Charlotte’s Rich Pageant: On the Ground at the Coca-Cola 600, NASCAR’s Most Grueling Race | Sports
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Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Charlotte’s Rich Pageant: On the Ground at the Coca-Cola 600, NASCAR’s Most Grueling Race

Posted by on Wed, May 30, 2018 at 12:21 PM

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Frenzied fans, some of whom have been partying in and on their RVs, campers, and retrofitted buses for days, wander through the pits, the garage, and even on the track, their pit passes around their necks.

The pit-crew veterans, many of whom are former major college and professional football players, tower over the masses, piloting hand trucks full of stacked spare tires, wagons of massive red Sunoco gasoline cans, and hard plastic rolling luggage, which no doubt holds the air guns whose whizzing sound is as inherent to car racing as blinding speed and crushing wrecks. Weaving through the crowd with barely a “watch your back,” it’s clear that they do this week after week.

Members of the press dart out from the air-conditioned and catered infield media center for a pre-race interview. Photographers and videographers prep their machines, changing lenses and reading light meters.

At least one team owner arrives chauffeured in a quarter-million-dollar Maybach.

The smell of 110-octane gasoline, cigarettes, and sunblock hang in the air, as the noises of racing—the firing of motors, the crack of the air guns, the quick swish of air as a few PSIs are released from one of the thousands of race tires—punctuate the afternoon.

This isn’t controlled chaos. The chaos here is absolute. We’re still five or six hours from green-flag racing and already the infield, pit, and garage areas are pandemonium.

Getting this close to the action has always been one of NASCAR’s hallmarks, as the sport has long invited credentialed fans to pour through the gates, into the pits and garages, in and around Victory Lane, and onto the track, in the hours leading up to race time. It’s as if the Yankees allowed you to putter around the dugout during batting practice or the Hornets welcomed fans onto the court for a pregame shootaround alongside their stars. In this regard, NASCAR racing is truly unique.

It’s Memorial Day Weekend at Charlotte Motor Speedway, and the Coca-Cola 600, NASCAR’s longest and most grueling race, is on the evening’s docket. An afternoon race that stretches well into the night, the Coke 600 is one of NASCAR’s marquee events, standing alongside the Daytona 500, the Southern 500, the Brickyard 400, and the champion-crowning season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

The race teams—engineers, crew chiefs, engine specialists, tire experts—push their multicolored speed machines, adorned with several dozen sponsors on their hoods, roofs, rear decks, quarter panels, and dashboards, through the garage area with nothing to protect them from an errant fan’s touch. The agreement here is unspoken: Let us do our jobs and you can get a close as humanly possible to the action.

Fans marvel at the cars, as the steel and carbon-fiber machines themselves are just as famous as the drivers who pilot them. The cars are stout, low to the ground as they glisten in the Charlotte sun. In just a few short hours, their paint will be smeared from hours of banging into their competition or Charlotte Motor Speedway’s yellow outside wall at 140 miles per hour. Their tires will all be spent, smoldering in a field behind the stadium where fans can buy them as souvenirs for $20 a pop, their engines pushed to the absolute limits of their capacity.

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But right now the cars are wrench-tight, ready to fire, almost perfect machines, built for maximum output over a short period of time. Like a calm stallion grazing in the summer sun, the power these idle machines possess is almost unfathomable, and even as they stand still, they appear as though they’re moving fast.

The team haulers—massive eighteen-wheelers that carry the race cars and every tool and extra car part imaginable—sit adjacent from the garage, with a few high-top tables and a catered lunch spread for VIP guests of the team owners. Eager fans hover around the haulers, waiting for Joey Logano or Kurt Busch or Kyle Larson or Jamie McMurray or Kevin Harvick or Martin Truex Jr. or Jimmie Johnson to emerge, hoping for a quick autograph or, if they're lucky, a chance at a selfie.

The stadium’s grandstand, which runs the entire length of the track’s front stretch, sits nearly empty, as anyone inside the stadium gates this early is in possession of one of two types of credentials: the Cold Pass, which denotes that such access is only good until the drivers are introduced, at which point you are directed to your seat in the grandstand; or the coveted Hot Pass, which allows fans to mill behind the pit stalls and on the infield for the duration of the race.

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Behind pit road, behind Victory Lane and the driver care center, behind the haulers and the garage, the media center and the Maybachs, lies the heart-center of Charlotte Motor Speedway’s expanse.

A sea of RVs, campers, buses retrofitted with viewing decks on their roofs, semi-permanent games of cornhole on their temporary front lawns, grills burning, and stereos thumping stretch across every square foot of space within the track’s oval. There are piles of crushed beer cans everywhere.

The infield is something of a weeklong shanty town, as eager race fans arrive as early as Thursday, parking their hulking motorhomes and repurposed school buses in predetermined stalls, marked on the grass, gravel, or pavement by spraypainted white lines.

From motorhomes that no doubt run in the several hundreds of thousands of dollars to former school buses painted by hand, whose interiors have been built out to include bunks made of plywood and lounges populated by castoff couches, armchairs, and tables, the infield is a mish-mash of temporary living. Often, the denizens of the infield make these pilgrimages to a race or two or three every year. However, one older couple explains how they retired, sold their home, and now make their way around the country in their gleaming RV, following the February-through-November slate of scheduled Monster Energy Cup races. From Talladega to Sonoma, Phoenix to New Hampshire, they use the early week’s days off to drive from track to track, arriving midweek at any given infield, ready to watch practice, qualifying, and, eventually, Sunday’s marquee races.

Children ride around the infield on bicycles alongside new friends they’ve no doubt made in the long days since arriving at the infield while their parents watch from the lounge chairs arranged in their makeshift front yard.

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One family has an entire living room setup, replete with end tables, floor lamps, and throw rugs, while another counts no less than three full-sized grills full of sizzling steak, sausage, burgers, hot dogs, and corn.

Stereos pump country, rap, and classic American rock at full volume, creating a cacophony of blended noise that will soon be drowned out by the might and roar of forty 350-cubic-inch small blocks running wide open around Charlotte’s mighty banked turns.

I find myself drawn to one bus in particular, an homage to The Dukes of Hazzard’s famous General Lee. With a giant black 01 painted on the side and a dark orange paint job, the General Lee is unfamiliar to no one and has taken on cultural landmark status in the gearhead community. (The TV show’s version, of course, had a Confederate flag on the roof. The bus had its flag right on the hood, as the roof was covered by a deck. I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised.)

Outside are a dozen race fans, each shirtless, each with at least one beer in hand, some dancing to the loud stereo, some lounging in fold-out chairs, others tossing bean bags in an apparently very intense game of cornhole. Owners Scott Morrison and Jimmy Woods welcome me to their party, explaining that they’ve been coming to the Charlotte races for over twenty years and only somewhat recently came in possession of the bus that they would soon paint in homage to the Duke boys. They invite me inside and take me up the steep ladder bolted to the bus’s rear, leading up to a roof deck that provides an ultimate, 360-degree view of the track.

“That ladder must be a motherfucker after a few dozen beers,” I say.

“You’re telling me,” Scott laughs.

Race time inches closer and I head back toward the track, where the Eli Young Band takes a stage that has been erected on pit road. Thousands of fans stream from the garage area to the track’s front stretch. Some dance to the music while others simply lay in the grass that separates the track from the stretch of pit road. Two men sit across from each other on the grass, playing a game of blackjack while Eli Young’s singer subversively asks the politically conservative crowd how many of them are dreamers. The crowd erupts in approval and the singer responds in kind.

“Isn’t it great to live in a country that allows us to be dreamers?” he asks.

The crowd roars even louder, and I think I’m the only person in the stadium who is in on the dig.

Patriotism is a key element to any NASCAR race, and on this Memorial Day, the festivities are even more pronounced. Behind the stage, Humvees and howitzers line the pits, with young marines inviting fans to sit in the vehicle’s turret, explaining to them how the top-mounted fifty-caliber machine gun works. Veterans and active service members from all military branches mill about, snapping photos when they’re not shaking hundreds of outstretched hands.

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Two Blackhawk helicopters fly low above the stadium, eventually coming to a hover above Turn One. Several servicemen and women repel down dangling ropes in a simulated military exercise. A twenty-one-gun salute snaps through the air and, for a moment, the tens of thousands of excited fans stand silent. The Middle American reverence for the military is on full display.

The Blackhawks swoop back around the stadium and lower their ropes again. The servicemen and women attach themselves to the rope’s ends and are whisked away by the Blackhawks, dangling a hundred or more feet from the ground.

The cars have been pushed out from the garages and are now sitting in a silent row down the front stretch. Most every ride has some patriotic element added to its paint scheme. Where there used to be stark colors peppered with bold numbers and sponsor tags are now stars and stripes, flags painted to simulate waving in the wind. One car was even painted to resemble a military tank, and every car’s front windshield—where normally sits the name of the car’s driver—carries the name and rank of a fallen American soldier.

The grandstand begins to fill as the drivers are introduced on the stage. Each driver emerges from behind the stage, introduces himself, and welcomes a soldier to walk alongside him down the catwalk toward his waiting race car.

“Taps” is played, the National Anthem sung, and four F-15 fighter jets buzz the stadium in a flyover that sends the crowd into a frenzy. Those in possession of a Cold Pass are funneled back through the few open gates where the track meets the grandstand, while the lucky Hot Pass holders head behind the pit wall to stake out a spot in the shadow of their favorite driver’s pit box.

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Celebrity chef and Food Network mainstay Robert Irvine is welcomed to the stage to give the command, those most famous words in motorsports. He shouts into the mic, imploring the gentlemen to “Start. Your. Engines.”

The forty motors, each capable of producing over eight hundred horsepower, rumble to life, and the stadium that was buzzing with conversation, music, and excitement for most of the afternoon now only emanates one collective mechanical roar. The tens of thousands of fans in attendance insert earplugs or pull massive noise-canceling headphones over their heads. As most of them have been to major stock car races before, they know exactly the level of deafening noise that is about to commence.

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The sun is beginning to dip behind the upper reaches of the grandstand’s luxury boxes as the cars roll slowly around the mile-and-a-half oval for three or four laps, trailing the pace car. Swerving side to side to heat up and clean their tires, occasionally darting ahead as their drivers mash the accelerators, only to fall back in place after a moment or two, there is an obvious order to things on the track. The cars roll by the start/finish line, shaking the very ground beneath them.

A long night awaits. There will be crashes, changing strategies, lead changes, hard racing, paint trading, flat tires, pit road mishaps, and eventually a winner (Kyle Busch). But right now, the race is a blank slate. Any of these forty drivers could pilot their cars six hundred miles faster than the other thirty-nine. Any of these teams could take the checkered flag. Nothing is yet written.

The pace car’s top-mounted flashing yellow lights click off as it passes the start/finish line, indicating that this is the final pre-race lap before going green. The forty cars tighten in formation, falling in line where their starting position—determined by qualifying runs earlier in the weekend—denotes. The pace car leads the group around turn four and dips down the entry to pit road, clearing the way for the forty mechanical beasts chomping at his bumper. The sea of fans in the grandstand rise to their feet as the forty snake around their final pre-race turn. The green flag waves, the rumble of the motors becomes a deafening, ear-splitting din, and the forty drivers pilot their cars into the first of six-hundred grueling miles.

The race for the checkers is on.

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