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By Jill Stewart
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By Dennis Romero
|Photo by Sherryl Creekmore/NASCAR|
It is the loudest sound you will ever hear. Imagine the din of 50 747s touching down, surrounded by 120,000 people yelling all at once. Even though there are only 43 cars on the two-mile oval track. A NASCAR race. “Fucking awesome,” said the fan next to me. The “whunna, whunna, whoosh” goes on for hours and hours, but only adds to the excitement level of watching the drivers go at it, threading the pack and making a pass on the outside inches from the wall and each other at close to 180 mph. It’s like a Super Bowl every weekend with 43 teams competing instead of two. No wonder the sport has surpassed its Southern roots.
Southern California these days is NASCAR country. The two races in Fontana — the first in early May, and again during Labor Day weekend — sell out months in advance. And local television ratings are also on the rise, making Los Angeles the sport’s second largest market. In fact, the May 2 Nextel Cup at Fontana beat the Lakers and San Antonio Spurs, 6.1 to 4.9.
“Everyone has this image that NASCAR is a Southern sport,” says El Cajon native Jimmie Johnson, who pilots the No. 48 Lowe’s Chevrolet Monte Carlo. “There wasn’t a lot of racing out here while I was growing up, and it didn’t get the attention it does now. California has a lot to offer racing.”
Such as people and weather. (And drivers — six, including Kevin Harvick and Casey Mears from Bakersfield, Jeff Gordon from Vallejo, and Hollywood stuntman Stanton Barrett, are from here.) More than 60,000 people showed up on May 1 to watch the Busch Series race, which is like the NASCAR farm team, and more than twice that number appeared for the main show the next day. These folks are paying $45 to $110 to sit in the grandstands to watch three-and-a-half-hour races in 95-degree weather.
On race weekend, Fontana is like a carnival. Semi after semi lines the midway behind the grandstands, with salespeople hawking everything from DeWalt power tools to Jeff Gordon DuPont Chevrolet visors and jackets. Branding is everywhere. From the black Ryan Newman Alltel hats to the red Dale Earnhardt Jr. Budweiser car, marketing is a major part of the sport that the fans not only accept but revel in.
“The fans understand that without the support of the sponsors, there would be no NASCAR,” Kate Davis, a NASCAR spokeswoman, told me.
That turned out to be an understatement. In the NASCAR world, there are only three types of beer: Budweiser, which means you’re a Dale Jr. fan; Miller Light, which means Rusty Wallace; or Coors Light, which means Sterling Marlin. You will never — and I mean never — see a Dale Jr. fan drinking a Miller. Fans on race day are draped head-to-toe in their favorite driver’s gear, even down to their cell-phone holders. With such tight brand loyalty, major sponsors are apt to fork over a large portion of the $18 million to $20 million a year it takes to keep a major Nextel Cup team in contention.
And everything costs a lot of money. The cars, without an engine, are 150 grand, and a team will have between 12 and 14, as well as some 500 suspension springs at $300 a pop, 100 shocks at $400 each, and the list goes on. But the biggest cost, as with most big businesses, is labor.
Being in the pit area during a Cup race, you can see where all that money goes. When the yellow caution flag goes up, most of the pack comes screaming into the pits and the mayhem starts. The pit crew, usually between six and eight guys, all scale the 3-foot wall to change four tires, drop in 22 gallons of gas, clean the windshield and fix whatever mechanical problems they can, all in under 18 seconds. I was sitting on the wall when Jimmie Johnson pitted, and the furious action that resulted was remarkable. Johnson wound up finishing second, in no small part because his crew handled whatever challenges they faced. Said his crew coach, Matthew Clark, “Your crew can’t win you the race, but they sure as hell can lose it.”
Though the race is great to watch from the grandstands or, if you’re lucky, the pits, the true spirit of NASCAR lies in the infield area. It’s like Burning Man for small-town America. Spread out over its 130 acres are rows and rows of RVs — close to 1,800, all flying their teams’ colors — a small grocery store, a pizza and ice cream shop, and a fire and police station. Most of all, there are lots and lots of makeshift bars — like the White Trash Auto Club, whose motto reads, “There are two types of people, race fans and everyone else.” Indeed, the people who come and make a weekend of the races here are the sport’s — and maybe any sport’s — most hardcore fans.
Two die-hards, brothers Doug and Steve Bueltel, both in their mid-40s and local SoCal boys, ably represent the infield. A Sterling Marlin flag flapped overhead as the brothers kicked back in front of their RV, drinking — natch — Coors Light. NASCAR fanatics since the mid-’80s, they try to attend the four local races each season — the two at Fontana and in Las Vegas and Phoenix — and, with any luck, they make a fifth somewhere down South. All of this takes plenty of time, from Thursday to Monday, each and every race weekend. When I asked them how they managed to take so much time off work to get to all of these races, Steve yelled, “Hell, we’re air-traffic controllers — employees of the federal government!”