FORT WORTH, TX - NOVEMBER 06: Tony Stewart drives the #14 Office Depot/Mobil 1 Chevrolet during the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series AAA Texas 500 at Texas Motor Speedway on November 6, 2011 in Fort Worth, Texas. (Photo by Brandon Wade/Getty Images for NASCAR)
There's no scene in American sports quite like a NASCAR weekend.
I imagine it's what a confederate encampment may have looked like. Two hundred thousand people and their vehicles blanketing a rolling prairie as far as the eye can see. The smell of charring meat tickling your nose from every direction. There's even a few rebel banners waving in the wind.
Say what you will about NASCAR or auto-racing in general. But it's more than just 43 souped-up stock cars making left turn after left turn. It's the biggest hunk of American pie around ... deep fried. And if you haven't been to a race, well, your life as an American is severely unfulfilled.
You can see the post-modern Circus Maximus dominating the landscape from a few miles out. As you draw closer, you enter a sea of pickup trucks proudly brandishing their driver allegiances via bumper sticker. Windows down, with bare, sun-burned arms and "Simple Man" pouring out.
Exiting the highway, you see the local gas station has been converted into a shanty town, complete with gypsies peddling their merchandise in tents. The only cops you'll see (seriously, the only ones) are directing traffic. Funneling drivers like cattle down endless lanes lined with orange cones. Be sure to check out the RV armada entrenched in their designated area where water hookups are available to all in need.
No parking attendants or passes necessary. Just navigate the vast expanse and occasional dirt roads to wherever your heart desires. Although there are no designated parking spaces, the early arrivals have conveniently constructed a skeletal patchwork for you to work with.
At this point, it really begins to sink in; this is like nothing you've ever been a part of.
Find a nice spot and make sure you locate your lot number (Hint: there are giant poles with numbers on them all around you). You'll want to make sure your Mr. or Mrs. Responsible remembers that number. The chaotic post-race exodus is not the time to aimlessly search for your vehicle.
Once you're settled, fire up the grill, crack open some cold beers, and frolic in the sunshine as you see fit. A word to the wise: don't wear yourself out at tailgating, you want to save plenty of energy for the race itself. Watching cars drive in circles while seated isn't particularly exhausting; allowing every person to bring in their own cooler full of alcohol is.
As fun as the tailgate is, you'll want to leave it a tad early so you can make the long trek into the speedway. The people-watching alone will quickly cramp your neck.
Have fun exploring the various booths and trucks set up inside. I recommend renting a race scanner and headphones if you can. The scanner lets you tap into each driver's radio and the channels are preset to correspond with their number. There's also a play-by-play broadcast (of sorts) that your scanner picks up. It's no Vin Scully, but very useful if you have absolutely no clue what's going on.
The pre-race ceremonies will begin shortly, and you won't want to miss them. You may see a Chinook helicopter buzz over the stands and land in the pit area just to drop off the pace car. Or skydivers parachuting down with an American flag as the national anthem is sung. An Air Force flyover is definitely in the cards. And don't forget the convocation delivered immediately before the anthem. In Jesus' name, we pray... amen. (You think I'm kidding.) There aren't enough words in the English language (or even Southern dialect) to fully describe and illustrate the sheer might and awe you'll witness when the gentleman (and lady) start their engines. Again, you might have to harken back to the days of yore to find a comparable thunder. The great buffalo herd stampeding across the open plains comes to mind.
If you didn't snag a free pair of earplugs, you're immediately regretting that decision. The cars begin to follow the pace car around the track. And when the green flag flies, there is nothing, I mean nothing, more powerful, awesome and hair-raisingly exciting than watching that dense mass of cars roar through the first turn at speeds nearing 200 MPH. You don't just watch the cars. You feel that roaring thunder pulse through your chest like a concussive explosion.
As the initial excitement fades, the fans take their seats. You settle back into yours, pass out the beers, and watch the cars drive in circles for the next three hours. To avoid boredom, keep the booze flowing and pray for an epic crash.
But the race will go by faster than you think. Before you know it, the laps are dwindling and the day's best cars have made their way to the front of the pack. The white flag flies and after 498 ½ miles of racing, it all comes down to the final mile and half of track.
The checkered flag flies. One driver and his (or her) crew have won the day. A week of work, test driving, and tinkering all came down to 500 miles of attrition. 42 teams go back to the garage and look to next week, while the winner, who has lost somewhere between five and ten pounds during the race, runs a victory lap and does doughnuts through the grass before heading to Victory Lane.
By now, the 185,000-seat speedway is clearing out. Slowly but surely the fans meander back to the encampment, exhausted from a day of festivities. Some will stay the night and keep the party going through the wee hours of the morning. (Camping is allowed). The rest pack up their vehicles (if they can remember where they parked) and begin the long crawl back home. Traffic is a nightmare, but pick a lane and be patient. You aren't leaving anytime soon. And if you think you've discovered a shortcut, you haven't. A few of us know a good one, but trust me, you aren't finding it.
Like a spring tornado, race weekend descends on North Texas and wreaks havoc for a short while, only to disappear in the night, leaving behind scattered debris as its footprint. But unlike the twisters, you're perfectly safe experiencing this particular adrenaline rush. So do yourself a favor. Find some tickets, online or from a scalper (Hint: The higher the seat the better. You can see the whole track and it's not as loud. Also, avoid seats on the backstretch. I recommend somewhere in rows 30 to 50 and as close to the finish line as you can.).
I assure you, attending a race in the manner prescribed above will be an experience you never forget. So ditch your preconceived cultural judgments and, in the words of racing great Darrell Waltrip, "Boogity, boogity, boogity, let's go racing boys!"