NASCAR Nation lives in the little-seen places. It resides in the infield at Talladega, in the water-logged tents where strangers share their supplies without a thought and huddle together under the plastic sheeting during an interminable rain delay, smiling and laughing despite the mud on every surface. It can be found at a back-road campground in a middle-of-nowhere New Hampshire town, where bikers and frat boys hang out around the same campfire with a couple of bottles of home-made moonshine. For those who don’t know anything about the sport, and believe that all there is to the NASCAR community is rednecks riding in circles, the truth would be hard to comprehend.
The truth is that NASCAR is as much about the fans as it is the drivers. They are inextricably linked, of course, feeding each other energy in a symbiotic relationship that lifts both up and carries them forward from race to race. From every February to November, a community as diverse as can be imagined get together every weekend and celebrate at tracks from coast to coast. The only differences between them that matter are the drivers they follow. Anything else is beside the point. There are businessmen and barmaids, farmers and fishermen, and people of every type and color and size and shape. The things that don’t really matter, really don’t matter at a NASCAR track.
The initial draw, to be sure, is the racing. The excitement and drama that keeps unfolding every week, with just a touch of danger, is intoxicating. The reason that people come back, year after year, is the fans. That NASCAR Nation mentality lives where there are no “little” people, and folks only see the commonalities of a community that comes together every weekend. There is no worry about what trouble or trials are waiting at home. At the race, there is a spirit of generosity and compassion that overwhelms whatever overwhelms them for the rest of the week. For a couple of days, it doesn’t matter. For a couple of days, people get to be the people they want to be, and would be every day if it weren’t for the cares and pressures that the “real world” brings.
Yes, they are crude, and crass, and blunt. They are often drunk and always loud. They are inappropriate and off-color, and virtually never politically correct. They are also loving, and loyal. They are patriotic and faithful, and not ashamed of any of the above. They sing along with the National Anthem, and thank every member of the armed services they come across, no matter what they believe politically. They don’t do it because it is fashionable, but because it is just the right thing to do. These are generalities, but that is the point. A NASCAR fan could be anyone and everyone, because it is alright to come from wherever you come from. NASCAR is about the destination, and the celebration, and the unwavering support for your driver no matter what his or her record is.
The drivers themselves grew up in this community. They have lived it every weekend, some of them for their entire lives. They embody that NASCAR spirit, and are ambassadors of it. Go to a track on any weekend of the year, and you will see drivers granting wishes for children who are ill, or driving bright pink cars for breast cancer awareness, or donating time or supporting a cause. They are not saints. Not by a long shot. They argue and fight and throw helmets in the heat of the moment. This is a real sport, with real competition and real passions that come out in the competition. The fact that people come from every corner of the country to scream and cheer and support them despite the fact that they are imperfect, and very publicly so, speaks to the heart of the NASCAR fan; to the heart of NASCAR itself.
This is not speculation, or journalistic research, but the experience of a NASCAR fan. That being the case, I must declare my allegiances or be a hypocrite. I proudly wear the number 14 on my hat and t-shirt, for Tony Stewart. I wore the 20 when he drove that car. When I drive cross-country to different tracks, there is usually a woman with Dale Jr’s 88 on her shirt in the seat beside me. Of course, the Jimmie Johnson fan rides in the bed of the truck with the camping gear, as it should be. I camp in the infield at Talladega every year, and drink apple pie moonshine with the boys from Arkansas a couple of sites down. They bring deep fryers and make fried everything all weekend long. I split the cost of a port-o-potty with the contractor from North Carolina that always has the site beside mine. I am a member of this community, and I know the people this story is about. So do you, even if you don’t think so. NASCAR fans are everywhere, and everyone.
In about a month, it all starts up again. Daytona is coming, and with it the craving for that special kind of celebration that drives me back and forth across the country. I know that NASCAR Nation lives in the little-seen places in our hearts that find the things we have in common as people more compelling than anything else, and that is why I live here.
By Jim Malone