalmation perched on top of all that booze, dutifully (and corporate-waggishly) wagging its bony tail.

It took at least 20 minutes for the team to make its way all around the track, which shows you how much our technology has evolved in just a century. In his new book The Age of the Unthinkable, Joshua Cooper Ramo writes,

… A letter carried on horseback 150 years ago would have moved information at the rate of about .003 bits per second (the average note carrying, say 10 kilobytes of data, though of course that measure didn’t yet exist). As late as the 1960’s, that same 10k might have moved at 300 bits per second. Today global telecom cables transmit at the rate of billions of bits per second, a 100 billion-fold increase in speed over 150 years.

Not that those Clydesdales ever worked for the Pony Express (or that you’ll see Hummers delivering mail on the rural routes, either), but the image of that plodding, old-tech commercial round the track seemed horribly incongruous to the billion-horsepower-wattage streaming through the Speed Channel’s transmitters, jockeying that same image (albeit with fast editing and commentary) to seats far away from Daytona Speedway. Blast from the past, ravenous mouth of the future: one wonders if NASCAR will grow as obsolete as that Bud wagon, replaced by virtual speeders joyriding through the moony hills and vales of the cerebral cortex.

The slow circuit of that Budweiser team also invokes the darker metaphor of the ends of horsepower in the service of booze. Endless labor indeed to supply enough for our American thirst, the law and its coefficients be damned. By the time Prohibition came about, faster, more elusive delivery vehicles were called upon; NASCAR traces its birth back to the ends of that cart, morphing from horse-drawn wagon team to garage-tweaked Fords with high horsepower winding  the moonlit mountain roads of Kentucky, ferrying moonshine around stodgy clop-clop-cop cars driven by their uncles and brothers.

I mean, who were NASCAR’s elders driving for but us, or our thirst? In Dante’s Hell, the damned must revolve forever in their sins; there were certainly folks in the crowd lost in the revolutions of bad (Bud) thirst, some getting so drunk that I doubt they remember much of the Shootout. But for most the drinking was part of the trackside license, and besides it was really too cold by then to get really wild. (No one flashed their tits that I could see—dammit—though a few guys got up and danced to their drivers, shaking their hips like apes.) As the Budweiser Team inched its way around the track, I wondered what the latter stages of the Coke Zero 400 would be come July, if it would be called Coke this year, or if Budweiser will be erased from the name of next year’s event and another brand put up there—The Heineken Autobahn or Luftwaffe 200, perhaps.

Whatever. I bet you’re wondering after all this copy – if anyone at all bothers to read this blog – when the racin’ is finally going to start. That was my sentiment exactly as the ‘Vettes slowly rolled across the frontstretch, Smoke and Shrub, Carl and Jimmie waving for the fans, all of those cars lined in twelve precise rows of two, silent, still, devoid of all life except for the color which each driver’s suit matches, lime yellow for Menard, bright orange for Logano, black for Hamlin, shit-M&M-motley for Kyle, silver for Allmendinger.  Soon – after all the hours of driving and parking, shuttling and walking, waiting and eating, hunkering down as the night breathes its chill over all – soon it the waiting will be over: each driver will screw into his car and like a bulb finally in its socket, the switch will be flipped and life will roar into Daytona again, shooting a mainline of godawful loud sound into the parched veins of we who so need to see the big night go round.

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Four

Things finally, finally, finally get underway around 9 p.m. for the race: every driver is in his car, the pits clear of jockeys and journos, pounding music stops, driver previews go blank on the big screen, the full moon spreads is silver arms wide and the crowd envelops its attention on the track – beers stilled in mid-arc to mouth, cellphones hanging limp, even the cold somehow silvering into a halcyon stillness. After all the waitin’, the racin’ is about to begin.

“Gentlemen,” a voice rumbles on the P.A. “Start …  your … ENGINES!”
And the turbo orchestra fires up, first Harvick’s No. 29 and then Kurt Busch’s No. 2, then McMurray and Stewart and Edwards in a rapid basso fart-blatting triplet, then everyone else all at once, yowling in appreciation and hunger for the 28 cars revving their thousand horses up.

And then they pull out, slowly, from pit row, keeping formation for the most part behind a white Corvette that for years will bear proud tribute to this night event as it courses the avenues and highways of our plebian commute. (A couple of weeks ago, driving on Oak Ridge Road by my mother’s house in Southern Orlando, I saw a red and white ‘Vette whose side proclaimed its status as the pace car for the ‘92 Daytona 500. Those pace cars signets of memory, proudly rolling down plebian streets, still showing the reveberance of the massed thunder which once bore down on them from behind.)

As the pack comes rounds Turn 4 in stoic lower gear behind tonight’s pace car, it’s the first time the ‘09 Sprint Cup season is on review for us here the Weatherley section, and everyone stands, hooting and applauding, calling out their driver’s name — “Go Junior!” — kick ass, “Smoke!” and “Kay-seee,”, trilled from the long longing loving dirt-road debutante choir. It’s such a thrill to see these boys who will roar through just about every weekend from now til next November, threading a continent-wide course from Ventura to Watkins Glen, Las Vegas to Charlotte, the rumpy hills of Pocono to the shimmering beaches of Daytona. And here they are, in my locale, my neck of the woods, just miles from my home, giving me my race, my tonsure of noise and smoke and oil mist and ghostly rubber traces which I’ll pick from the roots of my hair the next day.

I stand up too, shouting “JimmyBoy” without really knowing it, the name torn from my chest and hurled over the aether-blue Chevy with the huge yellow #48 painted on its roof as it drives by …

The pack goes round the 2.5 mile track a second time, then a third. Everyone’s standing, ready for the moment to come. Round Turn 4 they come and then the pace car drives left into the lane heading into pit row. There’s a momentary pause — bidden, surely, by the angels who magnify all races — just a beat of the heart in silence-: And then the cars all erupt into full howl as the green flag is waved and they all take off in tight formation, revving up through Turns 1 and 2 and becoming, down the superstretch on the other side, becoming this malevolent streak of hues, greyhounds chasing the infernal rabbit (which is a pot of gold tonight), engines almost leaping out of their holds in the hot desire to fasten canines on the soft bulbous bloody ass the prize.

The pack ferals around Turn 4 and then there’s a weird moment of wild silence, lost in billows of the draft I guess, a lush hush that is both prayerful and terrible:

And then each car yowls past in a flash, part of the general hurricane of the race, going so fast you only get a glimpse, a tiny moment to triangulate just what’s going on, who’s in the lead (pole sitters Menard and Vickers had by then already lost the lead) before the whole pack was gone, leaping ahead down the stretch and into the turn.

A general race rhythm is assumed, depending where you sit: the main moment is when the pack passes in front of you, mere seconds of balls-to-the-walls engine howling and thrill, with that long wake of watching the ass end rubber by, silencing out as you realize they’re all gone, halfway through Turn 1 already; then either watching the pack on the far straightaway dart along or catching some of that action on the big monitors; watching, in a suspense that is half prayer, half-jubilant expectation, the big final round of Turn 4 where most of the night’s accidents would happen; then that wild percipient silence, zeroed decibles ready to leap up the ear in a rising waterfall of enginned sound.

For Rick, the most memorable moment of the night was watching fans stand up and wave to their driver as they drove past at 180 mph, as if the driver would see them and wave back …

Things get messy real early, the first of eight caution flags (a record) coming out in Lap 3 after a Turn 4 bump-and-spin-and-wreck that took rookies Scott Speed and Joey Logano out of the race. I wonder now if the loss of testing in January made driving more perilous that night. Not that I really noticed it that night, except in the toll of the wrecks. To my eye, the cars kept a wonderfully tight discipline – compared to how the pack acted in the earlier ARCA race – but Monte likens driving at Daytona like “catching a bullet in your teeth”, and the infinitesimals count for everything when you’re driving three and four wide at such speeds.

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Kyle Busch, who would finish tenth in the race, later put it this way:

(Mine) was probably one of the best driving cars and it still drove terrible.They’re not built for this race track, really. The biggest thing is they are just bouncing all over the place and nobody can hold their own lane. A guy on the bottom either slides up because he’s tight or because he’s loose and it’s just so difficult to race out there, especially racing like three-wide or something like that and bump-drafting each other. The cars are tipping back and forth and all over the place. They’re very hard to handle. I mean, we look like ARCA drivers.

Looked like to them, maybe, though to me it was apparent how much better these drivers are at handling cars and conditions and tracks. I mean, racing in such tight formation so close together. Obviously the short length of the race kept the pack tight that way – there aren’t many races of such short duration – and I guess that created the conditions for all of the wrecking.
There were more than enough to sate the darker appetites of the fans. In Lap 64 Paul Menard got loose in Turn 4 and tangled with Dale Earnhardt Jr., pushing Earnhardt into the wall and also involving teammate Bobby Labonte and hapless Greg Biffle, who seemed to spend the entire night tangling and pitting and lagging behind.

That wreck happened right in front of us, the crowd shouting in dismay as Earnahardt Jr. careened into the wall, sighing with an odd sound of wild pleasure to watch Biffle broadside a spinning Labonte and then push that car half the length of  the frontstretch (I may have drivers mixed up here). A huge greenish plume of smoke – rubber, probably, lifted up and out over the wreck in benediction of Saint Junior early eviction from the race. A number of fans packed up and  left after that.

Harvick got into the wall early, knocking his left front fender off; and though they got that repaired during the 10-minute break after the first 25-lap segment, he later lost the draft after Michael Waltrip had a flat tire on Lap 42 and lagged, at times, a good half-lap  behind the pack. The mass would roar past us with all the cars angrily buzzing about for position and be gone; there’d be one or two heart beats and then there would go Harvick, chasing the pack like some kid tying to keep up with his older brother and his brother’s friends.

Up front jockeying was fierce, with 14 leaders and 23 lead changes (also race records). Every time they came around, someone else was in front — Earnhardt Jr., Edwards, Kyle Busch, Johnson, Hamlin, McMurray. There was a leader for every fan that night (unless you were a Logano or Biffle fan). While the pack was dashing across the superstretch I’d look up at the tall tower which displayed the numbers of the race order, always shifting, numerals rising up and going down.

My Jimmie sure looked good for most of the race, starting from way down in the order and quickly getting up into the top 10 and the top 5 and then fighting for the lead. Jeff Gordon in the #24 made an even more impressive leap all the way from last place to first. And the tale of last year was quite obviously showing in this race, with Edwards and Johnson and Kyle Busch all making a solid front-row-go of it, hampered mostly by the shortness of the race which kept the pack tight, as well as from all of the cautions. No getting way out in front and stay there in this race, though Jamie McMurray sure began looking that way for the latter third of the race. (He would be done in by that penultimate caution on Lap 73 when David Stremme got loose and turned the hapless Greg Biffle.) He’s gonna be a contender this year for sure. (Maybe that was my epiphanal moment for predicting the winner for this year’s Chase – long as everyone behind him doesn’t wreck.)

The one thing about following one driver (for me, Jimmie Johnson) so closely is that you miss important other things going on in the fray. Where did Harvick come from, that he would find his way so close to the front of the pack after lagging for so long and then squirting past Jamie McMurray for the win? (Oh yeah, all those cautions.) My recollections of the race are filtered through the lens of that affection; it is what I was looking for. The race was a disappointment because my man didn’t win, as Smoke didn’t win and Logano didn’t win, though surely those hearts who beat for Kevin Harvick must have jumped to see him take his first checkered flag in a year and a half.

No doubt for the motorsports journalist — guys like Monte — the view from the press box is far, far different, objectivity demanding that one be as free of the filter as humanly possible (though love of the sport must itself cause strain when looking at how things are going today). One must be tempered by watching so many races over the years. Journalists usually have more than a little cynicism about things, with a good dose of gallows humor mixed in. Monte’s favorite sportwriter was an old pro who took a buyout a couple of years ago as his newsroom downsized; the guy was the funniest person Monte had ever worked next to, scowling over and again at the faux pas and bad passes which are the bad news and good copy of every race.

Ah but your reporter here is a racing virgin, and I go at to these lavish lengths to describe this first race as I would my first sexual encounter. (I’ll save that for another post.) What a rush that final lap, the monitors showing those tiny finessing movements in the 4-wide pack as everyone looked for the gap which they could shoot through at the same time blocking the way of someone just behind: taken together the pack was a hellbent wolf-pack with jaws wide and dripping and pent and closing fast on the finish:

The sound of it was pure speed, a honey-thick roar almost as thrilling as passing a semi on a busy state road with oncoming traffic approaching fast; as terrifying as knowing you’re passing with maybe not enough asphalt to clear you;  as gratifying as that moment when you swerve back into your lane, feeling the grateful relief to live for another pass.

What can I say? Words just can’t approximate so physically present a moment in all of its magnitude. The feeling of that moment beads on a rosary of similar moments, like hearing my first rock-n-roll band at a school dance at aged 13, like bodysurfing those big waves at Melbourne Beach or hearing Eddie van Halen play “Eruption” in concert on their first tour, like taking crystal meth that first and only time when everything clarified in a heart hammering soar, like the night some woman and I screwed all the next day and night and day after meeting in a rock n roll bar:

Infinitums, those moments, all lifting up in the choir of this last screaming lap as McMurray tried to fend off comers from a 4-wide behind, as the pack rounded into Turn 4, as everything leapt and was lost when, someone’s bumper caught Hamlin’s rear and he wavered then quavered then turned, catching my boy Jimmie Johnson who was so so ready to pass McMurray but spun instead, lost in the careen and screech of the Big One while Harvick, that sneaky bastard, came from all the way back in prehistory to make a bold move and pass McMurray and race on under the checkered flag, a victor of pluck and diligence and fate and close handling. “It just seemed like I was in the wrong spot for the whole race and then at the end wound up being at right place at the right time and had a good car to go with it,” he said afterward.

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Postscript (Earnhardt in Lot Seven)

We book it right after Harvick wins the race; it’s late, we have a long ways to get back to our respective homes, and the chill has settled deep enough into our bones to rattle our teeth. Most everyone else is leaving too, except for Harvick devotees who want to catch the burnout and diehard Dierks Bentley fans who want to brave the post-race concert.

The emptying of Daytona Speedway is a wild entropy of all that singular and focused attention upon 28 drivers in whirling cars, diffusing into eighty thousand individual centers all resuming their singular self-absorbtions; we are one body of exit but eighty thousand importances, resuming the physics of my job, my love, each in search of their own damn car somewhere out there in the free parking zone of Lot Seven.

Such is the resumption of the personal, repeated eighty thousand times as fans file down the many steel-grided stairwells and walkways departing from the greatest Oval Sanctum of them all, a diarrheac exodus flooding the pipes of passage under everything. And it’s cold — all of the engendered heat of our collective oval presence, the big stadium lights and the fusion of cars whirling round and round at 180 m.p.h. is lost as we walk in mass out into the Daytona night. I’m suddenly feel a chill in my chest and then I’m shaking uncontrollably, my upper half in tremor, lost to an iciness I pray I’ll walk off soon.

We walk in silence, tired, ready to get home, enduring this vast exodus. Everyone else is too, hurrying ten-wide along the endless ramp which zigzags up three or four levels, crosses over International Speedway Drive, descends three or four zigzagging levels on the other side and then empties into the big lot where the free busses are beginning to line up. A huge queue forms there, four big masses waiting to board four busses followed in endless procession by four more. We stand there and wait, slowly moving toward the front of the line for our bus. At least my chill is gone, having walked so briskly for so long. Someone behind us jokes with his buddy about Harvick’s improbable run. Ahead of us a couple of kids, probably 7 and 9, hug close to a man who’s holding a woman’s hand, the quartet silent, sleepy. The youngest kid is wearing a No. 88 cap and looks over his shoulder at me, his face utterly spent of all racing’s rapture, and yet he smiles with the memory of something that will burn in circles forever in delight.

The evening’s best moment comes as we settle in plush rows of seats at very the back of the bus which lumbers slowly toward Lot 7. It’s completely dark on board and the windows are half-fogged as the bus makes it way into rural night. Maybe these lots are all owned by Daytona, but there’s a fast transition away from civilization into prehistory; brilliant track inverts into a vast envelope of undeveloped darkness.

Safe inside where it’s warm with human presence, our section at the back breaks into easy conversation. Four or so couples who surely don’t know each other but who share the same great Oval faith begin to recap the race.
“Good thing Dale Jr. wrecked early, or we woulda had a lot longer to wait for this damn bus,” says an old guy with a toothy smile. A convivial scowl emits from the woman sitting next to him, obviously a Dale Jr. fan. No concord in that home.

“Yeah but Edwards shoulda won,” a fat middle-aged woman sitting across from them asserts, her faith in her driver greater than anything the actual race could have suggested.

“Not a good night for my Biff,” a young guy says next to her. All heads nod in sage unison.

“I thought this one was gonna be Jeff Gordon’s for sure,” another old-timer says. “He sure hung in there the whole way.” Many heads nod to that too, whether in agreement with the observation or in corcord with the hope.
“Aw, McMurray woulda won had not there been all those cautions,” another race fan interjects, causing more heads to nod though there are more grunts of protest. I’m going to bet that if McMurray keeps up his current pace, he may win the same grudging admiration that Kyle Busch earned last season. Winners are winners, no matter who they are.

“But my Carl shoulda won,” the fat middle-aged woman says again, asserting her faith, standing by her man.

Everyone laughs, and all feel cheered by this spontaneous gathering of belief which may be the only bond we share. Banter continues along these lines, everyone with a favorite driver and an expert on racing, retirees and young ‘uns, firemen and drywall installers, waitresses and meter maids and us, the virgin attendee-pro blogger and his programmer (who is responsible for many other websites), one weary busload of racing’s blood, circulating our way home. The bus rolls slowly on, into darker and darker regions, crossing roads where state cops hold back the traffic, the night giving right of way to we who have paid good money to watch the racin’ go round again.

* * *

The night’s eeriest scene opens to us as we unload from that bus into Lot 7, a huge swath cut into rural nothing which is lit by vast light towers of lunar brightness powered by wheeled generators. It is very bright and very dark at the same time, as if there is a great battle going on between the light towers and the night which is laying down hard to extinguish them. Thousands of parked cars fan out in many rows for the entire length of the field.

What is so surprising as we step off is how cold it is, a drop of at least ten degrees from the speedway grandstands-low 40s probably, much colder than forecast. Few dressed for that sort of cold, and everyone seems to mutter “shit” as they are hit by the full nakedness of that cold. It was like stepping onto the moon.

Or weirder: like walking on the ramparts of Dunsanane in Denmark with Hamlet at the witchin’ hour, all that fell rioting going on below, way up here exposed to the night’s own revenant embrace. Or stranger and more current: like walking in the great graveyard of The Car.

We see our lot far off to the right and head that way, walking in brisk silence. Rick’s steps seem to fade next to me, and then I hear heavier steps and look over — My younger brother is walking next to me, which is odd because he died of a heart attack last April at age 44. He’s carrying his camera and seems altogether there except for his blue eyes which are foggy, like moonlight in vapor.

I ask Timm what it’s like being dead and he holds his camera up, not the big Nikon digital camera we found in his apartment in Salem, Oregon but the Canon SLR he bought with the money he got from the insurance company after nearly getting killed in a car accident at age 18 when he was working near Jackson Hole, Wyoming. He’d thumbed a ride, getting in the back of a VW bug which got rear-ended by a hellbent pickup truck driven by some drunk, the way I drove drunk, all of those years of my bad youth. Thrown from the back of that VW, Timm had head injuries which should have killed him but he survived another 26 years, deaf in one ear (ruining his first love of music and turning him to photography) and careened by spells and double-vision which seemed to keep him always in trouble, always recovering, managing to help so many people and take some great pictures, too.

I want to tell him how many people showed up for his memorial, people he had touched and helped in his long recovery from booze and the abuses of others and self-inflicted; I want to tell him how much all his photos mean to me, the recipient of his archives and laptop; I want to ask him if he misses us as much as we miss him. I ask Timm what really caused that fatal heart-attack — was it all those meds you were taking, for attention disorder and sinus ailments and blood pressure? He lifted his long arm (though our births were separated by eight years, we were physical twins) and pointed toward the mass of parked vehicles ahead where pairs and threes of racing devotees were breaking off this way and that.

When I look back he’s gone, replaced by my nephew Nick, who died at age 23 on a rain-slick night in March 2007 when the SUV he was driving spun out on the Florida Turnpike, smacking into a utility pole at full speed and killing himself and his girlfriend and best friend. A self-professed redneck, Nick loved his big red truck and racin’ about at the mudhole in the cracker wilderness outside Orlando. Such a sweet guy too. He had been driving down to Cowboys to pick up his half-sister at 1 a.m., dispatched by his real mother, the one who deserted him at age 1 and left his upbringing to the woman who became his step-mother, my sister.

This is really odd, I think. Nick walks silently, tall like me but bonier, lanky like a young guy who works construction, which he did. He’s wearing his trademark sleeveless t-shirt, bony arms (though still with flesh here) bare. I don’t know how he can do that in this cold but he always was belligerant about cowyboy style. At his funeral his buddies sat in the back wearing the same sort of attire, sleeveless shirts, black Stetson hats, wholly in defiance of the church I guess they were rebels against. Every last one of ‘em stoically wiping tears from their set eyes.

I tell Nick that his father can’t bear to sell that big red Ford truck, he keeps it parked in the back yard, washes and polishes it though no one ever drives it, keeps meaning to list it on Craigslist but something else always comes up. I tell him that my sister had gotten a memorial bench put up for him in the public cemetery in Orlando, next to a bench dedicated to the girl who died with him in the wreck and was his eternal love had he not been out driving so fast on such slickened roads that night two years ago.

I ask Nick if there are mudholes in heaven but he’s not Nick any more but has in turn been replaced by Dale Earnhardt Sr., which is really, really strange to me.

I hardly know the guy except for his legend, having missed watching any of his career, my attention pointed toward other specie of big night music — I was a rock n roll guitar player for years, aspiring to find my own great oval on the stage; and when I sobered up I became a student and writer and worker in corporations, marriage and mortgage providing both need and momentum of my life’s eventual round.

Still I well remember the guy, and his myth is so sure and permanent here at Daytona that in a way it’s not surprising that he stepped in. He’s wearing mirror sunglasses and had a baseball cap low on his brow, so there’s no way to discern in the darkness his true visage.

Like the other two ghosts who walked with me, Dale is silent, his presence enveloped in the chilly night’s absence. I ask Dale, who died on the final lap of the Daytona 500 in 2000, if he regrets not wearing the protective strapping all drivers were supposed to be wearing in that race. A breeze comes up through the trees ringing the lot, which I take for his sigh. I tell him that his son Dale won the ‘08 Shootout but wrecked in the ‘09 tonight on Lap 64, finishing the race for him though he was fine, driving a car which evolved from his own fatal wreck. This elicits from the ghost a turn of the mustache which I take for an approving smile, though he too lifts an arm and points to Rick’s dark green Isuzu Truck, now just a few paces ahead.

What? Is there a fate in that truck which will take me back to my own car, parked outside Rick’s father’s house in Orange City some twenty miles away? But when I turn to ask Dale Sr. he’s Rick, who’s rummaging in his jeans pocket for his keys, tossing a cigarette into the dirt, stepping on it and expelling every ghost in Lot 7.

Finally back in my car, heater on full, defroster slowly ebbing the tide of moisture which clings to my Toyota Matrix windshield, I begin the final leg of my long exit from Daytona Speedway. It’s going on midnight and I have another 45 minutes of driving ahead, taking 17-92 south out of Orange City down to Sanford where I’ll turn right on SR-46 and cut over through 30 miles of rural nothingness to my own little town of Mount Dora and my home. My ears are ringing somewhat, a migraine is settling in and I’m hungry, having eaten just that corn dog around 6 p.m. But the going is easy; the four-lane throughway of 17-92 is mostly empty at this hour, thank God, and every streetlight turns green as I approach it.

I try listening to a side of that Thin Lizzy tape and “Cowyboy” is the essential song here, those black-leather-chapped Dublin rock-n-rollahs making a rather silly go of it, though I sure believed it back when I was 20 years old, playing that song as well as “Jailbreak” and “Southbound” with my band Slick Richard-Slick Dick, get it?-as if cars were horses and guitars were six-shooters and volume and speed were essential modes of transit up the moony byways of libido’s black arroyos and mountains, singing

I am just a cowboy lonesome on the trail
Lord, I’m just thinking about a certain female
The nights we spent together riding on the range
Looking back it seems so strange.

A black Viper whizzes round me-he must be doing 90-and for a moment my foot flexes down on the gas pedal, itchin’ for someone to race. It is the bitchin’ witchin’ hour for street racin’, and the boys are back in town spoiling for a fight. Look at all that open highway ahead, we could really have a balls-to-the-walls, pedal-to-the-metal go of it, side by side tearing up the night, making that big night engine music … Yeah right, I think, relaxing my foot off the pedal. I’ve got 90 thousand miles on this Matrix and the goddamn thing goes into tremors when I push 75. No: this vehicle is for sober commuting, and I have a home to get to which is more important and real than anything I once imagined in this night. Let the racin’ be for younger guys here; I have venues and ovals to vent my passion on which aren’t too fatally real. I have a Church to shout my frenzies in, with its Oval-shaped chalice, brimming with faux booze …

Still, the image of those Sprint Cups cars leaping around the big track of Daytona like the Hounds of Heaven (or Hell) burns brightly in my mind. I think of Kevin Harvick in that yellow-banana suit doing burnouts, wild smokin’ ovals which only one man may savor and glut in for that race. I think of the $200 thousand dollar purse he’s just won, four hundred Franklins stuffed in ever pocket, spilling onto the stage-how much we could use just one of those bills to cover expenses this month. I think of his Sprint Cup-wife, so impossibly blonde and beautiful, with that smile, that enveloping mouth which will surely congratulate her man copulating in the womanliest fashion sometime later that night. Tonight, no man will climb higher the mountain of self-aggrandizement than Keven Harvick, and we fans both love and loathe the man for it, for reaching such a height and for taking it all to himself. Our simian psyche is a baboon riding the deeper fish still swimming at the root of our brainstem, and he is Harvick, taking all the booty home for us.

Behind Harvick stands everyone else, from McMurray who just got cheated out of that place, that burnout, that sublime head, on back to the wrecked Jimmie Johnson and Kyle Busch, back through the pack to the last one running (Menard) and all the ones who wrecked earlier, all the way back to 18 year old Joey Logano, who had hoped to be the boy wonder at this race, the racing phenom of the year. Well, he’ll have to wait. At least he isn’t in the hospital like those three guys who wrecked and caused the red flag in the ARCA race earlier on. And at least those guys are still alive. Tonight some road somewhere will claim a young man and perhaps his girlfriend or his best buddy; tonight much later a phone will ring in absolute darkenss, affrighting up from sleep some mom or dad …

I slip out Lizzy tape and put on NPR, where some Brit is reading BBC copy about Palestinians trying to survive in Gaza. The car is warm now and the miles of suburb and pasture are sleepy, black, unscrolling their way to my house where wife and cats are waiting for me. In my head I am singing “Cowboy” and racin’ full roar at Daytona, though I’m really just imagining, composing the lines I eventually wrote here. My brother in the seat next to me, sort of, enjoying the ride I am careful to include his memory in, lest I forget how easy it is to haul ass and turn right, the most fatal move of all.
No: I will live to see the day, and write these things down, and when I am done I will look ahead to the Daytona 500, and begin to dream again …

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