Start Your Engines

My family has a summer house in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania. Twice every season, our serene lake days are disturbed by a sports event. Tens of thousands of rowdy car-racing fans suddenly appear in the rural community. They've come to see a NASCAR (National Association of Stock Car Auto Racing) contest at a track not far from our home. It's impossible to ignore the influx: recreational vehicles of all shapes lumber around in search of gas and beer--two and sometimes three days before the actual race. Most have stickers plastered on the windows pledging loyalty to their driving heroes--Jeff Gordon, Sterling Marlin, Dale Earnhardt Jr. For years I tried to ignore the intruders. But two weeks ago I broke down and attended the first summer race. There, I not only mingled with 150,000 ardent NASCAR fans, but was myself enthralled by the noisy spectacle of 750-horsepower machines.

Baseball, football and basketball have long had a strong hold on the American sporting psyche. Football has a primitive, blue-collar appeal; basketball has an urban following and baseball inspires intellectuals to wax cloyingly about the boys of summer cavorting on verdant fields of green. Stock-car racing never had much cachet (a word that no self-respecting stock-car fan would ever use). It was a Southern pastime for good ole boys, who dipped Skoal and liked getting their hands greasy workin' on engines. But suddenly NASCAR is all the rage. It's the fastest-growing sport in America--and only NFL football draws a bigger TV audience. When Dale Earnhardt Sr. died last February on the last lap of the Daytona 500, the august New York Times announced the famous driver's death at the top of its front page. That was proof NASCAR had come of age. So is NASCAR's new $2.4 billion contract with the Fox, TBS and NBC television networks. Last weekend's Pepsi 400 race at Daytona Beach, Florida, the first at that storied track since Earnhardt died, was broadcast in prime time and featured Britney Spears telling the drivers to "start your engines." And nothing signals success in America more vividly than a fairy-tale finish: Dale Earnhardt Jr. rallied to win the race. Conspiracy theorists wondered if the event's feel-good "Rocky"-like conclusion had been scripted by Hollywood. In any case, ratings were boffo.

One wonders why stock-car racing, which has been around since 1948, has taken so long to catch on. Americans love few things more than their cars and sports heroes. Throw in coolers of Bud (Earnhardt Jr.'s sponsor) and 50,000 ugly T shirts and you've got yourself a NASCAR event. No sport is so perfectly aligned with America's genius for marketing. NASCAR features souped-up Chevys, Fords, Pontiacs and Dodges all racing around tracks at upwards of 170 miles an hour. Nearly every inch of the cars, as well as the drivers' uniforms, is covered with corporate or consumer brand-name logos. On TV, no driver will respond to a question without first mentioning his team's sponsors. When driver Jeff Gordon won a race recently, he climbed out of his number 24 Chevy and said: "I'd like to thank God, Pepsi and Fritos."

NASCAR got its start in the lower-middle-income Southern towns like Darlington, South Carolina, where hombres like Fireball Roberts, Richard Petty and Cale Yarborough raced around dirt tracks on Saturday nights. In the 1960s and '70s it was common for drivers to try to wreck one another's cars in the race to the checkered flag; afterward, they'd hop out and brawl.

That doesn't happen much anymore. As it enters the sports-entertainment mainstream, NASCAR's unpretentious country culture is sure to fade. The drivers already fly around in private jets, and the race cars that were once worked on by mere mechanics are now "fabricated" by engineers and aerodynamic specialists. The sport is expanding into bigger cities in the West and Midwest; media coverage is growing. TV promises to both grow and ruin the sport. Thankfully, NASCAR has still got drivers named Hut and Buckshot, and 26-year-old Earnhardt Jr. has a little bit of his dad's ornery nature. He bristled last week at suggestions his Daytona victory was fixed. "A guy asked me about that, and I about knocked the hell out of him," Junior drawled. That's the attitude that makes NASCAR so popular.

At Pocono, just before the race, there was a stir in the small crowd in the garage area. Driver Rusty Wallace had stepped out of his team's trailer wearing sunglasses, cap and his blue Miller Lite uniform. I had to admit, he looked sharp--almost like a military man. After signing a few autographs, Wallace hopped into a golf cart and was whisked over to his car. During the race, when Wallace pulled in for a pit stop, there was a whirl of activity; six crew members hopped over a wall, changed four tires, adjusted the chassis and refilled his car's gas tank--all in 15 seconds. Here was a powerful peek at working-class, "can-do" spirit--manifest in a sporting event. I, a converted race fan, now intend to start changing my own motor oil (hey, it's a start). And I will definitely be at the second Pocono race next week. I just hope 'N Sync isn't there.