Now that the NASCAR season is back in gear, and since most of its races occur on Sundays, I believe it fitting and proper to now make a good and full confession: I am a closet NASCAR fan.
It all started several years ago when my wife and then five-year-old son, Ethan, stopped at the local liquor store to pick up Dad a six pack as he had been working away remodeling the kitchen. In the parking lot was a racecar: number 97.
My son came home thrilled to have seen a real racecar and insisted we watch the race that following weekend which, I believe, was the Pocono 500.
I had never been a racecar enthusiast. In fact, I was what you might call your classic NASCAR basher. What was the level of the mind of the person who finds it amusing to watch cars drive in circles for hours, I’d say. What could possibly be the thrill of exhaust fumes, deafening noise, drunken rednecks and cheap beer, I’d wonder aloud. What do you call an overweight, loudmouthed, couch sitting, beer swilling middle-aged man? Why a NASCAR fan, I’d often declare.
I remember my father sitting on the floor, leaning on the ottoman, smoking his menthol one hundreds and drinking his sixteen ouncers, watching stock car races when I was a kid. From time to time I would try to sit there and watch with him because, perhaps subconsciously, I was attempting to connect with him, but I could never make it past a few laps. Once in a while there was a good crash that held my attention, but, to me, all the cars looked alike and just kept going around and around and around. Even at twelve years old, I thought that a good crash was not worth the wait.
So, my son and I tuned in to the race. “There it is, there it is,” Ethan yelled. There on television was number 97, the very same car he had seen and touched only days before. I soon learned that the car was being driven by the defending champion Kurt Busch. If you have to root for someone, it might as well be someone good. I further learned that Busch wasn’t the most popular driver, and had a reputation of being a troublemaker, which made me like him even more.
Number 97 started off strong in the first row, but finished somewhere in the middle of a pack of forty-some cars, a ho-hum performance but oddly appealing. I found myself being drawn into the drama of the race and, dare I say it, enjoying myself.
Soon I started turning on the races while doing small chores around the house. Just background noise, I told my wife. I wasn’t really watching. A few weeks later I was sitting on the couch when she said that for background noise, I seemed pretty interested. I told her that I would rather have been doing a thousand other things, but Ethan wanted to watch another race. The problem, she so lovingly pointed out, was that Ethan had gone to the park with his sister nearly an hour ago.
By the end of the 2005 season, I was watching regularly, and, when she discovered the endless amount of available accessories – t-shirts, flags, barware, kitchen tools – my wife was watching, too.
Before the 2006 season began, we had to pick a driver to support. Last season we had cheered on Kurt Busch because we had the car connection. But since he was no longer going to be driving number 97, we had a decision to make: Do we stay with the team or follow the driver. In other sports players change teams all the time, but very few people will change their allegiance to the team. Perhaps we’ll go with our favorite sponsors. What would it be? Candy? Breakfast cereal? Office supplies? Home improvement centers? Alcohol?
In the end we decided to choose several drivers to follow for an array of reasons. Some we chose because they drove the same brand of car we drive. Another because we share a last name with the driver. Finally we chose a rookie because we thought it would be fun following someone’s career from the start.
During the first race of the following season, the famed Daytona 500, I called all my children into the living room to watch the race with their mother and me. Among groans, complaints and an offer to do homework, I told my kids that watching NASCAR is like sitting in Circus Maximus of ancient
watching chariot races filled with danger and nobility and honor. Each chariot a wonder of modern physics and engineering. Each charioteer a fearless competitor, risking life and limb to wear the laurels of victory. Rome
When that didn’t work I told them I’d run to the convenience store for some chips, dip and sodas. They were in.
It’s been that way ever since.