Planet NASCAR was not the sloppy show of chaos I had expected to see. I prepared for my first NASCAR experience (yes, I’m a Charlotte native and had never been to a race) by grabbing a media pass for Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway, by wearing closed-toe shoes and bringing earplugs (I still had a pair from my Elevation Church experience) and liquids and snacks, and by setting high expectations to people-watch.
The people-watching was quite good; Mysterious Gorilla Man in particular did not disappoint.
But here’s what I didn’t expect:
How organized the event was
First, a media shuttle took me from my parking lot, through a tunnel under the stands to land me on the infield. And the pathways there were a mess of people with access passes, pickup trucks with fans spilling out of the beds and golf carts swerving through it all. But once I got through the gate to the garage area, it was all business.
Blair Carson, account manager for the No. 43 team at Richard Petty Motorsports, showed me around, from the inspection point to inside No. 43 Aric Almirola’s hauler.
The sheer number of people
Even when my friends and I were driving toward the entrance of the speedway, we saw the surrounding land overtaken by communities of people spilling out of campers and tents, and perched on folding chairs with cans of beer. Then, once I landed (by golf cart) in the Fan Zone, I felt like I was in a vortex of moving bodies. Not that I should have been surprised — Charlotte Motor Speedway has a seating capacity of 134,000 people.
The intense flag culture
My friend Ben coined this term. Not only were there dozens of flags waving in front of the speedway by the Fan Zone (see above), but there were confederate flags and American flags (and flags on flags) waving around the camping areas. And, as expected, a healthy chunk of fans were basically dressed like American flags.
The flag culture reached its zenith during the hour before the race started, when parachuters landed with flags to the tune of Lee Greenwood’s “Proud to be an American.”
Followed by two giant flags unfurling on the track by members of the 82nd Airborne Division during a four-plane flyover.
The intensity of the fans
People had been living at the speedway in camping communities for days leading up to this event, and were clearly in it for the long haul, parking themselves in their seats with their coolers to watch cars drive 400 laps in a giant oval. And they were riveted, even 200 laps in.
One guy near me started standing up every other lap to point at his driver coming in hot around the track, following him with his fingertips as he passed, then thrusting his arms up and away as if he could carry the car faster around the track in some act of the divine.
It started with the crowd shouting “Start your engines” in unison. (I missed the memo.) The race cars started moving around the track before the first official lap as maintenance trucks made a loop with more of a grating crescendo than an airplane warming up.
Then the drivers reached the starting line — and shot closer and past with a rush of wind and exhaust and a through-the-body rumble. The experience of that sound is what I imagine it would be like to sit in an echo chamber while 20 guys (one woman included) battle it out with light sabers.
Rather immediately followed by: The numbness
I got an immediate headache and stuffed my earplugs into my ears two laps after the start. The cars were roaring by so fast (the race average was 160.655 mph, the fastest average driver speed for a Coca-Cola 600 event ever) I couldn’t read the numbers or sponsorship on their exteriors as they passed in front of me.
I couldn’t figure out where to focus my eyes so I’d space out in one direction of the far-off part of the track, then space out in the other direction. It was too loud to even talk to the person next to me.
Blur, after blur, after blur. It was hypnotic.
With the earplugs, everything felt muted, disorienting and then, somehow, serene.
Photos: Katie Toussaint