Monday, October 8, 2007

My NASCAR trip

The Nashville NASCAR Cafe was my first experience with the super-cool, stock car craze. That was only because I was offered two jobs when I went to grad school -- waiting tables at NASCAR or waiting tables at Hooters. Of course it didn't help that I only applied at two places. But being the prude Southern girl that I was, I chose the one that wouldn't have my boobs and butt hanging out for all to see. That application and interview was thanks to a very close friend who was pulling strings to help me find a job fast so that would be one less worry for me with the BIG move from Cookeville to Nashville -- a 90 mile expedition that included tears and hugs for my parents, a Blue 1989 Chevy Cavalier and the smallest U-Haul on the lot.
A year later I graduated and never gave NASCAR another thought.

But while I was there, I had to choose. See no non-fans can work at NASCAR Cafe. And I was definitely a faker. Never had I rushed home from church to watch the race. Never had I played interference at Wal-mart so my sister could grab the last Jeff Gordon t-shirt on the sales rack. And never had I tail-gated in an open field outside Talladega watching tatooed-clad, barely-clothed biker types screech various rival racer names.

So as I brought sweet tea and fried cheese to the hordes of real fans the question always came, "Who you for?" With 4 enormous, television screens surrounding the walls above the wire fence that gave the illusion of being at a track blaring around me, I always smiled coyly, glanced at the eater's shirt, tatoo or hat and replied, "Same driver you're for, of course." And the tips fell. My bills were paid.
But that little ploy didn't always work. I had to have a back-up plan.

Now, this was about the time when Adelphia (as it was called then) Stadium opened and the Tennessee Titans finally played in their own home instead of the cursed one the Vanderbilt Commodores lost in. Downtown 2nd Avenue and Broadway was alive and in full swing with Titan fever. That year we actually made it to the Super Bowl and players like Eddie George and Steve McNair were gods. One afternoon during the holidays, the cutest little boy wearing a little tie, little shorts and a little boiler cap was in my section standing with his little, fat fingers on the fence looking at the stock car below. I walked up behind him and asked him who his favorite driver was. He smiled shyly up at me. From around him and at my newest table, I heard a deep voice tell him to go ahead and tell me. Little boiler hat whispered, "Dale Earnhardt." I melted. From that moment on, I had my back-up plan. I was a Dale Earnhardt fan. Little puppy dog eyes just did me in and I caved. I would stop faking. Later I would find out that the deep voice behind me urging cute, little Earnhardt fan was his father -- back up QB for the Titans, Bruce Matthews.

But finally having a driver would pay off. It certainly helped my conversations with the locals. And my co-workers stopped making fun on me. Especially snotty bartender girl who loved to tell anyone who would listen that she dated Tony Stewart once. (Who?) I even started paying attention to the screens that blared the races -- just to get a few more tidbits. But tidbits was a far as I was willing to go. This was just a job to get through school. Not an obsession. Nothing I grew up with. Some of my girlfriends loved it but I was the outsider who frankly didn't realize was an outsider. And then Daytona came. My first Daytona. The restaurant was slammed packed. Black and red and blue colors were everywhere. People came out of the wood work. Flags flew, cars honked. Fans screamed drivers' names in total fanaticism and little kids jumped up on the flag platform to yell "Gentlemen, start your engines!" Absolute pandamonium. And it lasted all weekend.

Now I grew up the daughter of a University of Alabama football player. Yes, one of Bear's boys. So I understood absolute devotion to the team, the coach, the school. Wearing crimson and white and plopping down in front of the TV every Saturday in the fall was a given. Obsession was nothing new to me. But NASCAR obsession was a sight to behold. Tatoos were my favorite new curiousity. Numbers, cars, faces adorned more body parts than I really cared to look at. But the proud displayer would roll up sleeves, pull down pants, take off shirts to let everyone have a peek. This was nothing like Tuscaloosa on a Saturday where dresses and ties were the normal wear of the student section. This was NASCAR and fans displayed their pride in extremely unique ways. As I walked among this fascination that Sunday, occasionally I would look up when the Gordon half of the room would shout for joy and the Earnhardt side would boo or vice versa. The only thing I could equate it to was Saturday football in Bryant-Denny stadium, especially at the end after the Tide won and the crowd launched into "Hey Hogs! Hey Hogs! We just beat the hell outta you! Rammer Jammer Yellow Hammer, give 'em hell Alabama!" Not very gracious for a team that was known for its class but exactly what NASCAR reminded me of. Blind dedication to your team and rubbing it in after you win. It was great.

The next fall I would graduate and leave the Cafe. The restaurant would eventually bankrupt and close up shop. And the following February, the #3 would be killed in a last turn crash at Daytona as team mate Michael Waltrip would drive on to win. I would occasionally watch the standings or to see who won the race that weekend. But not until this past Saturday would I give NASCAR more than a fleeting glance.
My husband is a huge NASCAR, Jeff Gordon fan and he convinced me to go to a race. Talladega of all races. And everything I ever saw or felt at the Nashville NASCAR Cafe came rushing back. Flags of every known size, shape and color flew over RVs, trucks, camping spots, and grills. People of all walks of life sported t-shirts of drivers, cars, racing teams, or they just sported their tatoos. Merchandise trailers were set up behind the track and my daughter hammereded away on a tool box at the Home Depot trailer (where's snotty girl dating Tony Stewart now?). We waited in line to get free t-shirts after signing up to win a million dollars in the unlikely event Bobby Labonte won. And we watched taped NASCAR races in the air-conditioned HDTV expo to see how much better the screen quality was.

Once in the track, I drank sweet tea and sat next to two tan, no shirt men drinking buckets of beer. From our vantage point I could see Kurt Busch's pit crew. The sun blazed and the gas stank. Roaring and screeching of engines and tires just about blew my hearing. But watching, in person, 43 stock cars fly single file, three wide, around the turns and into the pits was indescribable. Jr blew out an engine after leading 30-something laps. John Andretti lagged 25 laps down but kept pushing. Juan Pablo Montoya finished a respectable 15th as he raced for Rookie of the Year. And teammates Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson led one lap...the last one. Gordon pulled ahead and won. My husband threw fists in the air and yelled. My first-grader jumped and down and screamed. Victory. Now the NASCAR episode in my life was over!

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