My relationship to NASCAR is a mite complicated, as is any southern expat’s, but it essentially fits the following parameters:
1. I don’t usually much care for NASCAR fans, unless they’re related to me.
2. I was raised on a steady diet of Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt, but when Earnhardt died I was a long way from Calvary Baptist in Charlotte, NC, and I was mostly laughing at news of the regional television coverage his service received (delivered via a fitful, sobbing telephone call from my redneck brother).
3. Chili goes well with it.
4. Beer too.
Mid-February and the first race of the season, the grand Daytona 500, came on quick this year, but I met it in plenty of time to call over a few of my friends for our inaugural end-of-Speedweek hangout at my place: plenty of chili, plenty of beer, and Erk, a nonfan, as it goes, but a man with a large beard and who shares the name of the famed Georgia-bred football coach (formerly of the GA junkyard dawgs’ defense and lately of GA Southern Uni) Erk Russell and whose mind is evermore open to pretty much anything, really, and particularly the idea that a latent homosexuality pervades much of men’s professional sports and its enthusiasts, an idea very hard to discount at any moment — Erk makes a hell of an argument. And Henry David Cocteau, whom we call HD, also a nonfan but from NC, which makes us brothers, of a sort, in Chicago — his attraction to NASCAR is all regional nostalgia, boyhood memories of sitting with Pop by the gas fireplace talking Earnhardt bump-steer and old Richard Petty lore. And, finally, Mort’s a new-NASCAR enthusiast if I’ve ever seen one, wears an earring and everything with his DeWalt cap — his enthusiasm for Matt Kenseth seems to spring from his loyalty to DeWalt tools, not that he ever uses them, of course (he does live in Chicago, city of big service, and works in a bar far — metaphysically, if not geographically — from any garage).
We were primed. Or at least I was. My brother, however, was ecstatic. He lives for this shit. Good ol’ boy Dale Jarrett, among the “old guard” of drivers, had won the “shootout” pole position-determining race of the previous week and thus was starting the main event right up front and my brother had been calling me daily in the week preceding the race with news from South Carolina and the near-psychotic fandom that resides somewhere in his left brain. He “couldn’t fucking wait” for the beginning, when Jarrett would by all means necessary whip the living shit outta every other driver there. Yes, to hear the boy talk you’d have thought that DJ was already a shoe-in for victory. When race time arrived, chili beginning its fourth and final hour of simmering, beer on the back porch cooling naturally in the Chicago winter, after a viewing of the unfortunate singing of none other than former beauty/porn queen Vanessa Williams and countless other hapless losers, Me and Mort — HD and Erk hadn’t yet arrived — watched Jarrett promptly lose near 20 of his spots due to a quickly failing engine or other auto component. My brother called and was cursing, over the phone. Mort invoked the great Dale Earnhardt when I passed him the receiver, my brother in mid-curse, as he said, “That’s racin’.”
I listened to the attendant yowl, Mort painfully pulling the receiver away from his ear, with equal parts glee and empathetic consternation, for the NASCAR fan is like his favorite driver and competitive to a fault, but likewise ever mindful of the always present possibility of death. My brother hung up when he finally realized Mort had put the phone on the floor, where my girlfriend’s cat had proceeded to sniff at it and then to screech a little at the boy’s voice blasting forth. And he wouldn’t call back again, not even when Jarrett was charging through the racing field toward the front at the end of the race, when it looked like Jarrett might actually contend for this one. It was a shame, too, cause had he called to gloat it likely would’ve blown up in his face just like Jarrett’s chances for victory: I never lose an opportunity to get one up on my brother, and in being a racing fan it was too easy. The highly partisan fan suffers with his driver. I was relatively nonpartisan, if occasionally I pulled (along with the rest of my small crew here except for Erk, who didn’t give a shit either way) for Mark Martin, another old guard veteran who we were partial to on account of the tragedy of his main corporate sponsor, Viagra. It’s not something we’ll even much talk about, you know, until Martin creeps into the top five, maybe, or say it’s getting late in the race and the little ticker that goes perpetually across the top of your television screen might be telling you, lap by lap, that the old man’s creeping up toward the front and then, with maybe 50 laps left in whatever race, you might feel compelled to put all shame aside and raise a toast for the victims of erectile dysfunction the world over, to raise a toast for the blue #6 Viagra Ford of Mark Martin, native of Batesville, Arkansas.
Yes, the old boy Dale Jarrett finished 15th after creeping into the top ten and I imagine my brother was none too pleased. But Martin, well, let’s just say that me and HD and Mort spent the last twenty laps of this year’s Speedweek silent as elves, our eyes and minds locked on the events at hand. Martin was shifted back and forth between second and third and fourth places in the final laps, before a wreck back in the field and ensuing caution period, after which point the youthful power trio of Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Gordon, and last year’s championship winner Kurt Busch fought it out to a Gordon victory. The driver of the Viagra car finished sixth in his last ever Daytona 500 (he’d announced his impending retirement earlier in the year), but it wasn’t such a bad showing. Me and Mort and HD were all down, a little, though the drinks probably had something to do with it. Erk was beaming, always a joke at arm’s length, if not at hand. “Martin blew his load, didn’t he? Or maybe he just couldn’t get it up,” Erk said. We all scowled at him and went out back for a smoke.
Take the day onward, we figured in our sudden dysfunctional camaraderie. Young and defeated all. On to the Rainbo, a bar close by where we knew some people, even if we had to take the traitor namesake of the great Georgia football coach. Erk came out onto my porch as we all lit up our second cigarettes and invited himself along, but it didn’t much matter. At the bar, Erk even joined in on a toast to Martin’s failure, likewise our own. If we ever grew up and got married and started careers and all that, God help us. I wouldn’t remember much after said toast, anyhow. Hell of a way to start the season.