Yes, I know I promised to write about the Georgia state flag controversy, but that prospect was too depressing. Let me address instead a couple of more entertaining topics, namely the 43rd annual Mountain Dew Southern 500 NASCAR Winston Cup Series Race and the recent presidential election. By the time you read this you’ll know who won the election, and it’s a matter of record that Darrell Waltrip won the Southern 500, but there’s a connection here that vou may not be aware of. It was at the Darlington Raceway on Sunday, last September 6, that I finally realized that George Bush was in serious trouble.
Although I grew up twenty miles from the NASCAR track in Bristol, this was the first race I’d ever been to. When I was a lad stockcar racing had an image problem—and not just an image problem. A very funny novel called Stand On It describes the drivers of my youth:
Fact of life: southern stock car drivers are mean bastards and they have dirt under their fingernails and chickens—t on the bottoms of their boots. The backs of their necks are red. They race all day and drink all night. . . . Plus a lot of interpretive fighting with tire irons. It’s their form of ballet.
And fans were cut from the same cloth: “Every other one has a wooden match in the corner of his mouth and a bottle in a brown paper bag between his feet. They are fine when the race starts—I suppose. By maybe the 250-mile mark they are all liquored up and the safest place to be is upside down out there on the g—dam track.”
A chubby, bespectacled teenager survives by knowing where not to go, so I reached mid-life familiar with racing only at second hand—from more adventurous friends, from forgettable drive-in movies with titles like Red Line 7,000 and Thunder Over Carolina, and from Tom Wolfe’s classic 1965 article about Junior Johnson, the “Last American Hero” (which, incidentally, introduced the Southern phrase “good old boy” to the rest of the world). Besides, the sport itself didn’t interest me much. From time to time I ran across race coverage on the radio, but listening to it seemed about as pointless as listening to bowling. And racing wasn’t much better on television: round and around and around and around we go, as Chubby Checker puts it.
But someone who purports to know the South needs to know the NASCAR scene, so I jumped at the chance to go to Darlington with a buddy of mine who has been going for many years and has even written about it once or twice. At the crack of dawn on race day, he and I set off for South Carolina, he pointing out such sights along the way as Eunice’s Grocery (“Home of Flat Nose, the World’s Only Tree Climbing Dog”) and a combination house of prostitution and—well, I’d better not say, but you’d never guess.
We pulled into the town of Darlington about the time the hungover Saturday-night infield revelers were waking up and popping their first beers of the morning and went with the flow of traffic down a commercial strip, past Southland Gun Works and a crane set up for bungee-jumping, to the press office just across the road from the track. There we picked up our credentials. (Yes, I was impersonating a journalist. I told the Darlington p.r. folks that Chronicles is a magazine of vast readership and influence, hi my defense let me say that grandstand admission ran fifty to one hundred dollars.)
I drove through a tunnel under the grandstand and across the track (strongly tempted to hang a right and take a lap just for the hell of it) to the infield, which was a clutter of campers and trailers and converted buses, many of them with platforms on top for viewing the race. Scores of flags flapped in the breeze, enough rebel ones to give the encampment the look of a lost Confederate regiment, but also plenty of U.S. flags, plus the flags of many states, flags with the colors of favorite drivers, and flags featuring portraits of Hank Williams Jr., and Elvis.
The infield folks had paid upwards of two hundred dollars to park their vehicles and hook up to utilities, plus about thirty dollars a head. I began to figure: 95,000 fans at these prices, plus television and radio coverage and commercial sponsors’ logos on everything in sight. Big bucks. And this was just one of thirty or so races in a season that started at Daytona in February and wouldn’t end until November, in Atlanta.
We parked the ear at the Goody’s Headache Powder Media Center (free Goody’s, Pepsis, Slim Jims, Winstons, Texaco ballpoint pens, sunscreen, chewing gum—this journalist business is all right), picked up a wad of press releases, and set out on a walking tour of the infield. A nearby concession area offered a mobile bank machine, booths selling Tshirts, caps, patches, pork skin, hushpuppies, and $85 sunglasses, and toilets labeled “Men” and “Ladies” (think about that). For once the men’s room line was longer, not surprising since by my rough count male fans outnumbered female ones by seven or eight to one. This was not because women were unwelcome or unappreciated (especially those in tight cutoffs and haltertops).
Despite the high testosterone level, however, most fans were subdued, sitting quietly by their campers and drinking beer, waiting for the race to start. Some were listening to country music, one or two to gospel (it was Sunday morning, after all). We saw only one halfhearted fistfight. The night before had been party time, but my buddy said that even on Saturday night things aren’t what they used to be—or what the) still are at, say, Talladega, where the police enter the infield only in platoon strength. “They’re afraid they’ll scratch their Winnebagos” was his scornful explanation.
Being journalistic, we interviewed some of the fans. Most were blue-collar guys from the South, although we talked to groups from Michigan, Pennsylvania, and upstate New York. Most wore caps and T-shirts with the logos of their favorite teams and drivers. All were white. (The only black fan I saw was a large guy in a cowboy hat who was with a couple of similarly attired white buddies; all the other black folks I saw were armed—security guards employed by the track.) We talked about where they’d come from, which drivers they were pulling for and why, and politics.
The last subject came naturally. Governor Clinton was coming in shortly to be the race’s Grand Marshal, the first Democrat who had dared to show his face at Darlington since Jimmy Carter in 1976. Carter was well-received then, but in 1992 Clinton couldn’t find a driver or owner or chief mechanic willing to introduce him around the garage area. Few fans were ready to embrace the Arkansas Boy Wonder either. One fellow said he came to the races (from Pittsburgh) to get away from politics. “Politics should stay the hell out of it. Clinton, too.” He was with five friends: they had five favorite drivers, but all had been for Ross Perot. Now they either were for President Bush or were planning to sit it out. I told one about how fast Arkansas women are (so fast they had to put a governor on them) and it was rather well received, if I do say so myself.
But it wasn’t surprising that folks didn’t like Clinton. The actual news was that many of those we talked to were undecided, and it looked as if Perot could have swept the field if he had stayed in. We even found a few who planned to vote Democratic—outnumbered at least two to one and a little defensive about it, but solid in their choice. Most were distressed about “the economy,” especially about unemployment, but a couple were, in their own peculiar way, pro-choice. “If some old gal gets knocked up, I don’t want to hear about it” is how one put it. (Incidentally, any true race fans out there will be amused to hear that the black, orange, and white colors of Dale Earnhardt, “Black #3,” turned out to be an infallible political indicator. Pulling for Earnhardt is apparently like pulling for the old Oakland Raiders, and none of his fans were for Clinton. Not one.)
Darlington’s a tough crowd for any Democrat. Among race fans, the national Democratic party is thoroughly discredited, about as popular as Honda or Toyota. Four years earlier my buddy had talked to a hundred fans at the Southern 500; in an article I swiped my title from, he reported that 99 planned to vote Republican and that only one yellow dog Democrat was for Dukakis. No, if George Bush couldn’t count on this crowd, he really was in deep doodoo.