Heading into turn 1 at 120mph. . . feel the tug of the g-forces. . .
Sharp-eyed readers may well have noticed the photograph of yours truly taking a snapshot of sons E and I in Wednesday's Fort Worth Star-Telegram. I really wasn't forced to give our names to the photographer, but I figured we were caught in the act, guilty, and we could no longer keep our secret from our friends. So, unlike Larry Craig, we might as well be up front with it.
We're NASCAR fans.
There, we said it.
I guess that's kind of a bold admission, since M. is from Mexico and I'm a carpet-bagger Yankee from north of the Red River. Folks like us aren't supposed to spend down time reading Jayski.com or pondering just what the hell is wrong with Junior's poor performance this year. That's supposed to occupy the minds of. . .well, folks who drink RC Cola and eat Moon Pies (then again, a French-Canadian will be racing trucks this fall and rocker/lesbian Melissa Etheridge just sang the national anthem to open the California race, so I guess the demographics are changing).
I only have a couple friends who have more than a passing interest in stock car racing. Oh, there are a few of them who like Formula One and Indy Car. . .that's somehow racing on a higher level. . . a better class of fan. . . folks who like a little brie with their carbon monoxide.
With our admission of this, perhaps they'll feel free now to join us. Cummon, say it. You know you want to: Rubbin' is Racin'. Second is the First Loser. Jeff Gordon is Gay.
I'm going to blame our transformation into true NASCAR mom and dad on the day we stopped by our nearby Home Depot with then-four-year-old E. in tow. On display in the parking lot was the bright orange Number 20 Chevrolet Monte Carlo Sponsored by Home Depot. E. went bonkers, and of course we stopped to check it out. From then on, we've been Tony Stewart fans, for better or worse. We started watching casually, a race here and there on television. Eventually, this became an every Sunday-afternoon thing. Our attendance at church suffered, as we were worshipping at the Temple of Bill France Junior. (That's always been a puzzle to me: how can a sport stereotyped to be the favorites of God-Fearing southern Baptists run their races on Sundays? Don't give me that "on the seventh day, God created TiVo" business, either!). The prayer before the race? Just covering their asses, spiritually-speaking.
Of course, with mom and dad and older brother watching, it was inevitable that the young 'un (as an honorary NASCAR Southerner I can now type with a southern accent) I. became a fan as well. He's become a Dale Junior fan, admiring anything with a number "8" attached to it or painted red. His second-favorite driver? Jeff Gordon in the Number 24 Chevrolet Monte Carlo Sponsored by Dupont and Nicoret. Go figure. Hopefully, this won't screw him up too much as he grows older, though he's in for a rude awakening next year when Earnhardt Jr. changes teams, numbers, and likely car color. Silly Season is so traumatic on the young ones. . .
I was hoping this obsession with NASCAR racing by the boys was just because they tend to love anything with wheels or wings on it. But it has gone far worse than that. I made the poor parenting decision to purchase a Play Station and EA sport's NASCAR '06 game. . . and nearly lost a son in the process. E. goes through periodic spells when he wants nothing more out of life than to "race" on the track at New Hampshire, barking driving commands in a high-pitched pseudo-sportscaster/crew-chief voice as his sits immersed in front of the television set, tongue curled over his upper lip, stomping his feet rapidly and contorting his body as he heads into the corners. I will give him credit: he's past the stage when it is enough to create a huge pileup and now actually attempts to improve his score with each race.
No place in the house is safe to walk anymore--the kids have gradually acquired dozens of small die-cast stock cars, which periodically align themselves in racing formation near the front door. And the goal of every NASCAR sponsor--to have their product instantly recognized--is rewarded each time we go for a drive as the kids call out the names of automobiles, stores, and products that are emblazoned on the hoods of their favorite cars (thankfully, Viagra no longer sponsors the Number 6 Ford, as I don't think I'm ready to explain what an erectile dysfunction tablet is to a six year old).
It isn't all their fault. Mom and Dad have dragged the kids to an autograph session or two, taken them by Texas Motor Speedway to check out the array of haulers on race weekend, and practice that particular brand loyalty/brainwashing that finds us shunning Lowe's Home Improvement stores because of their sponsorship of the robotic sponsor-name spewing Jimmy Johnson and his Number 48 Chevrolet Monte Carlo. We take our business to Home Depot, sponsor of the affable, scruffy, tubby, goofy smart-ass Tony Stewart. And Dad spent one afternoon painting E.'s bedroom walls orange with a giant "20" and a checkered-flag border.
Tuesday, then, we headed back to Texas Motor Speedway for FanFest! which was mostly a way for motor home and cell phone dealers to get you interested in their product. Once you got past the cross-promotion aspect of the event, the best thing were the rides in "pace cars" around the track. Very cool. You don't realize how steep the banking is on these tracks til you're stopped at the top of one looking down. Nor how smooth the racing surface is. Nor, even at the sedate speed of 120 miles per hour, how much centrifugal force wants to throw you off the track in curves. Wisely, TMS required all riders to legally release them of all responsibility should a tire blow and the car smack into the wall. Kasey Kahne would hardly feel it in his car, but the cars we rode in were largely right off the street and equipped only with lap and shoulder harness. (Irony #1 of stock car racing: None of the cars are even close to being "stock"--i.e., right off the street--any more).
Perhaps after this little taste of speed up close, we're ready to buy tickets to a Nextel race. We'd been to a Craftsman Truck series race (basically less-powerful cars clad in pick-up truck bodies driven by less-experienced drivers more prone to spectacular accidents), but the big show, of course, is Nextel Cup, along with its highly-marketed drivers. And, racing aside, the personalities of the sport are a big part of our interest in it, which is ironic (Irony #2) given that compared to stick-and-ball sports, stock car drivers are largely unseen entities strapped in their cars until after the race is done, when they magically reappear, thank their sponsors profusely, and climb into their private jets headed for the next race. But, NASCAR drivers consistently rate higher in recognition than athletes in the other major sports.
But every driver, it seems plays their role in the sport. . .not unlike Pro Wrestling. There's the impatient young punk everyone loves to hate (Kyle Busch), the pretty-boy Yankee who inspires virulent hatred among the "old school" Southerners (Jeff Gordon), the scrappy team owner who drives his own car and is always battling the NASCAR heirarchy (Robbie Gordon), the good ol'boy whom no one can understand when he speaks (Sterling Marlin), the young heartthrob (Kasey Kahne) and the son of the martyed God of Stock Car Racing who has shown so much promise but has yet to get the job done (Dale Earnhardt Jr.).
It's the cars, it's the drivers, it's the tracks, no two of them the same, and each with a personality of their own. So, we'll go into the final 12 races of the season cheering for Tony Stewart to keep climbing those fences after winning races. We'll collectively hiss when the "evil" Hendrick drivers Gordon, Johnson, Busch and whats-his-name challenge for the lead. We'll all wonder if Michael Waltrip is going to qualify for a race this week, and hope, for sentimental reasons, that "little E" will win one more race in the Red Number 8 Chevorlet Monte Carlo Sponsored By Budweiser one last time before the season comes to an end.
Let's go racin', boys!