Look out, NASCAR: Mighty Bristol has just struck out


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The sight of empty seats at Sunday’s Food City 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway was a stunning affirmation of deep fissures cracking wide open in NASCAR. Remember all that red in the stands? Those were empty seats, which are painted red.

NASCAR’s official attendance estimate was 138,000–20,000 short of a sellout. The actual count was probably closer to 125,000. Bristol Motor Speedway had no comment on their  website, but the news certainly spread through the racin’ community like a late ill winter wind.  Bristol had sold out for 54 consecutive Sprint Cup races: The toughest ticket to buy in the circuit apparently could be had for a song on Sunday.

There are surely reasons. Racing at Bristol isn’t the same since it was repaved from a one-groove, temper-heating track to something which allowed for effortless, scratchless lead changes. Spring races on the circuit are cold; not much skin for the fans to revel in. The weather is fickle–rain showers were forecast for Sunday, more of a misery which has been especially dense and dreary along the East Coast this winter.  And Jimmie Johnson, the same old champ, is on a tear this year, winning at Bristol with an effortless pass at the end.

If you didn’t make it to the end of my last post – and who could blame you for that, since there were about nine thousand words in front of it? – I considered the possible implications of empty seats at Bristol:

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If Bristol Motor Speedway is NASCAR’s temple at the center of racing, how then shall we deal with its cracks, the leakage of faith’s substance – part holy water, part whiskey—creeping from its foundations?

There have been a record 54 consecutive sellouts of the two Sprint Cup races at Bristol  Motor Speedway. No. 55 may be the race where that record is broken. Fifteen months into the current recession, many people are out of work, and many tickets remain unsold for the Food City 500. Actually, the biggest factor in the possible un-sellout is that many corporations have opted not to renew their blocks of seats. Where previous marketing attempts have reached into 50 states and 12 countries, officials are now considering tightening their sales to a 5-hour radius. A large red sign outside the grandstands features the slogan “Do It Again in 2010.”

Can the Bristol miracle continue, with single-day tickets starting at $93? With unemployment in Tennessee around 10.5 percent and personal income growth lagging behind the rest of the country for the past decade, will they come? With 7 out of 10 eliminated jobs making a direct hit on NASCAR’s blue-collar base? As the political mood continues to sour, with the far right of the Republican party surging in popularity—contentious, bellicose, contemptuous of moderate and liberal voices whose economic and social policies are more in the interests of the working poor than the Palins and Hannitys who wave their bright flags of patriotism and morality high over the mill owners and bankers who cut their paychecks? What faith will be shouting over the sound of the engines – “Go Dale!” or “Burn in Hell, Yankee Democrats!”?

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Give them socialist, health-care-lovin’ Democrats hell, Sarah!

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The spiritual center of racing holds only because it transcends its rough geometry, its location, its cars, its sponsors, even the weather. Mercea Eliade writes in The Myth of the Eternal Return,

The center, then, is pre-eminently the zone of the sacred, the zone of absolute reality. Similarly, all other symbols of absolute reality (trees of life and immortality, Fountain of Youth, etc.) are also situated at a center. The road leading to the center is a ‘difficult road’ (durohana), and this is verified at every level of reality: difficult convolutions of a temple (as at Borobudur);  pilgrimage to sacred places (Mecca, Hardwar, Jerusalem); danger-ridden voyages of the heroic expeditions in search of the Golden Fleece, the Golden Apples, the Herb of Life; wanderings in labyrinths; difficulties of the seeker for the road to the self, to the ‘center’ of his being, and so on. The road is arduous, fraught with perils, because it is, in fact, a rite of the passage from the profane to the sacred, from the ephemeral and illusory to reality and eternity, from death to life, from man to the divinity. Attaining the center is equivalent to a consecration, an initiation; yesterday’s profane and illusory existence gives place to a new, to a life that is real, enduring, and effective. (18)

If a “real, enduring and effective” faith in NASCAR remains, BMS will sell out for Sunday. Dale Earnhardt Jr. will win. Osama Bin Laden will  be taken out that morning by a drone craft in Pakistan. Global warming will freeze in its tracks and glacial ice will cover the North Pole.  Food will become affordable and gas will miraculously fall to fifty cents a gallon.  Or all of that will seem to happen, to feel true in the magic whirl of the cars blent with the solid, sold-out voice of the ampitheatre. The day will be warm and the beer will be cold. God will be happy with all of His children and the drive home will be nursed with the sweet music of old country singers on radios all tuned to the same station, crooning,

I love you Pretty Saro I love you I know

I love you Pretty Saro wherever I go

On the banks of the ocean or the mountains sad brow

I loved you then dearly and I still love you now

Babies will be conceived that night and lovers sleep deep in the womb of sweet emotion, drifting all night together on an ocean so blue and pure that they awake happy and restored as they drive off to the same shit jobs or to no job at all.

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But If faith is NASCAR is truly lost, BMS won’t sell out and Miami will probably flood, taking care of all those gays who want to marry and adopt children. Prostitutes and  crystal meth-vending motorcycle gangs will fall on their knees at the altar of the Higher Ground Baptist Church and convert to Republicanism. Every alcoholic beverage in Sullivan County will evaporate from stills and gallon jugs and sixpacks and highball glasses in a single rapturous sigh. The devil will pack up his belongings into a 427 hemi Chevelle and roar off down the road of trials, taking us with him as we lose all sense of a fading thunder. We’ll go back to our dead-end jobs and never look forward to the rebel yell of every Friday night, no longer bound to any ritual defiance of the iron rule of authority.

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The stands at BMS won’t be empty – far from it, they will almost be full – but almost full at BMS is like Casey at the bat, swishing three big K’s in the empty air. If mighty BMS strikes out on the 55th at-bat, then the ghosts which race their chariots around Bristol’s 36-degree track after midnight will fade back underground or fled for the hills of Appalachia back to the Cliffs of Moher and from there under the sleepy green swards of Munster, never to be seen again. Crew chiefs will forget the arts of Smokey Yunick and Merlin and diligently play by the rules and Jimmie Johnson will go on to win 12 more championships for the Hendrick Motorsports monopoly. No one will challenge him on the once-feared banked turns of Bristol and no one will raise a single middle finger toward him. The false gods will have won, once again, perhaps now forever, the unfillable seats here and there around the amphitheatre become exits off this road to glory we once thought we were on, sending us packing on that old trail of tears to nowhere, a wanderer’s highway which only exits to gloomy trailer camps and makeshift beds in refrigerator cartons underneath the railway passes where the passed-over finish their miserable lives on earth, dispossessed and forgotten, rattled all night by the cold and the inexonerable passing of trains overhead carrying passengers and freight to the cities and a happiness too far, far away.

From every empty seat at Bristol comes a song by a later Jimmie Rogers, “Child of Clay,” released on “The Windmills of Your Mind” in 1967:

Once he was a child, a beautiful child

A child of clay shaped and molded

Into what he is today

But who is to blame for this child of clay

Going out into the street at night

The answers he may meet hm hm

With sick and twisted minds

He shares the searching questions

His heart bears hm hm

and from the dregs

The answers find their way into his supple mind

In time the planted seeds will grow

Into a twisted vine below

No, no, no, no, no, no, no,

No, no, no, no, no, no, no.

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And now his aimless days begin

To drift into sordid sin hm, hm

And soon his dislike turns to hate

As the stamp of life seals his fate hm, hm

and so the night conceals his name

And the days sleep off his shame

Deprived of love and wrought by fear

A feeling that the end is near

No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no,

No, no, no, no, no, no, no.

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If the soul of racin’ is at Bristol this weekend, then NASCAR will either deliver the goods between the start and finish lines, or die for our sins somewhere in-between. It all depends on whether the last seat at Bristol Motor Speedway is occupied with some shirtless good ole boy with an ample-beer belly standing amid a rubble of empties to salute the memory of Dale Earnhardt or Michael Waltrip or David Pearson or Fireball Roberts; or instead of being residence for that durable fan, the seat is simply yet essentially empty. And depending on which outcome, the soul of racin’ will either save us or conspire with our latter-day destruction.

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So, the coin falls down tail side up, fate’s fatass shooting her doughy dimpled buttocks straight at us. For the first time in 55 races—that’s 27 years straight, folks—BMS not only didn’t sell out, but the attendance was like a Fontana race. Of all the story lines in NASCAR this year – the entrance of Danica into stock car racing, the inflated feuds between Edwards and Keselowski and Montoya and McMurray, the green-white-checkered flag rule  change, the switch from wings to spoilers, Jimmie Johnson’s increasing dominance – there is none as Bristol Motor Speedway’s failure to sell out despite the best marketing efforts, the most fan-friendly, social-networking-conscious operations. Empty seats at Bristol during a Sprint Cup race is a form of doom, an emptiness which casts a long, dark shadow over everything else. If Bristol can’t sell out, then NASCAR can’t sell itself enough to stem the ebbing tide of fans from the sport.

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Expect management shakeups. Heads will roll down the International Speedway Avenue in Daytona like bowling balls amid indifferent traffic.

Expect the marketing to become more callous and raw. Expect the heft of tits and odor of booze. Expect freebie lap dances and Jello shots and Coyote girls dancing on the bar of a stained taste.

Expect the No. 48 team to come under fiercest scrutiny, with NASCAR looking for anything they can penalize Johnson and Knaus with – pit-row speeding penalties, inspection violations, debris cautions thrown to throw the Lowe’s Chevrolet down. Expect Happy Harvick and Matt Kenseth to find favor in all the opposite ways, anything to deliver another driver into Victory Lane, a bunch of drivers, satisfying the long-starved appetites of fans who need another champion so badly they will find one in some other sport if Jimmie Johnson continues on his roll. And above all else, Dale Earnhardt Jr. must begin winning. Somehow. By any means possible, NASCAR must tilt the track in the favor of fandom’s favorite son.

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Expect the rules to lift a hooker’s faux-schoolgirl skirt to reveal a wide-open beaver of raw racin’, “Let the boys race” become “Git er done,” speedways become Roman arenas of blood sport where gladiators in their sword-wheeled chariots saw each other to pieces to the cheers of fans who only pay for hardcore. Forget green-flag lead changes: drivers will turn each other like flapjacks into the wall to get the lead. Dueling leaders will pull Saturday Night Specials from under the seat and start firing away at each other. Pit road will become a mosh pit where crews will forego fistfights and take up tire irons and swingin’ chains to settle scores.

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Git er’ done.

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Expect more speed, more crashes, a saltier attitude toward safety.  Expect a death. Nothing like a track sacrifice to deify racin’ once again. I mean, hell, its been a decade since Saint Dale hit the wall and kept going, all the way to the Great Oval in the Sky.

Expect family-oriented sponsors to flee. Gone the Cheerios and Snickers and Old Spice. New sponsors from the Creepo Depot will appeal to rougher tastes: Vivid Video and KY Jelly, Colt AR-15 Assault Rifles and Powerball, online poker and Victoria’s Secret and Oxycontin, Melt-Your-Grandma’s-Gold-Teeth-For-Big-Bucks. Sponsors for the new economy – not digital nor green but the shadow one, making money off the attempt to flee and medicate and defraud one’s way, if not to happiness, at least an unaffected oblivion.

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The Sprint Cup and its Ladies …

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… will give way to The Double D Cup, with trophies you can hang your hat on.

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Expect seat giveaways and free beer. Expect infield campground shenanigans to become sheer Satyricons, oozing a rich molasses of license and  sin, bands playing all night long with topless dancers shimmying along onstage, shakin’ their party stuff like a pack of Polaroid pic-tures.

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And up in the highest skybox, NASCAR officials will applaud, counting the empty seats on one hand. How else you gonna save NASCAR except to take the lowest road, the one that goes by the tracks, the river, crossing through the bad side of town?  Not that NASCAR ever had a high road to run, just a route that was rich with sponsorship money and corporate ownership and all the emptiness which results from heading down that path too far.

Because if Bristol can’t sell out, then NASCAR goes to war, throwing up every sandbag of nastiness to keep the fans from flooding out.

Thirty five thousand red flags flying at Bristol should be signal enough.

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One response to “Look out, NASCAR: Mighty Bristol has just struck out

  1. My crowd estimate was 115,000, and I’ve since received some inside information that tells me it was pretty close to accurate. Also … I just finished writing a blog on the same subject. Guess we think together.

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