Round and Round

The auditorium fills for the mandatory meeting just after 10 a.m., brimming with crew chiefs and drivers and hangers-on. There's Jeff Gordon and Bobby Labonte, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Tony Stewart and a few other guys you see on SportsCenter, all looking on with passive stares as a NASCAR official runs through a spiel they've likely heard a thousand times. Those who got here late line the walls and pack the doorways, bunched close enough to guess what roll-on deodorant their neighbor is using. Or not. Quiet chatter dances through the room--the kind of nevermind banter you'd engage in just to pass the time.

They're all more or less acquainted--a family of traveling troubadours, bound by hollering, heavy-horsepowered instruments--and so chit-chat comes easily. Offers a pleasant lull before the Texas Motor Speedway hosts the Harrah's 500 in a few short hours. They all know what horrors may lie ahead, what may ensue if one driver is overly aggressive, so there's a tacit agreement among the inner circle to keep conversations light. Creates an unexpected atmosphere, like some bizzaro company getaway with earplugs and gasoline in place of picnic baskets and blankets.

Just as their collective attention starts to wane, just when there's a little more giggling than listening, reality coolly taps them on the shoulder and demands respect. Those who aren't already standing rise. They all bow their heads and do something that would be out-of-place in another context:

They pray.

For the stock car enthusiast, the scene is damn near Valhalla. Their gods walk among them, stopping to sign autographs and take pictures on their way to the pits. For those who watch the sport infrequently--or not at all, like me--the scene is different, unexpected. Surprisingly, it's not boring or hickish or frustrating--though, here and there, it can be all of those things. But mostly it's not a slew of Billy Bobs running willy-nilly and yelling "yee-haw!" as they careen around the track with blinding speed. There's no Cole Trickle making a mess simply because "rubbin' is racin'." If anything, it's the antithesis of all that.

"Everyone has a job to do," Scott, a stocky, balding man with a bristly goatee, says almost matter-of-factly. He's a truck driver for the Home Depot team--Tony Stewart's crew. Then, calling him a mere truck driver is a bit misleading and certainly devaluing. He's one of two people responsible for moving the trailer, the mobile command center. It's a million-dollar rolling setup that hauls, from venue to venue, everything from an extra engine to shock-calibrating computers to junk food. Scott is also in charge of restocking various car parts they keep on board while making sure the vehicle is still compliant with state traffic laws. "It's like going shopping. If you have your list in order and you know what you have to do, it runs pretty smoothly. But if you fall behind, it can be difficult."

No one falls behind. Not Scott or his crewmates. Not today. Not any day. They can't afford to. They check their duties. And recheck. And then check some more. It's all done with military-style precision--only with more effective results. It's compartmentalization at its finest, doling out specifics to individuals who then care for every inch of Stewart's No. 20 Pontiac.

Has to be this way, of course. Not because they're anal-retentive but because blunders can quickly become something much more grave. Meticulous preparation can't guarantee safety, but anything less surely guarantees tragedy. It's hard to get a sense of that watching highlights on TV, hard to feel the tension that rides shotgun each Sunday. But as cars thunder by at TMS, sounding and reverberating like a thousand timpani drums banging at once, and you hear the crew chief bark orders and see dour looks spread across previously cheery faces, it all becomes clear. The attraction to the sport, the almost unsettling devotion. The requisite balls.

Even if you avoid NASCAR the way children recoil from veggies, you know about Dale Earnhardt Sr. You saw the footage, the wreck at Daytona that didn't seem so bad until he didn't get out of the car. Until officials passed the word about the death of the sport's chief deity, the one who glared so harshly and entertained so thoroughly. A hush covered the country. It follows this group even now, crisscrossing the nation with them--every moment of silence for the Intimidator doubling as a reminder of their mortality. He wasn't the only one, just the most famous. Four drivers have passed on during the past 10 months. That's what is dealt with each weekend, an unspoken but very real fear that, at the end of the day, another one of the ranks will be forever lost.

Yet, in spite of the danger, they continue.

"It's not hard at all [to race after a wreck] because it's a lot harder to think about having to go to work and be there at 8 a.m. on Monday and sit behind a desk five days week working a real job," Stewart says. "I've wrecked enough times in my life that I'm getting better about making my body relax, knowing that I'm going to hit. I just try to hold onto the wheel harder so that my arms don't go flying around inside the car."

Mercifully, there was none of that during the Harrah's 500, though there were 10 caution flags flown. Stewart, who started 41st, managed to work his way up 18 spots, finishing 23rd. The maneuvering took some doing, some battling with the other drivers, not to mention his crew chief, who prodded Stewart to push himself, and the car, harder. He did that, smacking into the opposition, banging up the hood, and then stopping in the pit for a quick fix before shooting off again like a man possessed. In a circle. Again. And again.

To tell the truth, racing never made sense to me. A flock of cars rushing around angrily seemed more like an exercise in futility, or stupidity, than a sport. Leave that to the good ol' boys, I thought; I'd rather watch hoops or football or something that doesn't require a fire-retardant suit. Or, for that matter, a liability waiver.

Jim Murray, legendary L.A. Times columnist whose words were as smooth as they were telling, once went to an event only to bear witness to several fiery wrecks. "Gentlemen, start your coffins" was the now-famous lead to his story that day. It's as poignant and biting now as it was then, because, to a certain degree, it does feel as though NASCAR is enabling unnecessary temerity.

Maybe I still don't quite understand the sport, the affection for sparkplugs and tires and point standings. Maybe I'm still on the outside of the garage staring in through greasy windows.

But the balls, well, the balls would be hard not to understand. Or respect.

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John Gonzalez
Contact: John Gonzalez