|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!”
As famed NASCAR driver Richard “The King” Petty has said, “If the fans don’t show passion, we’re doing something wrong.”
If twice a year isn’t enough NASCAR — or if Fontana sounds like a little too much — there’s always the Irwindale Speedway, at the intersection of the 210 and 605 freeways, where Los Angeles ends and America begins. From March until November, Irwindale provides both the rabid and novice race fan a weekly stock-car fix.
Even though the track was built in the late 1990s, Irwindale is what NASCAR was like when Bill France Sr. started the sport back in the 1940s. The track, the fans, even some of the cars, are throwbacks to a less-commercial time. The action here, on the half-mile oval, ranges from low-end Super Stockers and old-timey Legend Cars to NASCAR Training, Grand National West Super Late Models. An occasional Demolition Derby or Figure 8 race is thrown in for good measure.
Walking around Irwindale’s sprawling garage area, you get a sense of the love of racing. Some teams may have $65,000 rides that look like they just rolled off the lot, and others look like, well, kind of like Pick Your Part had a fire sale — but each and every driver and owner is pumped to be there. Like minor-league baseball players, some of the drivers do have aspirations of hitting the bigtime circuit, but for most of them, just getting behind the wheel of a car — any car — is good enough.
“Barefoot” Billy Ziemann, a Figure 8 legend since 1980, is one of those guys. True to his nickname, he owns one pair of shoes (“my driving shoes”), and told me, “In Figure 8, when you are playing a big old game of chicken at 85 mph and there are no stop signs or red lights, it’s all just crashing and banging.” Which is, of course, part of the appeal; most of the crowd stays through all of the stock-car races just to catch the final heat of the Figure 8 race.
Sitting in the grandstands overlooking the track, drinking a Coke and eating a corn dog on a balmy evening, you get a real sense of family here. The fans all seem to know each other, and — unlike in the big leagues — everyone roots for everyone else’s favorite driver. For the price of a movie, you can watch a full evening of stock-car action. For a lot of people — and I count myself among them — there is no better way to while away the summertime blues than watching people race for love, not for the money but simply for the sport.