NASCAR and the military have embraced one another. I’m proud to say that every Soldier, Sailor, Airman or Marine in uniform that shows up at a NASCAR sanctioned event is applauded by the crowd as they make their way to their seats.
I’ve seen several people stand up and shake the hand of the men and women in uniform at the track. I was witness to one soldier ordering a hot dog and a soda at a concession stand and heard the gentleman in line behind the soldier tell the concessionaire not to accept the military member’s money because he’d be taking care of it. These days, all four branches of the service are represented on the racecars.
Trying to explain NASCAR to a girl that grew up just outside of Hartford, Connecticut, is sort of like sending a full-fledged Amazonian witch doctor to your local family practice to cure a bad case of jock itch.
Yes, it can probably be done but it’s going be painful.
One day we were in town shopping and she’s trying to remotely fathom why she needs to hurry through the last few sales she was stalking.
We’d only been dating just a little while.
“Why are we in a rush again?” she asked as she pointed her car toward the mall sidewalk sale like a maddened gunner in a main battle tank.
“Rush? We’ve been out here for hours!” I said.
“Well, there are only a few more places we need to go. Now, tell me about this ‘race thing’ you think you have to watch,” she replied.
Now, I grew up with NASCAR. I remember Richard Petty, the Allison legacy and Alan Kulwicki. I remember when Bill Elliott was a terror on super speedways and Darrell Waltrip or Rusty Wallace would most likely finish 1, 2 on a short track and people came to the race to see who’d run third.
I remember when Dale Earnhardt drove a yellow and blue car before the “Intimidator” persona came along. I watched this stuff every Sunday with my dad well before it was the multi-billion dollar industry it is today. I’m very proud of the fact America’s Air Force does a fly over before most events.
‘Race thing’ indeed.
“Well, there’s a 43-car field,” I said. “These guys travel all over the country and race stock cars at different tracks.”
“What’s so great about that?” she asked. “So, I could go out, buy a car and get on a track and …”
“No,” I said, “You’ve got it all wrong. They aren’t really stock cars, they just call them that.”
Now that really threw a wrench in her logical and well-ordered mind.
“Why do they call them that if that’s not what they are?”
“You see,” I began, “It all started in the moonshine days and these guys would …”
“They race drunk on moonshine?!”
“No, no. Listen,” I told her, using the same voice I use to tell our youngest son that despite what the cartoons show, it’s not nice to try an experiment to see if a cat does indeed always land on its feet. “That was back in the old days. Now, the cars are state of the art and are engineering marvels.”
She pondered this. Engineering was something she could wrap her mind around. They have that in Yankee schools. You take it right after Graffiti 101 and Rudeness in Public IV.
“Okay, but I still don’t get it. Don’t they drive around in circles?”
“Yes,” I said. “But, each track is different and offers a different set of challenges. There are even a few road courses they go to as well.”
“All right,” she said, giving up. “I promise we’ll be home in time to watch your little race. But, I still don’t see the appeal. You see that lady thinking she’s going to get that parking spot up ahead?”
She punched the gas, that little Pontiac Grand Am practically leaped in the air and we tore across the parking lot. She cut off the poor motorist thinking she had a parking spot secured, all while dodging an errant shopping cart, one elderly man with a cane and a gawking tourist that has probably never set foot in this country again.
“You see,” she happily said as she put her car in park and I examined the handprint I’d left in her dashboard in my moment of fear, “if all that’s involved is just going fast, it can’t be that hard. Simple physics demanded that when I pushed the accelerator further than that other lady, I’d beat her to this parking spot.”
We finally made it home and I settled in to watch the race. At last there’s peace and quiet. Nothing but me, the roar of the engines, the cool in-car camera shots, awesome instant replay and the team in the booth calling the action.
My utopia was short lived.
“What are they doing now?” asked my inquisitive better half, plopping down beside me.
“It’s called driver introductions,” I said. “This is a very fan based and family oriented sport. So, the crowd always gets to see their favorite driver before they climb in the cars.”
“Oh, that’s cool,” she concluded. “Hey, why are they booing that guy?”
“Well,” I replied, trying to figure out how to explain these complicated issues to a novice, “that’s Jeff Gordon. He always gets booed. It’s kind of an unspoken rule.”
“Well … lots of reasons and it depends on who you believe. There’s absolutely no denying his talent. It just seems there’s always someone you have to love to hate and …”
Then her jaw dropped and her eyes got as huge as 15-gallon kegs.
“Who’s that?” she said, pointing at the screen.
“That’s Tony Stewart.”
“He’s really cute,” she cooed. “Hey, does that jumpsuit he’s wearing have a home improvement store on it?”
She loves home improvement shows. The girl would watch hours of home improvement television, shows about flipping houses, home and gardens – it’s all interesting to her.
I can’t stand them.
“It’s not a jumpsuit,” I said. “It’s a fire resistant suit in case he crashes and there’s a fire.”
“So, he likes home improvement stuff and that’s why it’s all over his clothes?” she inquired.
“I daresay he does,” I answered. “They pay the bills, so he’ll like whatever they say.”
“Can I root for him?” she asked.
“Whatever you like, dearest.”
So, thus began her first NASCAR race. A few months later, she had to go out of town to a retraining school for a special duty assignment she’d just landed. She telephoned me late one afternoon.
“Hi honey,” she said from her motel room. “Did you watch the race today?”
“No,” I said. “I had to work late and missed it. I haven’t checked the internet to see the results. I haven’t even got out of uniform yet. What happened?”
When she spoke, I realized I’d better not let this one get away. She was definitely a keeper.
“Well,” she began, “With about 15 to go, everyone came in and took tires. But, Elliott had been running really strong all day, especially in clean air. So, he came in and got two and everyone else got four and he beat them off pit road. Everyone was worried he might spin the tires on the restart but …”
And she recapped the conclusion for me. I was in heaven.
Of course, when she says things like tires, which she pronounces “tie-ears” and everyone else knows that in NASCAR it’s properly called “tars”, but she was also spewing vocabulary words like “jack-man,” “crew chief”, “caution laps” and “those damned restrictor plates.”
I taught her that last one.
From then on, every weekend, assuming one of us isn’t in the desert somewhere, we sit together on our couch, she’s decked out in the many layers of orange #20 finery I have bought her and we have an absolute ball. I grill outside and she keeps me updated with a lap-by-lap commentary that would make Dr. Jerry Punch and Bob Jenkins proud.
I proposed a few months later.