Checkers and Wreckers at the Daytona 500

NASCAR’s last-ditch bid to outpace its troubled past

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The first thing you notice is the size of it. Nothing can prepare you for the enormousness of Daytona International Speedway as it drifts into view on the final approach down the eight-lane drag off Interstate 95, reaching dramatically upward from the flat landscape of slash pines and chain restaurants into the endless Florida blue. And yet somehow that initial flicker of awe is redoubled when you turn onto the sprawling property and disappear into the dark subterranean tube beneath turn four and resurface within the two-and-a-half-mile tri-oval enclosed along the frontstretch by panoramic grandstands dotted with multicolored seats that seem to glimmer in the sun. Seeing it on television doesn’t do it justice.

The National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing sanctions more than fifteen hundred races at over one hundred tracks across the United States every year, a sprawling hierarchical system of high-octane competition staged everywhere from glimmering superspeedways constructed in the shadows of major cities to modest dirt tracks with bleacher seating in far-flung rural outposts, a collective testament to our national love affair with the automobile. The biggest of these races will take place here, tomorrow, with the running of the Daytona 500: the most American event of all.

The sport’s appeal to a largely white, conservative, working-class fan base is deeply rooted in these formative ideals—individualism, independence and a suspicion of authority—values commonly associated with right-wing politics.

From the rooftop you can see the Atlantic Ocean on the horizon as the salt-kissed breeze flirts with the faint burn of melted tires and exhaust from race cars running practice laps four stories below, hurtled forward by screaming 750-horsepower engines and hugging the precipitously high banked turns at speeds approaching 200 miles per hour. Yet the pulse of this motorsports cathedral flows not from the grandstand but the 180-acre infield packed thick with motorhomes and converted school buses and tricked-out luxury trailers parked at every angle. Some arrived as early as nine days ago, when the gates first opened to those preferring to camp throughout the week-and-a-half of open practices, qualifying, and smaller races involving a variety of NASCAR’s developmental and minor-league circuits. The majority flowed in yesterday ahead of the big weekend. By now it’s ballooned into a rollicking boomtown of more than a hundred thousand fans grilling food, sucking down canned beer, and blasting Hank Williams Jr., George Strait, and Blake Shelton at ear-splitting volumes beneath a forest of purpose-built fiberglass poles flying standards in descending order of allegiance. The most common, in any given order: American, Confederate, Donald Trump and #3—the car number that belonged to Dale Earnhardt Sr., the seven-time series champion whose cult of personality still looms large nearly two decades after his fatal wreck here.

NASCAR is unique among professional sports, which almost uniformly adhere to chronological narrative frameworks that build toward a climax, in that it opens its season with its signature event—like if Major League Baseball staged the World Series in March and worked its way back to opening day. It’s a curious anomaly that lends an added sense of anticipation to a party without any cultural analogue—Mardi Gras meets Bonnaroo, maybe—and one that, at least from the ground, would seem to contradict the headlines in the big-city papers casting NASCAR as a fading, outmoded enterprise whose place among the elite American sports is in peril. The headlines aren’t entirely wrong: this year’s Daytona 500 will be the least-watched since the race’s first broadcast, the latest distressing plot point of a trendline that’s seen the bleeding of five million viewers over the last thirteen seasons. Yet a weekend lost in these bustling campgrounds crowded with tents, TVs and motorcoaches tells a different story, even as NASCAR, like the America it embodies, grapples with an uncertain future.

Wreckx-n-Effect

It’s after 10 p.m. on Saturday night in a campground near turn two, known as Cowboy Corner, a vicinity populated by regulars who have pitched camp here year after year. Campers grill steaks and burgers and drink beer around bonfires as a DJ blasts a barrage of country on a pro-grade sound system. Six wheelbarrows are lined up side by side at the end of a patch of asphalt. The rules, I’m told, are simple. The runners push their partners around one of two traffic cones on the other side and back to where they started. First one home wins. The organizer-cum-hype-man, a guy in his early sixties with a megaphone dangling from his neck, walks along the start line splashing cheap whiskey down the throats of the riders before sending them off with a checkered flag, the riders gripping the sides of their vessels with white-knuckle intensity as the pushers dash forward. Some teams break good from the gate and make it around the cone and back unimpeded. Sometimes the barrels tip over, spilling their precious cargo to the asphalt to the delight of a crowd that slowly doubles and triples in size. It is, in every sense, a shitshow.

The wheelbarrow races, which I’m told have been happening for more than a decade and a half, are one of the countless informal traditions held sacred by the various clusters of race fans who transform the infield into a non-stop party throughout the build-up to Sunday’s main event. Golf carts and scooters whizz along the ponderous arteries connecting the various campgrounds, which range from family-friendly to well-lubricated debauchery. Children roaming free tossing footballs. Adults playing cornhole and life-size Jenga with four-by-four lumber. Dogs seemingly everywhere at what’s surely the pet-friendliest major sporting event.

The revelry kicks off early in the morning, pushing throughout the day and well past midnight. Spectators, often with elaborate bars and scaffolding constructed into their campsites, watch intently from fold-out chairs atop their trailers as the cars howl around the track. Fishermen post up along the boardwalk on Lake Lloyd, a twenty-nine-acre freshwater expanse along the backstretch, angling for bass and the odd catfish with an unobstructed view between the second and third turns. The standard attire, for those who choose to wear shirts, are the impossibly garish hats and graphic tees plastered with the name and number of a favorite driver. Present-day stars like Jimmie Johnson or Kyle Busch or Denny Hamlin or Joey Logano or Chase Elliott are among the most popular this year, but items adorned with the image of Dale Earnhardt Sr.—FOREVER THE MAN, THE MAN IN BLACK, THERE WILL NEVER BE ANOTHER—are as ubiquitous as anyone on the circuit today.

The option of camping in the same spot February after February helps establish informal colonies like Cowboy Corner, where racegoers repeatedly describe their neighbors as family even if they only see each other this one week out of the year. It also gives longtime fans a sense of familiarity and communion with their favored patch. One old-timer watching Saturday’s Xfinity Series race from a lawn chair behind the chain-link fence at turn four tells me, with a curious mix of lament and pride, that he saw the crash that took Senior from this very spot.

It’s a fact that some fans do watch NASCAR for the wrecks—a latent bloodlust common with those who attend hockey games for the fights or boxing matches with the implicit knowledge that a prize-ring is the lone venue in society where a person can be killed but not legally murdered. But for many more the mere threat of danger is as frightening and titillating as the spark-flying spectacle itself: the life-and-death stakes inherent to two- and three-wide racing around 31-degree banked corners.

When Senior wrecked on the final turn of the final lap in 2001, the tragedy shook the sport to its foundation and prompted a rigorous recommitment to driver safety. Sterling Marlin, one of the last drivers to make contact with the #3 Goodwrench car before it slid off course and into the barrier at an estimated speed of 160 miles per hour, received hate mail and death threats that didn’t cease until a public statement of absolution by Earnhardt’s son, Dale Jr., who had finished second in the race and, perhaps unsurprisingly, inherited his father’s place as the most popular driver on the circuit—a younger, hipper and more widely marketable version—until his abrupt retirement in 2017.

Ride around Shinin’

Indeed, NASCAR is a family sport built on generations coming to the racetrack, passed down from parents to their children and their children’s children. These intergenerational ties are reflected in the drivers themselves: the sport’s history is littered with father-son pairings whose surnames—Allison, Earnhardt, Blaney, Elliott, Burton—have connotations that register deeply with the fervent congregation.

Above all is a palpable irreverence and rebel spirit that draws from the sport’s colorful origins in the illicit trafficking of bootlegged alcohol in defiance of federal taxes, one of the few ways to make a living in the country’s poorest regions. The tradition stretches back to the 1700s, when the farmers and immigrants of Appalachia distilled homemade spirits under cover of night to conceal the telltale smoke from the stills—hence the name “moonshine”—to avoid the authorities. The business of “runnin’ shine” accelerated quite literally during Prohibition as bootleggers used customized vehicles to transport their product. The cars needed to appear “stock” on the outside to avoid the detection of police and federal tax agents known as revenuers, but were heavily modified for their illicit purpose: the removal of seats to increase cargo capacity, a heavy-duty suspension to safeguard the jars and counter the telltale rear-wheel sag of a two-hundred-gallon load—and, of course, a souped-up engine fast enough to outrun the cops in a pinch.

Even the hidebound International Olympic Committee has made transparent plays for the younger demographic, most recently with the addition of skateboarding, surfing and three-on-three basketball to next year’s Summer Olympics in Tokyo.

After the constitutional ban on alcohol was repealed, out-of-work runners took up racing one another for pride and money on strips across the American South, including the beaches of Daytona on which driving remains legal even today. The growing popularity around the contests inspired Big Bill France, to gather thirty-five drivers, car owners, and mechanics in the Ebony Bar above Daytona Beach’s Streamline Hotel to establish a set of standardized rules in 1947. NASCAR was born and ownership remains in the France family to this day.

The sport’s appeal to a largely white, conservative, working-class fan base is deeply rooted in these formative ideals—individualism, independence, and a suspicion of authority—values commonly associated with right-wing politics. Unlike other major American professional sports whose teams are almost exclusively based in big cities, the NASCAR circuit brought the circus to rural burgs—North Wilkesboro and Talladega and Martinsville—names that practically ring onomatopoeic for Southern. There’s the commonality of experience—nearly everyone knows how to drive a car even if they can’t throw a perfect spiral or hit a hanging curve—is another draw. And it must be noted that NASCAR’s competitors are almost entirely white and male at a time when most of the major sports are dominated by athletes who are African American.

Slow Death of a Monoculture

A long-established regional phenomenon, NASCAR became America’s fastest growing sport during the 1990s as attendance soared by 97 percent—from 3.3 million to 6.5 million. Tracks couldn’t build new seats fast enough to capitalize on the demand. But the bubble burst in the mid-2000s and attendance, viewership, and sponsorship have been steadily falling since. Daytona addressed these trends over the past few years with a $400 million renovation plan to help revive fan interest, which included, in perhaps the most naked acknowledgement of decline, a reduction of the grandstand seating capacity from 147,000 to the present-day 101,500. Among the biggest alarms: a 2017 report in Sports Business Journal that found the age of NASCAR’s average fan climbed nine years over the past decade.

NASCAR is hardly the only professional sport to undergo handwringing over attracting younger fans as the older core ages out. The death of monoculture at large and explosion of entertainment options, many accessible without leaving one’s bedroom, have led to attendance drops in Major League Baseball and the National Football League. Even the hidebound International Olympic Committee has made transparent plays for the younger demographic, most recently with the addition of skateboarding, surfing, and three-on-three basketball to next year’s Summer Olympics in Tokyo. And this is to say nothing of eSports, whose impending debut as a medal sport at the 2022 Asian Games augurs Olympics inclusion down the road.

Yet the factors underpinning NASCAR’s decline are more complicated, coming at a time when the appetite for car culture in America has never been lower. Manufacturers still dominate the commercial space, but not the imagination of today’s youth. Independence for a kid these days doesn’t necessarily arrive with a car. We have Uber now. And pretty soon those will be driven by robots, a fact that diminishes what it means to be a skilled driver.

NASCAR’s response has been an emphasis on reaching out to untapped demographics. That’s included the establishment of a diversity initiative to attract minority and female drivers and crew members to the sport. Alumni of the Drive for Diversity program include the Mexican-born driver Daniel Suárez and Darrell “Bubba” Wallace, a biracial driver of African American heritage. Others include Brehanna Daniels, a former college basketball player who will go over the wall on Sunday as the first black female tire changer in a NASCAR national series.

Yet these efforts, while admirable, lay bare the uneasy push-pull underlying the sport’s overture to minority customers: can the black and Hispanic fans that NASCAR desires feel welcome in an infield festooned with symbols like Confederate flags and MAGA banners that create an unwelcome environment? NASCAR president Steve Phelps expounded on the thorny issue when posed the question on the morning of the big race. “The Confederate flag thing bothers me personally,” he said. “It’s not what we want to be, but it’s not an easy situation. Telling someone you can’t come to this facility and display the Confederate flag is something we’ve tried. And we’ve found that when we’ve tried, we actually see more of them.”

Parade’s End

A few years ago I spent a day with the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus ahead of the final performance in its 146-year history, the shuttering of an American institution older than Coca-Cola and the Kentucky Derby. The owners had attributed the decision to the crowded marketplace of entertainment alternatives for children’s eyeballs, the cultural shift in public tastes, and a dramatic drop in ticket sales after finally bowing to pressure from animal rights activists and retiring the last of its forty performing elephants the year before.

My escort for the day, a kindly public-relations lady in her early sixties named Ruth who had first started with the company as a clown more than four decades earlier, spoke wistfully when I asked her what had changed. The circus, she said, was one of the few opportunities for Americans outside the great metropolises to witness big-ticket entertainment: “Particularly at that time, Broadway shows didn’t travel to San Antonio or Florida or Houston. This was the closest you could get to Broadway or Vegas.”

My mind drifts to Ruth while perched on the rooftop of the track on a gorgeous Sunday afternoon in the chest-tightening moments before the start of the sixty-first annual Daytona 500: the driver introductions, the invocation by a local retired pastor, the national anthem punctuated by the ear-splitting flyover of a half-dozen F-16 Fighting Falcons, the long-awaited command—“Drivers, start your engines!”—followed by the orderly procession of forty cars bunched two by two taking pace laps. I look out at the color-coordinated pit crews and car crews and uniformed medical staff and corporate sponsors in posh suites and hordes of race fans leaning forward in rapt anticipation with camera phones trained: this one-of-a-kind itinerant family and town without a zip code.

As the green flag goes down and the pace truck veers off and the drivers hit the gas and the engines burst to life like a swarm of hornets and push the speeding convoy down the track into the high bank of turn one, it’s clear NASCAR is not dead yet. Far from it. But as the America it so irrevocably embodies continues to wrestle with the past that formed it, and the unpredictable future ahead, how long can the circus keep pace?

Bryan Armen Graham is the deputy sports editor of the Guardian US.

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