The NASCAR enigma

By By Natalie Dicou

By Natalie Dicou

I was in a used bookstore a few months ago. In search of The Fountainhead, I asked to be led to the classics section. A plump grandma-type led me past shelves and shelves of thousands of romance novels-a genre that made up about 95 percent of the books in the store. The stacks of worn-out paperbacks, which had titles such as Passion of the Night and To Love a Scoundrel, rose eight feet above the ground.

At the back of the store, I was shocked by what I saw: The entire classics section consisted of two droopy shelves of dog-eared paperbacks.

I said, “Thanks, anyway,” and turned to leave.

“Have you ever read one of these?” the woman asked, pointing to her shrine of romance novels. I told her I hadn’t.

“You should try one,” she countered.

I thought about her offer for a second and stuttered, “OK.”

It hit me that there is a huge audience for these books. A massive segment of the population devours book after book of this steamy brand of formulaic fiction. Who was I to condemn their literary–or, at least, entertainment–value?

The woman knew just the right book to get me started, and I read it over two days. While I never could manage to care about if Cassandra and Drake ended up together (which, of course, they did), I was able to appreciate the suspense and danger of the sub-plot. I could see why a woman who had grown tired of her aloof husband could cling to these erotic fantasies. It wasn’t my thing, but now it made sense.

A few weeks ago, I was in Las Vegas covering the MWC basketball championship. Coincidentally, the tournament wrapped up the same weekend that Las Vegas hosted a NASCAR race, and therefore played host to hundreds of thousands of NASCAR fans who had poured into the city.

As I navigated on foot through the swarms of tourists the night before we left, every conversation I overheard was a variation of the following: “They’ll be going three times faster than we do on the freeway! Can you believe that?” And then the other person would shake his head in disbelief and sincerely reply, “Wow!”

I have always dismissed NASCAR as “not a sport.” As I watched the massive crowds of people walking The Strip-many of which had traveled from far-off states to witness the race firsthand-I began to wonder what made these people tick. Why did they enjoy sitting in exhaust as cars sped around a track? What was the point? I had to find out their motive.

So, two Sundays ago, I set the TiVo to record a NASCAR race. By God I would try to understand the appeal of this national sensation if it killed me. I understood lonely housewives pining for sexy heroes; surely I could understand NASCAR.

Not so.

First of all, I didn’t know that a NASCAR race is a four-hour ordeal that begins with an hour-long pre-race show, which was way over my head. Lacking a NASCAR-to-English dictionary, I had no way of understanding what they were talking about. I decided to fast-forward to the race.

After only a few laps, I got bored and bloodlust set in. I wanted to see wreckage. Maybe it was because the race was so repetitive and mind numbing, or maybe my bloodlust stemmed from something more sinister and macabre. Is it possible that there is a little Roman gladiator in all of us?

The race went on and on. And on and on. I had planned to watch the whole thing but only hung in there for about 30 laps before I fast-forwarded to the final 10 laps. Even those laps weren’t entertaining. The race ended anticlimactically when Kurt Busch sped across the finish line. I was left feeling unfulfilled. I hadn’t learned anything. I still didn’t get it.

I heard that Chris Vaccaro, a family friend, had gone to the race in Vegas, so I gave her a call. I needed a tutor. Vaccaro, a local businesswoman, tried to explain the allure to me.

She said that for $370, she and her husband got into the race and rented a scanner. With a scanner, they were able to listen to the communication of their favorite drivers and pit crews. That seemed sort of cool.

Finally I was getting somewhere. NASCAR was starting to make sense (sort of). Here I thought they were sitting there watching cars go around with no clue what was going on. Silly me.

Vaccaro, who roots for Jimmy Johnson because he has the same name as her late father, explained that tailgating is a huge part of the draw. And there’s something else: a fascination with speed and power.

Speed and power? Um, neat.

I still don’t get it. I understand Casssandra and Drake’s escapades, but I don’t get driving around in a loop 250 times. Anyone?