Friday, December 21, 2007

2007 Ten Favorite Photos

Trinity Rail Express, January: I took my son E. out for a day of riding the Trinity and DART commuter trains in the Metroplex; it was largely rainy and grey all day, but the sun came out for sunset. . .it was wild watching the "Texas Fireball" pass behind a Fort Worth skyscraper before re-emerging for one last blast of glint light. It reminded me I hadn't taken a pure glint shot in a couple of years. . .

The end of the year is traditionally set aside for reflection upon the previous 12 months; it's fitting to take an inventory of the year photographically, through 10 favorite images from 2007. I was tempted to include a couple of the kids, but instead tried to keep the choices non-family in nature. Not surprisingly, my favorite photographs were largely of a "non-traditional" nature, with reference to the "normal" type of railroad photography practiced in the United States. Some might derisively refer to such images as "artsy-fartsy," but to me efforts such as these stretch my own creativity, and I've learned from each one of them.

Click on the photo for a full-sized image.

Where The West Begins: During a late-night photo session in Saginaw, this view of massed U-Haul trailers presented itself. It reminded me of Conestoga wagons rounded up for the evening under a prairie moon. Well, sorta. We're a mobile society, and for many of us, these U-Hauls are the modern equivalent of a sideboard wagon. Round em up, move 'em out. Yeee-haw.'

Rock Island Drive, Irving, Texas: Next three images were for a book project edited by Brian Solomon--a "day in the west" type thing occurring on May 10, the anniversary of the driving of the Golden Spike. Rather than go for the traditional railfan photography, I decided to cover the mass transit operations in the area, and shot Trinity Rail, the McKinney Avenue trolley line in Dallas, and the DART light rail. Here's how my day began: pacing an empty TRE train into Irving on the old Rock Island, headed for its first stop of the day. No expectations that anything would be sharp in this photo. . .it actually turned out as I envisioned it would.

Fort Worth's Urban Tunnel: And here's how May 10 ended: A light streak of the last train of the day passing trough the old Tindal Storage Building in Fort Worth. This will soon be condos; fittingly, it was TRE's creation that helped fuel a gentrification of downtown Fort Worth's warehouse district.

Off to the Salt Mines: On board TRE, May 10: I used my best street photographer technique; digital SLR's are a bit quieter than their film counterpart, but not as silent as a Leica rangefinder. No matter, I held the camera at my waist and snuck a few shots of commuters resigned to their workaday fate.

SP 1744 at Alamosa, Colorado, July: On a family vacation to Colorado, we rolled into Alamosa late in the afternoon as the sun dropped below the rainclouds. I wasn't expecting to find the San Luis & Rio Grande's 4-6-0 switching its train after returning from Antonito. It was like turning back the clock to, say, Tracy, California, 1953. . .

Rain shower on the Transcon: Later that week, driving from Santa Fe to Amarillo, we jogged south to parallel the BNSF's former Santa Fe mainline. Amazing number of trains. Miss one? No problem, more coming. Got three trains in 20 minutes here to provide variations on a them. This is the best of bunch.

Up Before Dawn: Often, my favorite shots from a rail trip won't be of the trains. In September, Joe Brice and I were driving to Oklahoma before dawn to meet up with UP's 844 steam engine. In the town of Bowie, Texas, we passed this scene where workers at a machine shop gathered before starting their day. A quick u-turn, roll down the window, jack the ISO on the digital camera to 1600, and the scene was recorded. I really like that small-down, early-morning feel. You can almost smell the pot of coffee.

Oklahoma Centennial Express: While the horde of caravaners following UP 844 that day opted for the 3/4 wedgies along the mostly-straight Duncan Subdivision, we stumbled onto a perfectly placed windmill near the tracks north of Ringgold, Texas. Just got a new ultra-wide Tokina zoom, and was amazed how sharp a lens it turned out to be.

Close to Home: To end this set, a cool "sky shot." Had a great two-hours of photography one day this summer, diverted en route to the Saginaw post office and stumbling in a whole mess of trains in a short period of time. Finally headed for home, made this last image of a BNSF coal train holding out of town next to a pond of rainwater, under the big Texas sky.

Friday, December 7, 2007

Insomniac Photo Gallery

Feeling like crap this morning; sick and I can't sleep. So, hey, let's post a few old photographs!

Wishram, WA, July 23, 1977: A pair of big Century 636's and a smaller C424 clear their throat entering the Wishram yard, coming off the Oregon Trunk bridge over the Columbia River. These big 3600 h.p. monsters were beasts!

Maryhill, WA July 23, 1977: Later that morning and a few miles east, an RS11/RS3 set is in the siding for an eastbound drag behind a former GN GP9 and an RS3. Which one to chase? Decisions, decisions. . . .

Vancouver, WA July 22, 1977: The night before, we visited the home base for all of BN's Alco locomotive, the former Spokane, Portland & Seattle shop in Vancouver. On the ready track, an RS3, three F9B's, and two more Alcos are ready to take the evening freight south on the Oregon Electric to Salem.

Wishram, WA February 23, 1979: En-route to the snowy Blue Mountains and the Union Pacific, chased this eastbound train of Boeing 747 fuselage cars arriving off the Oregon Trunk Bridge; due to the size of the cars, this train will go east to Spokane before heading west to Seattle.

Whitcomb, WA February 24, 1979: While not rare, getting an F-unit on the front of the train east of Vancouver was less likely than scoring an Alco. . .so despite the clouds, we were happy to see ex-GN passenger warrior F3 706 taking a drag freight east, a GP9/C425 trailing.

North Dalles, WA, April 10, 1980: Back then, getting a pair of GE locomotives as solo power east of Vancouver was extremely rare. Here two U33C's, led by strangely-striped 5749, roll up the Columbia River near North Dalles, Mount Hood towering in the background.

Night out with the Knitters. . .

John Doe and Exene, still at it, tearing up the Sons. . .

Years ago, back in my wild college days on the West Coast, popular music was all about New Wave. You had your Blondie, Devo, Oingo Boingo, and leading the charge, The Police. New Wave's bastard stepbrother was Punk, emerging in England as well as New York and Los Angeles about the same time. While New Wave was safe and bouncy, fun to pogo around on the dance floor to, Punk was the real deal: dangerous, loud, sweaty, tatooed and not the sort of bands Johnny Carson would have on his show. From England, of course, came The Sex Pistols. From New York, the Ramones. And out on the west coast, Punk was all about X: Exene Cervenka, John Doe, Billy Zoom, and D. J. Bonebrake. The band went wildly popular around 1980 or so, when most of us suburban white boys were still listening to Boston and Kansas. But that soon changed as college and late-night enlightenment opened our minds, so by 1982 when I ended up at Western Washington University in Bellingham for my last two years of college, I'd graduated to Talking Heads, The Clash. . . and X.

X. . .back in 1980 or so. . .

I saw X only once during their popular punk era: a show in 1983 at WWU, when they filled the student union ballroom so completely and worked the crowd into such a thrashing frenzy that I'll never forget the way our sweat and breath condensed on the ceiling and rained back down on us. X was electrifying: John Doe thrashing on the bass and trading lead vocals with Exene, who mainly slumped over the microphone stand, wailing off-key. D.J. kept time in the background; Billy Zoom was the epitome of "cool," standing straight and solid and hardly moving as he played six string, his blond hair swept back in a perfect pompadour.

Exene, wailing like a cat, up front and center. . .Cindy Wasserman joins the band for vocals. . .
All this, of course, is meaningless nostalgia to those who weren't around for it--and I'm sure there were quite a few folks in attendance last night at Dallas' Sons of Hermann Hall who weren't even alive when I saw X in college. . .but X is still around, and they'd returned to town as "The Knitters," a side-project obstensibly featuring folk and rockabilly--and "cow punk"-- that they'd off and on toured as for almost as long as they'd been X (thie first Knitters record, "Poor Little Critter in the Road," was released in 1985. I bought it on casette tape, to tell you how long ago that was!). Their second record in 20 years, "Modern Sounds of The Knitters" has been released by Rhino.

John Doe. . .

Exene is still up front, older and heavier; John Doe seemingly hasn't aged, familar as much anymore for his acting gigs as his music ("Veronica's Closet"? Really??). D.J. has traded his mop of black hair for a nearly shaved head of grey, making him look amazingly like Cal Ripken Jr. Billy Zoom isn't a part of the Knitters project; Doe is the rhythm guitarist, and Johny Ray Bartel keeps time on the upright bass. And on lead guitar, the legendary roots/folk rocker Dave Alvin, a man with considerable musical chops of his own.

I'd like to say that The Knitters are a relevant and vital part of who X really are, but I really can't. While the music on the first Knitters record is distinct from that of X, Thursday night's show really seemed more an X Show with a different and more stripped-down lineup than it did pure "Knitters." Which, I guess, is understandable, because once you get past "Poor Little Critter In the Road" and "Wreckingball," well, hell, let's bring on "New World" and "Burning House of Love". . . with a contrified beat. Which isn't to say that I didn't enjoy the show, just that most of the time the Knitters got lost in X. Call a spade a spade: The Knitters are a Novelty act.

The Amazing Dave Alvin. . .

The give-and-take vocals between John Doe and Exene as X perfectly fit Exene's wailing cry of a voice, but Exene's voice is so ingrained as the voice of X that it's hard to get past that when the band becomes the Knitters with its emphasis on roots/folk rock. Indeed, the show's best vocal moments were when Cindy Wasserman, the lead singer of opening act Dead Rock West, shared the microphone with John and Exene. As a Dave Alvin fan, I was pleased to finally see him perform in person--the guy is an amazing guitarist--but I almost would've gladly traded a few songs from the Knitters' set to hear him sing as well.
But I don't think the crowd, skewing towards the older demographic (like the author), seemed to mind. To them, it was probably just enough to see X--most of the band, anyway--still up there slugging it out, playing small halls on Thursday nights. Or, to paraphrase the Porter Wagoner song covered, going down swinging.

D. J. Bonebrake, left, and Johny Ray Bartel. . .
Thanks to Mike, who tipped me off about this show and who joined us in Dallas, here's the set list:
Give Me Flowers While I'm Living (Doe and Alvin solo)
Try Anymore (Why Don't We Even (Doe and Alvin solo)
Poor Little Critter On The Road
Dry River
Baby Out Of Jail
Burning House Of Love
Wreck On The Hightway
Little Margaret
Bad Thoughts
Skin Deep Town
Someone Like You
I'll Go Down Swinging
Gone Gone Gone
In This House That I Call Home
Walkin' Cane
The Call Of The Wreckin' Ball
The New World
Poor Old Heartsick Me
Long Chain On
Born To Be Wild

Here's the whole band on stage at Sons of Hermann. . .

Monday, December 3, 2007

Danger Signs, Pt. 2

I'm always intrigued when I pass the above sign just south of downtown Fort Worth along I-35. This is not the nicest neighborhood in the city, ya know, and seeing a sign for body-altering surgery soaring high above razor-wired used car lots and industrial hydraulic businesses doesn't make me feel too trusting about the folks practicing their medicine here. The sign is rusting in places, and the building where the doctor's offices are is kinda shabby and run-down as well. I get the feeling the surgeons are largely catering to a clientele who can't afford the high-end doctors, such as this guy, below:

Now, Dr. Robert Rey is well known to millions from Dr. 90210. If one reads his website, he's got a highly successful practice in Beverly Hills, his own line of body-shaping lingere, and he's a member of the Screen Actor's Guild. I doubt the guys who run the clinic in the photo above have all that. They probably don't have perfectly styled hair, practice karate in their own gym inside a placial mansion, or wear sleeveless scrubs while performing boob jobs. Speaking of boobs: I've never really liked this guy. Look at the smarmy expression? And what's with the Miami Vice clothing? Pluheeze. Would you really want him doing your labial reduction? Watch a little of the show, and see if you don't agree that this fellow is one of the most self-centered assholes you've ever met. I doubt there's a sincere bone in his body. If there were a meteor headed towards the earth right now, it's be a toss-up whether I'd want it to land right on top of this guy, or on top of over-the-top-alcoholic-house-renovator Ty Pennington, seen left in one of his more intelligent poses. If I were to choose between the too-slick pretty boy and the cut-rate chop-shop docs in the hood to do my surgery, I might choose the guys in Fort Worth, right next to the transmission repair shop. Maybe while I'm recovering from my tummy tuck, Ty could come over, demolish my home, and build me a new one I can't afford the taxes on.

Happy Landings, Evel!

Men of my generation lost yet another hero last week when Evel Knievel died, finally, at age 69. Having broken most of his bones several times and cheating death while making spectacular--and not always successful--motorcycle jumps, it was diabetes and idiopathic pulmonary fibrodiabetes that finally did him in.

To young American boys in a pre-Cable/Satellite television, pre-video game, pre-computer age, Evel was our hero. He was bigger than life--brash, outlandish. His ego was as wide as the chasm he attempted to cross in a "rocket cycle." He was perhaps the ultimate salesman, hooking us with his red, white, and blue leather outfits, then reeling us inside on countless Saturday afternoons to watch ABC's Wide World Of Sports. Evel did more than a dozen jumps on Wide World, each time ratcheting up the tension for an hour while we waited for 20 seconds of motorcycle flight. Would he make it? Usually he did; but when he failed, he usually did so spectacularly.
And we ate it up. No sooner was Wide World turned "back over to Jim McKay in the studio," than we dashed outside and set up jumps of our own to execute on our Schwinn Sing-Ray bicycles. It wasn't enough to have a ramp--we needed to jump over SOMETHING, and that usually ended up being a younger sister or brother. For us, it was ALMOST as good as the fountain at Caesar's Palace (where he crashed on landing in 1968, ending up in a coma for 28 days).

What a paradox Knievel was! He wrapped himself in the American flag, extolling his love for the country, while often being the first one to sue a writer for an unflattering story. He preached good old-fashioned American values, while he left his wife of many years for a younger woman, eventually beating her up. He admonished the kids to Stay Off Drugs, but the accumulated pain from his many crashes and 15 major accidents let him to an addiction to painkillers, his fading star turned him to alcohol. Beloved in his hometown of Butte, Montana, he left behind many pissed-off promoters and sponsors who never were paid their share of the gate.

For a while, he was flying high, figuratively as well as literally, making millions of dollars a year not only on his jumps but by lending his name to countless products. An action figure bearing his likeness was a best seller, bumping GI Joe from the top spot as the Vietnam war tarnished the military image. Later, strapped for cash but still full of bravado, he appeared on an ad for a motorized scooter for the infirm. White-haired and frail looking, Evel defiantly gives us a thumbs-up and his best bad-ass look. I don't think he tried jumping anything riding his Legend Scooter (chosen for its "outstanding performance, style, durability and value") but I probably would've watched it on TV if he did.

Old enough to be your grandfather, tough enough to Kick Your Ass--if you'll help him off the scooter, please. . .

Knievel will probably be best remembered for his failed 1974 jump across the Snake River Canyon in Idaho on a rocket powered with compressed steam. Broadcast live around the world, the jump failed to match the incredible hype and buildup, when the rocket's parachute deployed immediately on launch. Knievel, facing straight down, descended into the canyon, strapped into the rocket, banging off the rocks below, breaking another couple bones and banging his head. He was lucky he didn't land in the river and drown.

Earlier that year, Knievel visited North Richland Hills for a leap over 11 Mack Trucks, broadcast on Wide World Sports. Howard Cosell and "Dandy" Don Meredith--HUGE television stars at the time, hosting Monday Night Football--did the call. "How do you like THAT!" Cosell gushed as Evel cleared the trucks with ease.
No monument or marker denotes the spot where Evel launched himself in the North Texas leap. Indeed, in the past couple of years, the old drag strip where the jump took place, once way out in the boonies, has turned into yet another housing subdivision. Too bad there isn't a big red "X" painted in someone's driveway or perhaps on the street at the location Knievel stuck the landing. I wonder if any bike-riding kids in the neighborhood have ever jumped their bikes over their kid brothers--or if they even know who Knievel was.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

What a Colorful Railroading World!

After all the big mergers of the past few years and railroads consolidating fleets, selling power, leasing power, renumbering and slapping hasty patch jobs over the "vanquished" power of beloved railroads, I began to wonder if railroads really gave a damn what their locomotives looked like. Why not paint em all black--all of em, all over the country!--and give em all five digit numbers and be done with it. But all is not lost. Even a casual look around the railroads of north Texas reveals some sharp paint schemes, sometimes even on unusual power.

Union Pacific has nearly a dozen specially-painted locomotives running around, honoring everything from the 2002 Olympic Games to their half-dozen predecessor railroads (since 1982) to this recreation of the Raymond Lowey-designed pain scheme for the Presidential Air Force One jet, lettered and numbered to honor the 41st POTUS, King George Herbert Walker Bush. Here's the 4141 southbound leaving Fort Worth south of Tower 55. I would love to read the grafitti from crews that is no doubt covering the inside of the cab. . .

All the railfans are wetting their pants--rightfully so--over this sharp recreation of the Kansas City Southern "Southern Belle" paint scheme, here aplied to an SD70ACE at BNSF's Allliance yard. That the idea came from president Mike Haverty--who brought back the Santa Fe warbonnet during his tenure there--is no surprise. Beats the hell out of bland grey paint, but how about moving that octagon herald to the nose, Mr. H??

KCS's main competition in Mexico is Ferromex, and their white, green and red paint scheme--the colors of Mexico's flag--look pretty sharp on this new GE AC4400. . . .

Okay, so those two Mexican schemes are pretty sharp. . . an improvement over the two-tone-blue-and-orange from FNM, as the nationalized Mexican rail system called itself before privitization. Whew. Break out the dingle-balls! But, having it applied to a notch-nosed SDP40, the 1314, also at Alliance yard, cuts em a little slack. Sharp locomotive, interesting paint. . .

One of Texas' newest shortline operators is Austin Western, which stepped in to operate the former SP Marble Falls-Austin-Elgin branchlines with this red and grey scheme. The AW--reviving, perhaps, the old nickname "The Root Beer Railroad"--has a fleet of SD50s, ex-CNW GP50s and a couple of ex-CN Rail GP40W's. Here three SD50s switch at McNeil last week, as construction for the new Capitol Metro commuter line continues. . .

The "cinder block" Southern Pacific EMD used to the the whippin' boy for railfans who waved a finger of indignation towards the railroad for allowing their locomotives to look so shabby. Now that finger is pointing at the BNSF, whose once spiffy fleet of Silver and Red "Warbonnet" Santa Fe units is looking shittier by the day. Here's one of the "trashbonnets," BNSF 900, at Alliance yard. . .and this one is far from being the worst-looking. At least the swapped-out air conditioning unit is orange. Show your pride, BNSF!

What Cowboy fan could resist?

Obligatory Anti-Dallas Cowboys Content. . .
The Dallas Cowboys are guilty of many things. . .and "class", in my way of thinking, is rarely one of them. Okay, so I shouldn't be hatin' on the Boyz. . .it's not a popular stand to take in these parts. But, can you blame me when they subvert one of the most cherished hobbies in the universe--Model Railroading--by daring to offer me, via mail, this very valuable and collectable Dallas Cowboys (tm) HO scale train? I'm sure it's worth every penny they're charging, and probably also of such high quality it will provide days of operating satisfaction. What do you wanna bet there's lead in the paint?

Monday, November 5, 2007

Some thoughts on the NASCAR circus. . .

Green! Green! Green! We're off for 500 miles of racing. . .

Just spent three of the past four days as part of the traveling NASCAR Nation road show as it blew through Fort Worth. We'd danced on the fringes of this sport for a while now, but the alignment of my last week of vacation, a little extra un-budgeted money, and a good deal on tickets for the race weekend allowed me to take in most of the fall weekend of racing at TMS. This was our first Nextel Cup race to attend (we went to a truck race last year), and as pre-disposed as I am to hate huge crowds (estimated at upwards of 200,000) and blatantly commercial, cash-sucking events such as these, I'll have to admit I had a great time. The weather was superb, the crowds weren't really too much of an issue, the racing was mostly pretty good, and the famous TMS traffic hassles didn't effect us much at all.

I ham it up with TMS' mascot, Sparky. . .

We posed in front of the Green Screen for a composite photo at the Bank of America tent. . .and, no thanks, on refinacing our home loan. . .

I. is right at home in the stands, cheering on "Dalhart Junior". . .

I'm scared at times by how much E. looks like a race team crew chief. "C'mon in next lap and take two tires. . . try not to tear-up the racecar, Bud!"

We bought our tickets through an e-bay auction, and got a great deal: three upper front-stretch seats for all three races (Friday's Craftsmen Truck, Saturday's Busch Series, and the main event, Sunday's Nextel Cup Dickey's 500) for only $300--face value of the tickets was over $700, and considering that the tickets for Sunday's race alone were worth $450, we did quite well. We didn't know until Wednesday if we'd be going or not; M. and I had planned on taking the boys to the (free) truck qualifying night on Thursday at least, to let them see some fast cars and do a little NASCAR shopping along the merchandise-trailer lined midway. With the tickets, M. and I made plans to take E. along, leaving I. with a sitter on Sunday. We decided to pass on the truck race Friday (probably a mistake, given that the race ended with two spectacular lead-juggling wrecks); I abandoned M. and the boys on Saturday to take my friends Mike and Lance to the Busch race. No use letting the tickets to go waste. . .

Jump in! You're among friends. . .

. . well, okay, maybe a few folks look like a stereotypical Southern Redneck Wifebeater Racing Fan. . .
Lance is a motorsports fan, Indy Car and Formula One variety. Mike, Pacific Northwest Metrosexual that he is, dismisses NASCAR right off as a sport enjoyed primarily by redneck Southern Republicans who beat their wives and lack a high school education (at that, many NASCAR fans would be proud to wear that description!). Both of them enjoyed the race, but I feel their future attendance of NASCAR events will largely be determined by availablity of tickets from well-meaning friends. . .in other words, they enjoyed the spectacle of it all, but not enough to pursue going on their own.

Kenseth (17) tries to hold off a hard-charging Jimmie Johnson, to no avail--but you knew it would end this way, didn't you?

Saturday's race had some good racing, but fewer cautions than you'd expect from a Busch series race, and the long green-flag runs tended to be tedious, leader Kevin Harvick hardly challenged for the last third of the event. Sunday's race was everything you'd want in a 500-mile race. . . several lead changes, a nice handful of wrecks, interesting pit strategy, and at least a couple of highlight reel-worthy banging-down-the-front-stretch battles for the lead and an amazing finish that saw leader Matt Kenseth hold off challenger Jimmie Johnson for nearly a dozen laps of side-by-side racing before finally being passed on the final lap. It was breathtaking. The fact that Johnson was second in the points standings, close behind leader Jeff Gordon with just two races left in the season, and wrecking while trying to win (and ending any chances at the Nextel cup championship) instead of laying back for a sure second place finish and the points lead made it that much better. You might not like Johnson (I don't particularly), but you have to respect his driving abilities and cojones in the way he went for the win instead of the place.

While the race goes on before him, E. is absorbed in FanView. . .
. . a handy gadget which combines video, audio and statistics in real-time. . .

It being my own first big-time NASCAR race, a few observations are in order:

* Whomever came up with the hand-held FANVIEW reciever is a genius. Imagine having a device that fits in your hand that provides real-time, multiple-angle video, statistics, and audio. Leave it to NASCAR, who always touts their sport as being the most "fan friendly," to come up with this thing. The viewer is given up to eight in-car camera views, the network video broadcast, and access to radio transmissions between drivers and their crews, NASCAR officials, and the live Motorsports Racing Network radio broadcast. I wasn't about to spend my whole race with my face buried into a hand-held television set, but it was cool to see the lap times on cars with fresh tires gradually get slower as the tires wore down, as well as listen to the drivers vent their frustration at each other. . . and get a heads up when crews discussed pit strategy. Definately worth $70 for the weekend.

* At 500 miles, the Nextel race was just too long. This complaint isn't specific to Texas, either. The race took just under four hours to run, and while it had its exciting moments, it probably could've been shortened to 400 or even 300 miles without losing the drama. I've heard drivers aren't big fans of these long races either, and the savvy teams will use the first half of the race making pitstops to make handling corrections to their cars, then lay back until the last 100 miles or so before going all-out for the lead (certainly the strategy of Johnson's team). Is the middle 1/3 of the race as boring for the drivers as it is for the fans? M. was about falling asleep until the sun set, the racetrack took on new handling characteristics, and the real racing started.

Here's our Marketing lesson for today: If you want folks to stop at your booth, do you hire HER, as AAA did? . . .

. . or, as SpeedZone did, the woman in yellow? Thought so. . .

While the girl working the Crown Royal display no doubt suffered by wearing these heels all day, most race fans didn't seem to mind. . .
*Initiates to NASCAR might be surprised--Mike certainly was--at how much the sport is Money Driven. The difference between NASCAR and the stick-and-ball sports is that they make no bones about it: the money, it seems, comes before the quality of racing many times. Simply mind-boggling to first-timers is the Midway outside the track, an endless row of merchandise trailers, sponsor displays, and advertisers trying to suck bucks out of your wallet. The tacky crap for sale, the Smith & Wesson traveling showroom (inside a trailer decorated with a guy kissing a shotgun--I shit you not--on the side), the free Bar-B-Que sauce samples, the Crown Royal "experience" hosted by Hootchie Mamas in spiked high heels--pure hell, I'm sure, on asphalt all day. There's the vendor hawking blue Croc shoes with the #24 on them, a Border Patrol booth wiuth a showcar used as an employment recruiting tool, the Virtual U.S. Army Experience (where it appeared that all those over age 18 who went in never came out), and displays of power tools, HD televisions, Chevrolets, and an inflatible seat cushion with a drink holder--as Mike correctly pointed out, it'll save your two most important possessions, your ass and your beer. Of course, the largest crowds were gathered outside the trailers for Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr.--probably not by accident were these always parked next to each other. You could almost picture tumbleweeds blowing past the trailers for the back-marker drivers like Dave Blaney or Tony Raines.

Yep, The Intimidator is Dead, but he looks down on his domain from NASCAR marketing heaven. .
* The Intimidator is Dead, and NASCAR is Lovin' it: everywhere, the slightly-smirking, benevolent face of Dale Earnhardt smiled down on the masses, still a huge marketing factor six years after his death. In fact, he's almost become to racing what Elvis Presley is to music. "Still The Man" the t-shirts say. Not, "He May Be Dead, but he's still a better racer than Michael Waltrip" or "Got HANS?". It's almost creepy, like you'd expect some entrepreneur to be selling Intimidator sunglasses with bushy moustache attached. We've heard reports of seveal Dale Earnhardt impersonators that show up at the races. . .very Elvis-like.
* What about that Drive To Diversity, NASCAR? Stock-car racing is still a VERY caucasian sport. Saw only a handful of Latinos and African-Americans; most of the minorities we saw--big surprise--were serving food or maintaining the facilities. Noted that Bill Lester and Erin Crocker, he black and she a she, were missing from this year's truck race. . . Juan Pablo Montoya was the only non-White driver at TMS this weekend. What's up with that?

You can see it all in the parking lot at a NASCAR race. A cooler with an electric motor? Ohhhh-kay. . .
* Traffic wasn't much of an issue. Despite dire warnings about leaving early for the 2:30pm race, we left the house at 11am, and encountered next to no traffic til we got to the parking lot at TMS. Even so, we had a pretty good parking spot, fairly close to the track, and were headed to the midway by noon, passing the on-going parties in the parking lot. We met a guy who had managed to stick wheels and an electric motor into an ice chest, for whatever reason. It was amazing.

These just aren't FLAGS--they're banners unfurled for battle. . .
*What Will The #8 Fans Do Next Year? Certainly, Dale Earnhardt Jr. has become the biggest money-maker in the NASCAR nation. His fans are intensely loyal to him, the #8 car, Budweiser, and anything else he endorses. A television commercial a couple of years ago proved strangely prophetic: Earnhardt announcing at a press-conference that he's changing car numbers, a move met by dismay and downright anguish by folks who'd tatooed his number on their body, painted their garage door in his colors, and trimmed their hedges in the shape of a #8. But Jr. is changing teams, sponsors, colors and numbers next year, joining the Hendrick Motorsports team of his arch-rival (and anti-Dale Jr.) Jeff Gordon. I don't know how The Nation will handle it. I'd imagine next year the Red #8 flags will still be in great evidence. They haven't forgotten his Daddy, and I doubt they'll forget Jr., the way he was, either.

Dusk at TMS is almost magical: the setting sun, the crowd, the flashbulbs, and speeding racecars. . .