Welcome to Darlington. The cradle of Southern stock car racing. The sport was born near here the first time a U.S. Revenue agent figured that he could catch a moonshiner running along a twisty hack road with a car load of booze. No way. . . . Darlington is tradition. First of the big tracks in the Southland, the granddaddy of them all. The land of racing heroes.

—from Stand On It, by “Stroker Ace”

The morning of the 45rd annual Southern 500, back in September, found me and my buddy hanging out at Darlington Raceway, posing as journalists. We talked to fans about the upcoming stockcar race and also about the upcoming presidential race (a contest that most seemed to be trying to forget). I learned, first, that the circus factions of Old Byzantium had nothing on the rivalry between the partisans of Ford and Chevrolet and, second, that George Bush was in trouble. Bush had about a two-to-one edge among those we talked to, and a third or so were undecided, but that wasn’t good enough for what should have been a solidly anti-Democrat, if not pro-Republican, crowd, one that had gone literally 99 to 1 for Bush over Dukakis four years earlier. We didn’t run into anyone who was actually unemployed (they couldn’t have afforded the steep admission), but the subject was on people’s minds. What we heard too often for Bush’s comfort was encapsulated as the chorus of a country song a few weeks later: “Saddam Hussein still has a job, but I don’t.” Since Ross Perot was temporarily not in the running, that left Bill Clinton, but there wasn’t much enthusiasm for him either. In a couple of hours Clinton would serve as the Southern 500’s Grand Marshal, facing what he must have known would be a hostile crowd, and I admit I gave him a little grudging admiration for not calling in sick.

After we finished our informal poll, we went on to the garage area, where hoi polloi like Clinton were not allowed (he couldn’t find an owner or driver willing to introduce him). Breezing past the crowd pressed up against the chainlink fence hoping for a glimpse of the drivers, we held out our press credentials and tried to look authentically nonchalant and arrogant. It must have worked, because the guard waved us through. Inside, powerful unmuffled engines roared, and men in bright primary colors bent over and crawled under matchingcolored Fords, Chevrolets, and Pontiacs, plastered with commercial sponsors’ insignia. The cars looked larger than life, and certainly they were larger than the Toyotas, Hondas, and BMWs that have pretty much taken their places on the streets where I come from. My buddy took a chaw of tobacco, and we stood watching, talking with some other onlookers about the threatening weather, yelling at each other over the blats and roars of the engines. As the mechanics began to roll the cars out to their starting positions, we spied a crowd gathering and went over to sec what was up. It was a chapel service, apparently a regular feature of these races, conducted by a full-time itinerant NASCAR chaplain. We stood with the drivers and mechanics and their families as the preacher led us in song (“God is so good to me,” “He saved my soul,” “He’s coming soon”), read a Bible passage, and delivered a little homily. (Only later, after I saw what racing looks like up close and began really to understand the danger and skill and luck it involves, did I think of bullfighters praying before a fight.)

After the service, we left the garage area, walked through a tunnel under the track, and rode an elevator to the press box beside the grandstand, where we took a couple of empty seats and helped ourselves to some of the free goodies provided for the “media.” We were settling in to eat the free lunch when a NASCAR p.r. man asked to sec our credentials, which turned out not to be potent enough for the press box. Chronicles’ influence only goes so far, I guess. Asked politely to leave, we politely left, to find that in the meantime we’d missed the inferior cold cuts at the infield Media Center. One of the regular NASCAR reporters told us there were hotdogs at the Clinton-Gore trailer, but things were starting to happen on the stage facing the grandstand, so we scurried over to watch, pausing on the way to shake hands with Strom Thurmond, straw-hatted against the sun and working the crowd even though he wouldn’t be up for reelection any time soon.

On the platform Governor Carroll Campbell of South Carolina introduced the legendary driver Richard Petty, who was driving in his last South Carolina race. The governor’s every mention of Petty’s name evoked cheers and applause from the otherwise thoroughly indifferent crowd. Petty stood there, lean and mean in shades and a cowboy hat, smiling beatifically as the governor proclaimed Richard Petty Day and awarded him the Order of the Palmetto.

Soon after Petty left to go get in his car there was a commotion behind us as Clinton, his handlers, go-fers, and accompanying press showed up. From thirty feet away Clinton looked much fatter than I’d thought, almost Kennedy-esque. I was startled, until it occurred to me that he probably had a bulletproof vest on under his pullover sport shirt. For his sake, I hoped so: despite the Secret Service men glaring from behind their shades, 20,000 of us or so had a clear shot, and nobody’d checked me for weapons. During the invocation and national anthem, the crowd fell silent and removed their hats for probably the only time that day. Most of the Clinton press kept right on chatting and jockeying for camera angles, but I was pleased to see the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter uncover and pay attention.

During all this, an airplane circled overhead towing a banner that read “NO DRAFT DODGER FOR PRESIDENT,” and when Clinton was introduced he was roundly booed, to the obvious distress of the reporters we were standing with. I noticed, however, that the boos were more heartfelt than the chants of “Bush! Bush! Bush!” that a few people tried to start. Clinton, his glued-on smile unbroken, shouted the traditional “Gentlemen, start your engines” over the jeers and catcalls and beat a hasty retreat as the mighty machines rolled out behind the pace car, engines throbbing and growling. They circled the track at highway speed; then at the green flag, with an unimaginable blast of engine noise, took off.

There are better places than here to read about racing, and better informed writers to tell you about it. I’ll just say that I now begin to understand the appeal of the sport. As the author of Stand On It puts it, “This is so different from racing Indy-type ears you can’t believe it. There are folks who wet their pants every time they hear one of these big bastard NASCAR machines roar to life.” The noise, the speed, the vivid colors, the pit crews’ feverish work—all of this has a visceral appeal to anyone whose inner child is an East Tennessee 16-year-old. When those mighty cars arc screaming past you 20 feet away at 150 miles an hour you truly appreciate the bravery of the drivers, whose skill and preparation arc the only things standing between them and death. It takes a real hero—no kidding—to go out and face that every weekend and to do it with the self-deprecating insouciance so characteristic of these men. (From Stand On It, again, Sam Bisby’s Law: “It is useless to step on the brakes when your ear is upside down.”)

A couple of months later, when Petty was fixing to run the Hooters 500 in Atlanta—his last race, period—CBS television, for no apparent reason, sent a crew around to ask me to comment on his status as a Southern cultural icon. The Yankee interviewer kept asking why King Richard is so admired in the South, and I tried to tell him, but he didn’t seem to like what I said. Anyway, he kept rephrasing the question. I think he wanted me to say that Southerners like Petty because we lost the Civil War and he gives us something to be proud of. But I wasn’t going to say that. I mean, one, we’re not stupid enough to believe that anyone will think better of us for having good stockcar drivers; two. Southerners who are looking for something to be proud of are found in Atlanta fernbars, not at the Darlington Raceway; and, three, I’m not sure that most race fans are aware that we lost the war. Anyway, I felt so uneasy about the interview that I didn’t watch the news that night. Some of my friends say they caught me pontificating on national TV, but it’s interesting that none of them can remember what I said. I hope I said that white Southern working-class folk admire Petty because he has qualities that white Southern working-class folk admire—like skill, courage, humility, and sly humor.

We watched enthralled for a time, then figured we’d better get back to work (and forage for lunch), so we nipped over to the Clinton-Gore compound to cop some hotdogs and see what the Democrats were up to. The compound consisted of a couple of trailers surrounded by chainlink fence, guarded by several burly security men in ties and gimme caps. The Clintonites, still waiting for their candidate to come shake hands, included a couple of apparent Junior Leaguers and a male sociology professor from a nearby college, and they all looked seriously out of their element. The reporters traveling with Clinton were not a down-home crowd either (unlike the sports reporters we’d been hanging out with in the Media Center). Most had beat a path straight back to the campaign’s air-conditioned trailer, where someone took posterboard and markers and made a sign that said “Make Love Not Stockcar Races.” Inside they pecked away on laptops and used the phone bank to file their stories about the candidate’s chilly reception, which seemed to distress and puzzle most of them.

My buddy and I, ever helpful, tried to explain to some that the real story was that not everybody had been booing. Sure, nobody was taking Clinton’s bumper-stickers or buying the $10 T-shirts, but nobody was firebombing the trailer, either. We told them that was bad news for Bush, but they didn’t seem to believe us. My buddy and I gobbled our hotdogs (I guess we’ll be paying for them for the next four years) and went off for one last look at the infield crowd, most of them now perched on top of their trailers and vans, studying the race intently. A complete 500-mile race would require 367 laps of the oval track, four hours or so, but the intricate Winston Cup scoring system awards points for a great many things besides where one finishes, and there is always the possibility of a collision to keep the fan attentive. I confess that we left early, after nearly three hours, with an eye on the gathering storm clouds and a desire to get away before the other 95,000 fans decided to do the same. We were headed back to North Carolina when we heard on the car radio that rain had stopped the race, at least temporarily. A couple of hours later we were drinking beer in a tavern in Wadesboro, talking with a bail bondsman and watching some of his clients play bumper pool, when the television johnnies interrupted their interviews with drivers and mechanics to announce that the race had been called for good.

The bumper-pool game stopped and we all turned our attention to the television for the final wrap-up. Most of the discussion centered on the fact that Davey Allison had been in contention when the race was stopped. A victory for Allison would have added the “Winston Million” (a million dollars for anyone who wins three of the four most difficult races) to the $1.3 million he had already won in 1992. But Darrell Waltrip had gambled that the rain would begin and passed up a fuel stop, so he had been leading when the red flag came out and consequently won the race. Asked how much fuel he had left at the end, Waltrip grinned and said, “About a million dollars worth.”

A couple of months later, as you know. Bill Clinton was ahead when that other race was called.