Dawn did not beat the paint crew to Bristol Motor Speedway, tucked away in the foothills of the Cherokee National Forest that spill into the Great Smoky Mountains in the northeast corner of Tennessee. A great serenity settles over the area at dawn and at dusk each day, but it would be shattered in a few hours by the roar of forty-three race cars. The paint crew had work to accomplish before then. Less than twenty-four hours earlier, during the running of the Cheez-It 250 NASCAR Busch series race, the outside retaining walls of the .533-mile track had taken a serious beating.
Black marks were everywhere. It gave the place a certain character that bespoke the type of side-by-side, bumper-to-bumper racing the track engenders, but it wouldn't do for television. Not, at least, at the start of the race that was to come. And in the modern era of stock car racing, which only is beginning to dawn, appearances on television are of paramount importance.
Barely five months earlier, an intense bidding war for the television rights to the hottest ticket in major league sports produced staggering results: The FOX and NBC-TBS networks struck a deal according to which they will fork over $2.8 billion over the next six years to televise NASCAR's races, beginning in 2001. That averages out to more than $466 million per year. Only fifteen years earlier, NASCAR received a paltry $3 million for the TV rights to twenty-eight races during the 1985 season.
So the painters were there to paint a prettier picture. It was time to clean up the sport's image a little bit before it was deliberately soiled again. The painters splashed bright white paint over all the scuff marks on the walls, temporarily erasing the ugly reminders that make stock car racing at Bristol the fun that it is for NASCAR fans -- and the nightmare it can be for drivers attempting to negotiate what has been billed as the "world's fastest half mile." It is racing in tight quarters at frighteningly high speeds. It is the type of racing that has helped the National Association of Stock Car Auto Racing -- more commonly referred to by its NASCAR acronym -- become the fastest-growing, most exciting spectator sport in America as it barrels into the new millennium.
"This is the only place to see racin' the way it oughta be," is the way track owner Bruton Smith, chairman and chief operating officer of Speedway Motorsports, Inc., puts it. Those are his very own words, written out in exactly that manner in an open letter to the fans inside the program for the events of this particular sunny weekend at the end of March 2000. Correct grammar? Who needs it? Wreck-free racing? Who wants it?
The black scuff marks would return soon enough on the walls. Smith was sure of that.
He had been counting on it since the day in early 1996 when he purchased Bristol Motor Speedway and immediately began expanding and renovating it. The place seated 71,000 when Smith bought it. Now it seats 147,000 and includes a hundred luxury skyboxes -- all sold out for both this race and the even more wildly popular night race in August of 2000.
"We have so many people on the waiting list to come to Bristol, we just stopped taking orders," Smith said. "I mean, it was foolish. We stopped at eighty-four thousand people. They think they're going to get 'em someday. But with a waiting list of eighty-four thousand people, for most of them it's not likely in their lifetime."
No doubt Daytona International Speedway remains the most famous of all NASCAR tracks. And none has more overall racing tradition than Indianapolis Motor Speedway, where NASCAR's Brickyard 400 is run every August and seems to have rivaled if not surged past open-wheel racing's famed Indy 500 in popularity. There also are other outstanding venues, each unique in its own way...particularly places such as Darlington Raceway in South Carolina, Talladega Superspeedway in Alabama and Lowe's Motor Speedway in Charlotte, North Carolina.
But Bristol is stock car racing's Wrigley Field. Its Fenway Park. Its Yankee Stadium.
Why? Because it has character. It has seats perilously close to the action. It even has seats a long, long way from the action that seem great because fans sitting in them can see the entire track, including the pit areas, where much of the action in any race takes place. It isn't the biggest or the fastest track; in fact, it is the antithesis of the superspeedway ovals at places like Daytona, Talladega and Charlotte. It is a short track, one of the few left in a dying breed. Whereas racers get their cars up to close to two hundred miles per hour on the straightaways at the bigger tracks, here the average speed for a lap (taking into account slowdowns for cautions) is a modest eighty-two miles per hour -- a speed that would make most of NASCAR's drivers blush in embarrassment on their local interstate highways.
Bristol has nearly 150,000 fans bearing down on the tiny oval where the cars zoom around, banging into one another and brushing against the walls. The place bursts with energy -- from hours before the race until it finally begins to dissipate about an hour after the race is over and the last of the sponsor's hats has been deposited on the heads of the winning team members in Victory Lane.
The track can even be rented out for feature film production ($4,500 per day), television commercials ($3,000 per day) and, of course, all-important NASCAR testing ($1,500 per day). Can't get a ticket to one of Smith's precious races, but you still want to see the place? Just throw a party. Depending on the number of guests you want to invite, Bristol can be had for anywhere from $1,000 per day (up to a hundred guests) to $2,500 per day (five hundred guests or more). There are miscellaneous charges, such as emergency services ($600 per day) and for firing up the lighting system ($750 for the infield only, $1,850 to have the whole place lit up like a Christmas tree). And there is a $500 per day surcharge for weekend events. But heck, racing fans, why not plan your next company outing there?
Fans from two-thirds of the nation's fifty states will flock here to see a NASCAR race, and some all the way from Canada too. They will battle horrendous traffic jams and sometimes even each other throughout the course of a long day.
But before the day is through, they will have had what they swear to be one of the greatest days of their lives, especially if their racer has a good showing. Every real fan picks out one guy to root for, and remains loyal to him no matter what happens. Before this day under the unseasonably hot sun is done, they will have announced their allegiance to Earnhardt or Gordon or Wallace hundreds of times and in hundreds of different ways. To them, though, it will be Dale, Jeff and Rusty...for in no other sport do fans seem to identify with their heroes as much as they do in this one.
Earnhardt shirts are plentiful. The man in the black No. 3 Goodwrench Chevrolet Monte Carlo -- nicknamed "the Intimidator" and "Ol' Ironhead" for his no-nonsense, hard-charging, win-at-all-costs driving style -- is like the local sportscaster with the highest ratings. Surveys, if NASCAR commissioned them, in all likelihood would show him to be both the most beloved and most hated of all drivers. Love him or hate him, but few have no opinion of him. And that, plus the fact that he has won seventy-five races over the years, makes him highly marketable.
One Earnhardt fan arrives driving a black Chevy truck with a T-shirt that blares, BADASS BOYS DRIVE BADASS TOYS. It's the kind of T-shirt that no doubt would make the old man smile. Another Earnhardt fan strolls into the infield wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with a huge Confederate flag across his chest and the words Tommy Hellraiser. It is an obvious mocking of the Tommy Hilfiger designer clothes preferred by a different crowd, but it means even more than that to its owner. It describes his way of life, and that includes his deep-felt passion for the way the man behind the wheel in the black No. 3 car operates during a race.
"That's me," the fan states proudly, showing off tattoos on each arm. "I'm Tommy Hellraiser."
Like Earnhardt, Gordon is immensely successful and extremely popular. He sort of wears the white hat to Earnhardt's black garb in racing circles, but in this twisted world that makes him the target of abuse rather than the other way around. Racing fans like to root for the guy in black; the guy in white -- or in Gordon's case, the guy in the rainbow colors of DuPont, his main sponsor -- becomes an object of derision all too often. There perhaps is no more widely debated subject at a track than Gordon on most Sundays.
And if Bristol is the antithesis to the high-speed tracks at Daytona and Talladega, then Gordon is the antithesis to Earnhardt amongst the drivers. Earnhardt is the self-proclaimed outlaw who will do anything to win. Gordon is the self-proclaimed Christian who openly wept at the Winston Cup awards banquet in 1997 after picking up his second driving points championship. While Gordon was gaining in the career win column from 1995 through much of 1999, Earnhardt and his legions of fans were getting steamed.
There are others, of course, who stir the emotions and loyalties of a growing number of fans. Rusty Wallace. Dale Jarrett. Aging veteran Darrell Waltrip. The Labonte brothers, Terry and Bobby. Dale Earnhardt Jr., Dale's son (he doesn't like to be called Dale Sr.), who fancies himself the "rock 'n' roll racer" in a sport that has grown up on country. Even lesser-known guys such as Jimmy Spencer, dubbed Mr. Excitement for his perceived bad habit of getting into too many wrecks, have developed sort of a cultlike following.
Fans love these guys because they see themselves in them. That could be because they've heard the stories. About how Ernie Irvan was a welder, working on the seats at the track in Charlotte and dreaming of becoming a NASCAR driver long before, well, that's exactly what he became. About how Bobby Labonte, currently one of the series' top driving stars, once pushed a broom and emptied trash cans at a shop while waiting for his chance to be noticed and put behind the wheel of anything at all on four wheels. If a welder and a shop janitor can live out their dreams, why can't I? It is a question Everyman asks himself often while munching on fried chicken and gulping beer as racers tear around NASCAR tracks each weekend.
Even now, hours before the Food City 500 at Bristol, the pageantry had begun. The fans are as much a part of it as the players, who include not only drivers and crew chiefs, but car owners and gas men, tire changers, jackmen and body fabricators. They all dress the part of half-gladiator, half-billboard. The drivers are always the last to put on their uniforms, but eventually all team members don their colorful, ad-stained, fire-resistant suits and strut around the tiny Bristol infield mingling with one another and making small talk. They occasionally chat with strangers who happen to have pit infield passes and wander by to offer best wishes. Many of these fans hope for, and almost always receive, a smile, a handshake or an autograph -- or even all three -- from even the biggest of NASCAR's names. Accessibility to the stars by the common man and woman is another of NASCAR's great appeal to the masses. The players in the game that is about to unfold are waiting...waiting...waiting for the moment when the mayhem will begin.
They push their cars through inspection, hoping to pass without much trouble. Once they do pass, they are forbidden to touch their cars again before the race begins. The pushing of the mighty car to the inspection site is pure theater in itself. Faces are tense. Anticipation drips in the form of sweat from the foreheads of those surrounding the car. This is the calm before the storm, a touch of its own kind of madness before the mayhem. Every racing team looks for that little edge that might win a race -- or perhaps be the difference between finishing seventh and ninth, thereby affecting their position in the all-important driving points championship standings. Dale Earnhardt's crew has been known to push the envelope more than most.
One of the first things visitors to Bristol's infield notice is that there is no way out. Once inside the infield, the interior of the track's stunningly small oval, the only way to leave is to walk back across the track itself. This can't be done once the race begins and stock cars are screaming by in close quarters at speeds that reach more than 125 miles per hour on the straightaways.
Once, not so long ago, a driver was injured in a wreck and could not be treated properly at the infield care center. The race had to be halted so he could be removed from the infield and rushed to an area hospital. In racing, stuff like that happens. Drivers go on about their business figuring it's always going to be another guy. At Bristol, ninety minutes before this latest race was to start, they were all thinking about the same thing: survival.
One day earlier, much of the talk around the garage area -- if it could be called that in the tight infield at Bristol, where cars are crammed in right next to one another and worked on under makeshift tents -- centered not around racing but around basketball. Dale Jarrett, the 1999 Winston Cup points champion, is a huge fan of the North Carolina Tar Heels. One night earlier, the Tar Heels beat Tennessee to earn a spot in the Elite Eight of the NCAA basketball tournament. His dilemma was that on Sunday, when the Food City 500 was to be run, the Heels would be facing Tulsa for the right to go to the Final Four. How would he be able to keep abreast of what was going on with his beloved Heels?
His big worry was that his spotter -- the important team member who sits perched high atop the track on race day and radios the driver with advice on where to avoid trouble -- was Bob Jeffrey, a Tennessee fan.
"Bob's mad at me. I'm not sure he's going to give me much of an update," Jarrett joked.
In the Bristol infield media center, Jarrett was all smiles. He spotted his father, Ned, a NASCAR driving legend in his own day and currently one of the sport's most respected television analysts. Ned's other son and Dale's older brother Glenn was the one who actually attended North Carolina, but the driver obviously adopted allegiance to the school.
"How 'bout my Heels?" said the younger Jarrett, smiling and slapping his father on the back. "Everyone said they couldn't beat Missouri in the first round of the tournament. Then they didn't stand a chance against Stanford -- and surely they couldn't beat Tennessee. But they're still standin'!"
Another rabid Carolina fan is Elliott Sadler, driver of the No. 21 Citgo Taurus, which puts him in the same Ford family as Jarrett if not the same class because of the superior funding of Jarrett's No. 88 Quality Care Taurus. (Remember, in NASCAR the lingo in simple terms is that Sadler drives the 21 and Jarrett the 88 car -- but when they're being interviewed, they're always quick to slide in the names of their main sponsors.) Sadler sat talking nearby with reporters about his own basketball experiences, which included attending many games at North Carolina when Michael Jordan and other big names played there.
"I got Michael Jordan's autograph when I was in college and I still have it today," Sadler said. "I can tell everybody I knew Michael way back when, before he was big-time."
Sadler was a pretty fair basketball player in his own right.
He played briefly for Coach Lefty Driesell at James Madison in Virginia.
"I wanted to go and try to play basketball in college and I knew I couldn't play for the Tar Heels, so I tried to go to a smaller school," Sadler said. "Then I tore my knee all to pieces and quit college so I could come back and race and work at home and learn the family business."
The family business was racing. Sadler had been racing since the age of seven, when he began driving two-cycle go-carts near his hometown in Emporia, Virginia. He claimed to remember watching his uncle, Bud Elliott, run in late-model Sportsman cars when he was only three. His older brother, Hermie Sadler, also was a driver.
Racing as a family affair hardly was anything new. This is a sport built upon the tradition of families, even if its participants often feud like the Hatfields and McCoys (sometimes even when they're related).
The first family of racing is the Petty family, and they too were in Bristol in full force. Lee Petty, the family patriarch, was back home in North Carolina, fighting to stay alive at age eighty-six. There were whispers that he was losing the fight at the moment. Richard Petty, the winningest driver in NASCAR history, had stayed behind to be with his ailing father, who was struggling to recover from a stomach aneurysm six weeks earlier.
But Kyle Petty, Richard's son, and Kyle Petty's own son Adam were in attendance. Adam Petty was running in the Busch series race (the Busch series is roughly equivalent to Triple-A Minor League baseball) in his final tuneup before becoming the fourth-generation Petty to run in a Winston Cup race one week later in the DirecTV 500 at the Texas Motor Speedway just outside Dallas-Fort Worth. Adam Petty was nineteen and restless to get to the big-time. He was pretty sure, but not certain, that he was ready.
Sometimes, though, he felt as if the Petty legacy -- Lee, Richard and Kyle already had combined for 273 wins at the sport's highest level of racing -- was a heavy load to burden.
"With my name comes a lot of hype," he had said only weeks earlier.
Richard Petty admitted that he was a little apprehensive about Adam's pending Winston Cup debut in Texas. Asked shortly before Bristol what made him think that Adam was ready at this point, and the racer known as the King paused before replying, "We don't know if he's ready. The deal is, in order to play with the best in the long run, you need to play with the best when you're learning. It's a learning process. You don't learn with people who are no better than you are. You learn by playing with people better than you.
"My father told me a long time ago, 'If you want to play golf, always play with somebody better than you because you can learn.' Winning is not the name of the game for Adam right now. Learning is the name of the game for him right now."
Pressed about Adam Petty's plans to run five Winston Cup races in 2000 and then run a full schedule in 2001, the elder Petty grinned.
"What will it be like? Well, it's expensive," he said. "It's just a continuation of what we've been doing all these years. We're not trying to push anything or make him do anything. It's a natural progression of the Petty name.
"And hey, it might not stop with him. He might get married and have some kids. If they want to continue to race, fine. If they don't want to, well, I guess that'll be fine too."
Another of the famous families in racing was the Earnhardt clan. It ran three generations deep, one short on that scale to the Petty family, but included former dirt-track champion Ralph Earnhardt and his feisty son Dale. The elder Dale long ago made his name for himself, but Dale Jr., known as "Little E," had stormed onto the scene like a cyclone two years earlier. After winning back-to-back Busch series Grand National driving championships, Little E was running at the Winston Cup level exclusively for the first time.
So far, he had met with mixed success. Little E qualified second in Atlanta and led for eight laps, but eventually finished twenty-ninth. His top finishes were tenth at Las Vegas and thirteenth in the season-opening Daytona 500, but he was beginning to hunger for more. At the same time, Little E wasn't moping about. He was having the time of his life. He had signed a $50 million deal to have Budweiser be his sponsor -- and back home in Charlotte, North Carolina, he had designed his basement around a cooler that fit a whopping eleven cases of his sponsor's finest stuff. Some nights at the happenin' place he and his friends called "Club E," they would stay up partying late enough to drink the cooler dry.
The talk may have been about basketball and family traditions early in the day, but by midafternoon, when the Busch series race was in the books and the Winston Cup guys were gearing up for Happy Hour, it was all business. Happy Hour is the frantic time when drivers can run fast laps on the track and confer with their team members to try and correct any problems before the actual race commences the following afternoon.
Among the Happy Hour participants is Dick Trickle, still making laps at age fifty-nine. Trickle is legendary for his habit of smoking cigarettes in the car, in the pit areas...just about anywhere when the urge hits him. He has even smoked cigarettes during caution laps in the middle of actual races. NASCAR officials once fined him for having a butane lighter in his car, fearing that he might blow himself and the car up while enjoying one of his patented smoke breaks. Trickle was in the right sport. The sponsor of the circuit was the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company, makers of the Winston brand of cigarette and numerous others. Walk into media rooms at tracks across the country and there along with reams of information about the sport's participants you will find carton upon carton of various cigarette brands, there for the taking.
Trickle also had quite a reputation for staying out late to party with whomever was available, if not that great a reputation for finishing high in Winston Cup races. He once ran into a Charlotte radio personality very early in the morning on the date of an afternoon race in Martinsville, Virginia, a woman on each arm and a drink in hand.
"How can you stay out so late before a race? Don't you need to get some sleep?" Trickle was asked.
"I got it all figured out. I need one hour of sleep for every hundred miles we run. If it's a five-hundred-mile race, five hours of sleep will do just fine," Trickle replied.
"I'll tell you what, though. When we run at Sears Point in California, they measure it out in kilometers. That fucks me all up."
On this day, Trickle was working as a substitute driver for the No. 14 Conseco team, which is owned by A. J. Foyt. The impatient Foyt fired rookie driver Mike Bliss after the first three races of the season when Bliss failed to make the field in two of them. Never mind that Trickle looks older than Foyt, who was more than a fair driver in his own day. Trickle was trying to get the Pontiac Grand Prix right for the run at Bristol, one of his favorite tracks, but he was having trouble.
After only a few Happy Hour laps, he pulled into the garage area, narrowly missing some spectators who lingered too close and moved a little too slowly, and lit up while staying put in his driver's seat and conferring intently with crew chief Terry Wooten. A flurry of activity took place around them as the Conseco crew repeatedly jacked up the car, fooled with this and that in the front, then moved around and messed with the back.
Then Trickle was off again to make two or three laps before pulling in and lighting up as the entire process repeated itself. This took place three times before Foyt, who had been trying to stay out of the way and let his crew do its job without his intervention, could stand it no longer. He stuck his head in and started barking out suggestions.
It might have reminded Wooten of how he first met Trickle nearly twenty years earlier. Wooten and a friend were attending an American Speed Association race in Cincinnati, Ohio, and Trickle had wrecked his car during practice. Wooten and his buddy wandered up, and Trickle immediately put the pair to work helping him fix the car. Trickle went on to win the race, and for the next four years Wooten served as a member of Trickle's road crew.
After Happy Hour at Bristol concluded and Trickle conferred some more with Wooten and Foyt, the day was done. Trickle, who usually is very accommodating, was approached by a reporter.
"Got a minute, Dick?"
"Can't talk. Got to go to some banquet the sponsor has set up," Trickle said. "Catch me tomorrow, before the race."
Trickle stands five foot six and weighs maybe 165 pounds. He could be described as ruggedly handsome for his age, but tends to look somewhat disheveled even after he has showered up and headed away from the track. He has never won a Winston Cup race in nearly three hundred starts, although he has earned more than five million dollars in career winnings. Yes, even Dick Trickle is a hot commodity on the NASCAR banquet circuit these days.
The fastest car during Happy Hour? It's Elliott Sadler's No. 21 car, which leaves him beaming and, for the moment at least, forgetting about Carolina basketball. He already had qualified ninth for the following day's Food City 500. Qualifying well at Bristol, where the pits are divided between the frontstretch and the backstretch, is more important than at many other tracks where all the pits are on one side of the track. And now Sadler knew he had a car with a setup that should allow him to compete with the big boys.
Maybe he'd even begin to make a name for himself like that Jordan fellow he once stalked for an autograph.
"We're so happy to be on the frontstretch here," Sadler said. "That's a big plus. To start in the top ten, we might be out of some of the mess."
There was going to be some mess on the track. Of that, everyone seemed certain.
The next morning, after the paint crew had made its quick and silent appearance to restore the walls to their former state, drivers and crew chiefs huddled for the mandatory prerace drivers' meeting under a tent at one end of the infield. Miss the meeting or be late to it and you will be penalized by being sent to the back of the field for the start of the race.
Jeff Gordon and Kyle Petty sat toward the back on metal folding chairs, swapping stories that resulted in repeated rounds of deep laughter. They sat near Bobby Labonte, who mainly just listened and smiled and nodded. Soon John Andretti, the nephew of former driving great Mario Andretti, who now drives the Petty blue STP No. 43 Pontiac Grand Prix made famous by Richard Petty himself, joined them in the animated storytelling.
Dale Earnhardt sat closer to the front, looking like he was all business. His son Dale Jr. also was in attendance as he prepped for his first Winston Cup race at Bristol.
Also sitting near the front and talking quietly were Ward Burton, Darrell Waltrip and Rusty Wallace.
David Hoots, the race director of NASCAR who conducts the drivers' meetings each week, stepped to a small podium and announced, "Welcome to Bristol, where it's a beautiful day and I'm sure we'll have a great race. Drivers' introductions will be at twelve twenty and will be staged in the third turn, after which we'll drive the pickups around [the track, with the drivers waving to fans from the back of the trucks]. Crew chiefs, remove your generators at twelve fifty. Invocation is at twelve fifty-four, the national anthem is at twelve fifty-six and the command to start your engines will be at one oh six. "
Then Hoots leaned forward a bit and made what he felt was his most important point.
"Bristol is an aggravating place. For five hundred laps, we're all going to be aggravated," he told the drivers and their crew chiefs. "I want you to take that into consideration. Take a deep breath before you start the race and we'll all be around for the finish, running for the win."
Not everyone in the room believed that. But they listened intently nonetheless.
"On the pace laps, get your pit-road speed reading," Hoots continued. "Stay on top of it and on the official start, stay in line until you cross the start-finish line. Use your hand signals as much as you can today, drivers. During the yellow flag [brought out under caution when there is debris on the track], it's very important that you stay closed up. It's the only way we can clean up the race track. It's the only way we can expedite the movement of emergency equipment.
"You must stay up. This is your warning. If you don't stay up, we'll call down and have you passed by another car....Your spotters are up there to help you. Think about what you can gain versus what you can lose.
"Y'all know what the gentlemen's agreement is about riding across single file and going above the scene of an accident. If you can do so, please do that. The caution car is parked up in turn one. Keep your speed up on the front and slow down on the back on the first two laps of the yellow flag. It's important, again, that you stay closed up on the car in front of you."
Hoots went on to explain where tires were permitted to be placed in pit-stall areas and warned that it would be important for crew members to pick up the right rear tire after changing it. In races earlier in the year, particularly at the Daytona 500, failure to do so had caused some serious problems for cars trying to rush out of the pits and back onto the track. He warned the pit-road speed limit was thirty-five miles per hour, no doubt a difficult speed to achieve when drivers are used to pushing their cars to another kind of limit.
Finally, Hoots laid down the bottom line.
"If you get in an accident and you're a bunch of laps down, lay over to the inside and let cars who have a legitimate opportunity to get their lap back do so. If you're thirty laps down, you don't have that opportunity," Hoots told the drivers. "If you're in an accident, take the time to fix the car before you go back out there.
"Watch the emergency equipment. These people are out there to help you. Look for the track workers. If you're in a fire, get out of the car as quick as you can. If not, stay in there and an ambulance will be dispatched out to you. Ride in and let the doctor take a look at you....Good luck to each and every one of you."
It was a sobering reminder that this is a dangerous sport, as if anyone needed it. A month earlier, driver Geoffrey Bodine felt fortunate to survive a fiery crash during a truck race at Daytona. Bodine already was plotting his comeback to Cup racing, but the horrific accident served as the latest example of what can happen when things go wrong at the speeds these guys race at.
As Hoots wrapped up the drivers' meeting, Dale Beaver, a minister with the Motor Racing Outreach group, stepped forward and said, "Let's pray together." Thus began the weekly chapel services that take place at tracks around the country at each NASCAR venue. Everyone is welcome, even fans wearing the proper credentials, although they are warned beforehand that this is neither the time nor the place for pictures and autographs. Several racers are joined by their wives and children for the service, which includes one prayer that states: "You are an awesome God. Please protect us not only in the race today, but in the race of life." One song that is performed during the service includes the verse: "In heaven's eyes, there are no losers."
Most of the drivers who stayed, and there were many, sat silently. They did not sing despite being implored to do so. When Beaver began to wrap up the brief ceremony with a story from the Bible, he was soon drowned out first by some Legends cars that roared by on the nearby track and finally by a live country & western band that suddenly resumed playing for fans after earlier taking a break. Two huge loudspeakers loom right behind Beaver, and Darrell Waltrip, winner of eighty-four Winston Cup races, hustled off to see what he could do about getting the music turned down. When he didn't return immediately and the din only increased, Beaver shrugged and mumbled, "I guess we'll end this early today." He sent the rest of the guys off with a blessing and a wish for a safe, clean race.
Outside, some of the drivers lingered. Ken Schrader, driver of the M&M's Pontiac Grand Prix, was asked if he felt nostalgic about Bristol like so many other drivers. He quickly shook his head no.
"It's not one of my favorite places," Schrader admitted. "It would be good if it was a good surface to move around on, but it's not."
The Bristol track was a concrete surface. Most NASCAR tracks are asphalt and drivers believe you can move around on them better.
"You saw it yesterday during the Busch race," Schrader continued. "It was like follow the leader all day long."
"Yeah, until someone hits the wall," Schrader was reminded.
The veteran driver smiled and shook his head again.
"Believe me, the walls will be scarred up again today," he said.
A fan sauntered up and asked the Missouri native if he enjoyed the Super Bowl championship season put together by the St. Louis Rams, who hail from near his hometown of Fenton, Missouri.
"I don't like no other sports. I just like racin'," was Schrader's reply.
Indeed, unlike Dale Jarrett and Elliott Sadler, many racing insiders only know and love racing. Bruton Smith, for instance, often talked about how he didn't care for those other "stick-and-ball" sports -- even though Smith later would purchase a minor-league baseball franchise in Kannapolis with its most famous native, Dale Earnhardt.
But others shared neither Schrader's disdain for Bristol or other sports. Jimmy Spencer was one. Mr. Excitement loved Bristol because, well, it was so damn exciting.
"I think the fans come here because they know they're going to see an exciting race," Spencer said. "The big thing here is that of all the race tracks that fans go to, they can always anticipate certain things. Here, you're going to anticipate that there's going to be an accident. They know there's going to be fenders rubbing, there's going to be tempers flaring. It might be bad to say that, but that's the bottom line. People love it.
"The one thing this sport was raised on was good, close competition. And you can't pick any better, tougher track to have that than Bristol. And the fans, they go wild at this place. As for the drivers, there are two ways of leaving this event: you're either pretty happy or you're very upset. I've been there and I can tell you there's no other way. You don't say, 'Yeah, we had a decent day.' You're either like, 'Yeah, we're happy. We survived and we came out of this thing pretty good,' or you're like, 'Sonofabitch, Bristol! I mean, gawd.' Those are the only two ways of looking at this event."
Spencer said that the bumping and grinding that goes on at Bristol usually is not done on purpose.
"What happens at this racetrack is a lot of bumper-to-bumper racing. If a guy is a little bit better here or not quite so good here and he slips, a guy bumps him. A lot of that stuff at this track is not intentional. It's just bred into the racetrack. By the end of the race, there are a lot of bumper marks and other marks on the cars that weren't intended to be there," Spencer said.
"But you know -- the drivers know -- when it's intentional or not. You know if a guy is giving you room or not, and that doesn't happen very often. If it does, NASCAR usually catches it and penalizes the cars for doing it. I don't think you'll see any penalties today because we all know it."
Finally, Spencer took a good look around. The seats were filled. It was time to head to his trailer and change into his driver's suit.
"If anybody was building a new facility, this is it. The only thing I would do is maybe make it a little bit wider. But all in all, if I was building any type of racetrack, I would look hard at this racetrack and Richmond. This is like our Yankee Stadium, our Wrigley Field."
No one was feeling better than Rusty Wallace after the invocation at 12:54 concluded with a prayer imploring everyone "to be thankful to God for this track, this race -- and our great sponsors." The National Anthem, sung by country & western star Lee Greenwood, was preceded by his hit song, "God Bless the USA," in which the popular refrain is "I'm proud to be an American."
Yessir, NASCAR racin' is 100 percent made in the good ol' USA, and its fans feel good about it.
Wallace was feeling great as he rode in the back of a Chevrolet pickup truck during driver introductions and conducted a radio interview with Brett McMillan of Performance Racing Network.
"We ran real well during Happy Hour yesterday, so we're feeling good about our chances," Wallace told McMillan.
Wallace had at least seven other reasons to feel good about his chances. In thirty-two career starts at Bristol, he had won seven times, finished in the top five sixteen times and in the top ten an astounding twenty-one times. He had six poles to his credit in qualifying at Bristol. He went into this race ranking second only to Earnhardt in career winnings at the track, and third behind only Earnhardt (ten wins in forty-one races) and Darrell Waltrip (twelve wins in fifty races) in victories there. Besides, Wallace was the defending champ -- and always one of the favorites on a short track, where more than half of his career forty-nine victories had taken place.
During the 1990s, Wallace had five wins and Jeff Gordon four at Bristol. Earnhardt had two, as did the late Alan Kulwicki -- the former Winston Cup driving champion for whom Bristol's new 13,000-seat addition was named. No other driver had more than one, despite the fact that both a spring and fall race was run at the venue.
Wallace, in fact, had logged the very first victory of his Winston Cup career at Bristol back in 1986. His memory of that event was how it was no big deal at the time. After that race, he actually fell asleep in the back of a 1978 Trans Am on the ride back to High Point, North Carolina, where he lived in a modest home. Since then, he had not only won forty-eight more races but also pulled in more than nineteen million dollars in winnings and upgraded his quality of life significantly.
He wouldn't be taking a '78 Trans Am home after this one, win or lose. He and many other competitors who live close enough to do so took private helicopters to the event -- illustrating again how far Rusty Wallace, and the sport in which he thrives, had come in the last fourteen years.
The command to start their engines was given to the drivers at precisely 1:06 by Virginia Tech football coach Frank Beamer. The ensuing roar of forty-three engines simultaneously firing up thrilled the crowd and sent it into a frenzy, as usual. But it isn't until the caution car pulls off onto pit road and the green flag is dropped that the real fun begins. And then it is nonstop for more than three hours.
"It's an assault on the senses," nodded longtime racing writer and editor Joe Macenka as the flag was dropped at Birstol.
On the very first green-flag lap, the mess began and the bright white walls took their first hits of the afternoon. Word spread quickly that Dale Earnhardt got into the back of his son Dale Jr., and then Little E was pushed up into Elliott Sadler's 21 car. Another victim of the incident was Darrell Waltrip, the legend who would retire at the end of the year and wanted so desperately to make one last good showing at Bristol. Now, just one lap into it, it looked like he would have to wait until the fall night race to have one more shot at it.
None of the cars was damaged badly enough to leave the race for good, but in some ways it was worse. Their crews had to work like crazy just to get them back on the track, knowing that any chance they had for a good finish in all likelihood was already gone.
Spencer battled his car early and all day, barely able to stay out of trouble. He kept complaining about a chronic "push" in the car's handling as he tried to negotiate through the tight turns.
"It feels like I've got two flat tires in the front," Spencer said to his crew over the radio. "The car won't roll through the corner like it needs to. It's just too tight."
Near the end of the race, car owner Travis Carter finally came on the radio and said, "We've struggled with it all day. Let's just finish the race and get home in one piece."
Sometimes, especially at Bristol, that's the best a team can do.
Earnhardt survived the early scrape with his son between turns three and four and eventually overtook Gordon for the lead on lap 206 of the five-hundred-lap event. Then he got a dose of his own medicine in the same spot where he touched off the earlier incident, as rookie driver Matt Kenseth hit Kenny Irwin and sent Irwin's car spinning up the track. At almost the same instant, Earnhardt's spotter shouted at him to go low on the track to avoid the mess.
"[Irwin] hit the wall and I saw his car up there," Earnhardt said later. "If he had just held the brakes on, I would have been all right. I'd done committed myself to the low side -- and that's where I had to go. That's all I could do, go low."
So he went low.
"I went down there and I got whacked. It was a whack," Earnhardt said.
Earnhardt spun into the wall on impact and ended up facing the wrong way on the track. When he tried to get his crippled car righted and onto pit road, his right rear wheel fell completely off and rolled away -- taking along with it any hopes he had of winning the race.
The Intimidator's misfortune left the spoils of victory seemingly in Gordon's hands. Like Wallace, Gordon was searching for career victory number fifty. Prior to his split the previous spring with crew chief Ray Evernham, few had doubted that Gordon would reach the milestone long before Wallace, who had been struggling. But without Evernham, Gordon no longer seemed the dominant force he was only a year earlier.
Something, it seemed, always seemed to go wrong even when he thought it was time for something to go right. That proved to be the case again when Gordon, then the leader, hit a tire in Steve Park's pit stall as he was trying to get back on the track after a pit stop during a caution period on lap 385.
"I drove right into it," Gordon said. "I blasted it and it ruined our day."
By the time he returned to the pits for repairs to his car caused by slamming into the tire, Gordon had fallen from first to seventeenth in his No. 24 Chevrolet Monte Carlo.
That left Wallace in control. Pit-road problems had been plaguing his own team all year to such an extent that the driver had let his crew members have a tongue-lashing earlier in the week.
"I was brutal. I was rough on them. I told them I didn't want any excuses or problems," he said.
There was one, however. One pit stop was delayed when a photographer inadvertently stood on an air hose that powered one of the team's wrenches. Eventually the photographer was shoved out of the way, but it cost Wallace's No. 2 Lite Beer Ford Taurus a few valuable seconds -- which can mean everything in the course of even a five-hundred-lap event.
"I think that guy is still in the air," Wallace joked later, when he could. "I think they beat the hell out of that guy.
"That would be something...a real crucial pit stop, and you've got a photographer standing on your air hose."
It could only happen in NASCAR, where the human element is prevalent in everything that is done -- despite the fact that men rely on machines to take them where they want to go. That would be Victory Lane, which is where Wallace ended up at the end of the day.
Others weren't so fortunate. Sadler's early problems limited him to just 325 laps and a forty-first-place finish, which is not what he had in mind after driving the fastest car during Happy Hour the previous afternoon.
"I went from one of the best days of my life to one of the worst," Sadler moaned.
Jarrett ran strong for a while, staying around the top five. But then a tire started to go bad and he faded to twenty-first.
Spencer started sixteenth, finished nineteenth and survived. But he still went home cursing.
Trickle, by far the oldest competitor in the event, climbed out of his car after the race, mopped his brow with a towel and sighed, "Whew! That's a whole lot of circles."
He completed 496 of them to finish twenty-seventh and collect $27,545 in earnings.
Wallace, meanwhile, won $87,585 for getting to Victory Lane. He had talked to his crew about getting there prior to the race. A year earlier, he thought his win at Bristol was the fiftieth of his career -- only to be informed in Victory Lane by Tom Roberts, his right-hand public relations man, that it was only number forty-nine.
"This is ridiculous now. It really is," Wallace told his crew, which likewise had tired of waiting on win number fifty. "I've won races all over the place -- but I've won seven times at Bristol. I've got four car dealerships down the street. It's the site of my very first win. There are a hundred and forty-seven thousand people in the grandstand and it's the number one most exciting track on the circuit. Let's put a big bull's-eye right on this racetrack."
Two nights earlier, Wallace had attended a banquet to honor Darrell Waltrip at a Holiday Inn about ten miles from the Bristol track. He arrived via helicopter and chauffeured limousine and spent a good bit of the night talking about the good ol' days with the man known simply as "DW," as well as racing legends Junior Johnson, Ned Jarrett and Bobby Allison.
"We just kept having flashbacks," Wallace said. "Everything was a little bit more fun back in those days."
True enough, it was different now. Corporate sponsorships for a team ran into the millions. After his win at Bristol, Wallace had to change hats twenty-two times, posing for a different picture each time in an effort to satisfy all his sponsors, plus commitments to Winston Cup and the track itself. The drivers were huge stars now, celebrities everywhere they went. Wallace himself had vacationed the previous off-season in Monte Carlo, Monaco, and he even ran into fans there who knew him and wanted his autograph. It was far, far removed from the earliest days of the sport, when guys like Junior Johnson ran moonshine out of the mountains and raced only because they wanted to prove to everybody that they had the fastest car. The only folks who knew most of them were agents from the Internal Revenue Service who wanted to bust them for failing to pay taxes on the illegal whiskey they hauled.
Or was it that different? Someone asked Wallace how big a party he planned to throw to celebrate his fiftieth win, which tied him for eighth on the all-time list for driving victories with Johnson and Ned Jarrett, just five behind one of the men widely credited with making NASCAR what it is today -- Lee Petty, father of Richard, who headed the list with a remarkable two hundred wins.
"Are you kidding? My sponsor is a beer company, man," replied Wallace, grinning widely.
Copyright © 2001 by Joe Menzer
A History of NASCAR (or, How a Bunch of Good Ol' Boys Built a Billion-Dollar Industry out of Wrecking Cars)
The Wildest Ride
A History of NASCAR (or, How a Bunch of Good Ol' Boys Built a Billion-Dollar Industry out of Wrecking Cars)
Menzer expertly maneuvers through the tight corners and wide-open straightaways of NASCAR's history, examining the circuit's attempt to distance itself from its "redneck racin'" past without compromising its country roots. Simultaneously rowdy and insightful, The Wildest Ride is a thorough and unfailingly honest account of NASCAR's amazing rise to prominence and a sweeping account of a uniquely American phenomenon.