Everyone bears coolers and bags, backpacks, cushions and children. They look like refugees carrying six-packs of Miller Lite instead of emergency rations. Empty-handed, I follow the crowd in through the raceway gates. Many walk up to the steel-cable-bound fence almost reverently, savoring that first look at the gleaming machines in the pit.
Self-consciously displaying my green-colored media credentials, I walk through a musty concrete tunnel and emerge into the pit area inside the raceway. The cars rest only a few yards away, near stacks of fat tires and bustling crews. I shuffle my feet, hoping no one will notice my forbidden black sandals. Everyone else knew better than to risk a toe-maiming by a dropped wrench, I notice.
A woman in a red-and-blue tie-dyed shirt smiles at me and introduces herself as Debra Haut, a Richmonder. At least I know the first question to ask: "Who's your favorite driver?"
"June-ya," she says with a grin. Dale Earnhardt Jr., whose photograph hangs from a lanyard around her neck. Haut grins again when I tell her I've never seen any of this before. "I got goosebumps when I came out for my first race," she says.
Suddenly her eyes light up. "Benny Parsons!" she says, pointing at a gruff-looking older man in a crisp blue shirt sitting on a concrete barrier near the pit road. She runs to confer with someone standing near him, then rushes back to me. "Got you an interview," she says, delightedly. I thank her. Then I whisper: "Who's Benny Parsons?"
Turns out he's the 1973 Winston Cup Champion, a veteran driver and a NASCAR analyst for NBC. What the hell am I going to say to him?
Surveying the packed grandstands surrounding us, I ask if Parsons ever predicted NASCAR would become the No. 1 spectator sport in the United States.
"If you or a million other people had any idea how big it was gonna get, we'd all be so rich," Parsons says. He remembers his first races back in 1968, when his crew numbered six. "I couldn't afford one," he says with a chuckle. Everyone slept in one motel room to save money, he says. The trick was to check in as early as possible so they could have the room for 24 hours, he says. "We got two nights' sleep in one day."
Tony Gibson, car chief on Jeff Gordon's crew, listens and nods his head. Those days are long over. "Today," Parsons says, "when this is over, Tony will fly home." Gibson smiles wearily. "Be home tomorrow morning. That's all I care about," he says.
A reporter from TNT Sports hands Parsons a microphone and he turns away to face the cameras. But it doesn't matter because the drivers are starting to appear.
Haut, camera at the ready, points out each one.
John Andretti is Cheerios, I learn. Another driver, surrounded by people, is hard to name: "Viagra? No, Discover Card. I don't know who that is." Tony Stewart is "in trouble, because he shoved a lady in the pit again," Haut confides. "Sometimes he gets a bit ornery." Bobby Labonte gives a quick tight smile as Haut holds up her camera. Terry Labonte follows, mechanically signing the pit passes that people press into his hand.
Another man in a jumpsuit, square-jawed and stern, passes by on his way to the pit. "I'm not sure who that is," Haut says. She scrutinizes his face and after a moment decides. "That isn't anybody." Junior, her favorite, is notoriously elusive, and we find out later that he slipped into pit row a different way.
After "God Bless America," Haut leads me to a different side of the infield for a better view of the start. (On the way we run into Garth Brooks, complete with cowboy hat but no entourage. Haut shouts, "Mr. Brooks!" and he mugs for the camera while she tries furiously to make the flash go off).
We reach the chain-link fence and I watch the cars glide leisurely forward to the starting line. Then comes the roar, from the crowd and the engines. The metal machines become blinks of color. Thousands of watchers go silent, listening to the drivers' communications through headphones.
"This is crazy," I scream to a guy reclining in the bed of a nearby pickup. "Everyone's just standing there watching them go round and round!" He nods.
"S'all right," he says. "I love fast cars," he tells me, "but I've never come in here to watch 'em. It's the feeling you get when you're here." What? "You can come here and you've never been here and you feel right at home."
Maybe that's it. I still don't know the drivers. Still don't know anything about points or passing or camber. And my ears hurt. But I don't feel lost anymore. And when the cars roar by the fence, I get goosebumps.