A Metroplex mega-autoplex?

Before you can say "all-you-can-eat platter," we will have the biggest stock-car racing complex--as much as 1,000 acres and up to 250,000 seats--sitting in that undeveloped Tarrant County sprawl near Alliance Airport.

At least, that's where the track should be if North Carolina racing titan Bruton Smith does what makes sense. Dallas public officials, desperate to keep any area track inside the city limits, have stupidly bet on the wrong entry, Texan Billy Meyer, who has less money and NASCAR clout than Smith--and unseemly casino-gambling connections to boot.

The prospect that either Smith or Meyer will bring big-league burning rubber to North Texas has politicians drooling. Racetrack officials are promising that a speedway would pour hundreds of millions into the local economy.

Overeager Dallas types, with little experience beyond hosting the Dallas Grand Prix, may be mistaking this racing business for Formula One, with its hoity-toity European drivers, who sip Perrier during pit stops, and beautiful-people jet-set groupies who fill suites at the Adolphus.

The prospect of a mega-autoplex in the Metroplex requires a little introduction to real racing-fan culture--a phenomenon with which we may all soon become intimately acquainted.

Stock-car fans--clearly unhappy with their image as shop-class trash--will tell you that scores of professional types attend NASCAR events; they just dress like Wrigley Field bleacher bums to fit in. Auto-racing fans, wrestling with an inferiority complex the size of John Madden's bus, also like to boast that the average member of their ranks brings home the bacon at a rate of $50,000 a year.

This is a lot like the childhood myth that if you hold gas for more than 15 seconds, you will blow up.

But then, the culture of auto-racing fans is replete with myth.
Take the income business. Official surveys of fans who attend Winston Cup NASCAR Series show that 22 percent earn $25,000 to $34,500 a year; 27 percent make between $35,000 and $50,000.

Tanya Walker of Dallas is the number-one non-official person behind the drive to bring a car track to North Texas.

She boasts of sending petitions containing thousands of signatures to The Dallas Morning News, demanding more racing coverage.

She then offers one of the all-time great race-car myths to explain why Channel 8's Dale Hansen won't cover the great sport of auto racing.

When Hansen was at an Indy race, Walker explains, a close racing friend of his was in a wreck; Dale, rushing to the scene, picked up the friend's helmet, only to find his buddy's head. (Hansen says a friend was killed at Indy years ago, but that head and helmet remained firmly attached--and he was hundreds of miles from both at the time.)

Tanya Walker is good people. Middle class. Homemaker. Mother of a four-year-old. The wall behind the Revereware in her kitchen is papered with racing junk--from pictures of dirt bikes to stock cars to those big ol' pick-up trucks that make the announcer talk so loud on the commercials. Tanya's husband works over at some place where they handle parts for Japanese cars, but darned if she can remember its name.

"I'm not putting anybody down," explains Walker, turning to the topic of NASCAR fans. "But it's mostly blue collar. We know that. There's some CEOs starting to hang around, but it's mostly blue collar. That's not to say the morals are any better or different."

"Well they have to have some kind of money," says Adam Goodman. "They'd have to have money to drive these big Winnebagos all over the country."

Goodman knows. He is a partner in a Hooters restaurant in Dover, Delaware--overrun with race car fans from the speedway there. He is also a partner in Hooters restaurants in the racing meccas of Charlotte and Daytona. He says the culture of Hooters is like a magnet for NASCAR buffs. "We are the place to go [after the races] in Dover. It's a natural fit. Hooter's is a part of racing."

All this is not to say that race car folks are bad people. They are delightful people. They'll spend a ton of money. It just won't be at Dakota's.

I underwent a transformation about NASCAR and its fans when I covered my first race, the Winston Cup Series event at Dover Downs in Delaware earlier this year.

I figured it would look like the crowd at the Sportatorium mourning a random Von Erich death.

I was wrong. The scene looked like someone had taken a city-sized trailer park and shaken all the people out.

That's where NASCAR veterans--in this case, homer sportswriters--first assured me that "the average NASCAR fan makes $50,000 a year."

The day of the race, I drove 60 miles to get there. It took four hours. Everyone looked damned happy in the traffic, but they were all eating fried chicken in tinfoil in the backs of Winnebagos. Flags of their favorite racers and their favorite army (Confederate) flew above their vehicles.

Of course, these were only the NASCAR fans who hadn't camped out on track land for days before the event.

At the gate, walking past the first entrance, there was a man at the turnstile arguing about the dress code with security. Like many men there, he was wearing only cut-off shorts--no shoes, no shirt.

But that wasn't the problem. It was all passable (unless he was going into the pit area, where pants and real shoes are required.) The problem was with the four-foot boa curled around his neck. He should be able to bring it in, he argued, because it was simply part of his apparel.

I carried a notepad and several NASCAR guides toward the press box. Fourteen different men asked me if I were studying for school, then chuckled, "heeh, heeh."

But once I got inside, close to the racing itself, something remarkable happened. I began to like NASCAR racing. Good lord, the drivers were nice. Quite different from approaching, say, Kevin Brown, on a day when he's surly even before he's pitched poorly.

Dallas superfan Tanya Walker needed local drivers to bring their cars to a party to promote the coming of Hypertrack last week. She gave them three hours notice--and they showed up. "And you never see them not sign autographs," she noted. "You'll see them take kids into the pits and show them how things are done.

"You'd never see a football player doing that."
As for the fans, consider that at my first race, there were 150,000 people and no fights--at least not any that I noticed. No one was passed-out drunk--something you'd see at any given baseball game. (It was either their fascination with the track action or the decibel level.)

I was absolutely taken by this event--though I still won't call it a sport. (Fans argue that drivers are athletes because of what it takes to keep concentrating in those tense situations for so long.)

Of course, the same argument could be made for police officers--and parents.
Leaving the track that day, one of the fans--presumably not a member of the elite racing brigade--decided to join me on my way out. He was wearing only cutoffs; his entire back, from brain stem to tailbone, was covered with a five-color tattoo of Jesus on the cross.

In one hand, he carried a half-open Igloo cooler, presumably not for rushing donated organs to Pittsburgh for transplant.

He reached in and offered me a Miller Genuine Draft, while staring blankly at my rear. Suddenly he noticed my notepad. "Them your school books?" he slurred.

God help us all. They are coming--as sure as there are unskirted double-wides in Arkansas.


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