A Day at The Races

If you like racing, wrecks, parties, beer and noise, the NASCAR track in Dover is the place to be.


July 14, 2002|By Allison Klein | By Allison Klein,Sun Staff

I had never been to a NASCAR race, but I had heard stories. I knew the reputation that NASCAR is a three-day beer fest interrupted by car races so loud you can hear them 10 miles away, and so dangerous you can almost feel the Grim Reaper in the grandstands.

To me, the idea of it seemed kind of like watching the fat lady walk across a tightrope at the circus: You admire her agility, but part of you wonders why the heck she would want to do that.

I mean, NASCAR comes down to 43 guys speeding around a track at 180 mph, all wearing fire-retardant suits and trying to edge each other out. That can't be good for their life expectancy.

As for the fans, watching this spectacle up close for four hours at a stretch in the blistering heat, with plugs shoved in their ears and vibrations shooting through their bodies, can't be good for their blood pressure.

The NASCAR experience is not likely to get the surgeon general's endorsement as a healthy pastime for drivers or fans.

NASCAR endorsements are for companies like Busch, Winston, Viagra and others that promote testosterone and the male ego. It's a formula that works. NASCAR races attract more live spectators than any other individual American sporting event. Dover International Speedway, where I was headed for my first race, holds 140,000 fans -- almost twice the crowd of the Ravens' stadium.

When I heard about the MBNA 400 Winston Cup Series race at Dover -- the closest NASCAR track to Baltimore -- I decided it was time to find out what the race scene is all about. My friend Liz, another NASCAR novice, agreed to go with me.

Car racing is big in Europe and South America, but NASCAR is a different animal. NASCAR has taken a collection of boys and their expensive toys and turned it into a multibillion-dollar industry that commands the reverence of working-class America. Where else but a NASCAR race could you find a guy sitting in $80 seats with his 9-year-old daughter who is wearing a hat that proudly advertises Viagra?

Clearly, there was more than beer, cigarettes and car crashes that brought 140,000 people in one weekend to Dover, population 35,000.

The state capital is mostly known for its tax-free shopping, Air Force base and surrounding Amish villages. But twice a year -- June and September -- the city's landscape is turned upside down when NASCAR comes to town.

"Racetracks are strange commodities," concedes John Dun-lap, a spokesman for the speedway. "NASCAR is truly a cultural event. It's a three-day carnival in America, and it attracts people who are salt of the earth."

NASCAR's appeal

At 6 a.m. on a Sunday in May, Liz and I packed her car and headed to the Dover speedway, also known as the Monster Mile because it measures one mile around. It was seven hours until race time.

I had a quote attributed to Ernest Hemingway firmly planted in my mind during the drive: "Motor racing, mountain climbing and bull fighting are the only true sports. All the rest are children's games played by adults."

The races better be good, I thought, or I'm going to give away my copy of The Sun Also Rises.

Liz and I approached the Bay Bridge about 7 a.m., bleary-eyed and yawning. The toll taker gave us a boisterous "Hello!" and asked, "Y'all going to the races?"

"How did you know?" I asked.

"Everybody coming through here today is going to the races," she told us.

After fighting traffic, we arrived in Dover at 8:30 a.m., a time most folks are tucked away in bed or just sipping their first cup of coffee -- unless they're at NASCAR.

Dover at 8:30 a.m. reminded me of the midafternoon infield at the Preakness. Liz and I had entered a mob of hootin', hollerin', beer-drinkin' cigarette-smokin' good ol' boys and girls from all over the region.

The first thing I saw when I got out of the car was a Confederate flag, a U.S. flag and a man holding a beer and wearing a shirt that read: "I'm not drunk, I'm just a race fan."

We had four hours to kill until the big race. We found an Applebee's restaurant because we heard they were serving breakfast, but we may have been the only ones ordering pancakes.

The bar was packed with sun-baked fans drinking beer and wearing T-shirts decorated with cars that looked like they were about to come to life and zoom off their chests.

Lots of the partiers had been here watching preliminary races for three days, which is customary at NASCAR events. There are dozens of NASCAR tracks across the country, many of which have been built or expanded in the past few years. In our area, besides Dover, there are tracks in Richmond and Martinsville, Va., and Long Pond, Pa.

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