As the tall police officer waves us through the muddy entrance at Gate 17, there’s a noticeable energy change in the packed SUV. “Dale Jr. is the man!” bellows a portly, camouflage-clad gentleman as he sways back and forth like a flag in the wind. We’re motioned to our parking spot, which the cars fit into like pieces in a jigsaw puzzle. The ice clinks against the array of bottles and cans as it is poured into the large, overfilled cooler. The tantalizing aroma of grilled meats and vegetables meanders its way through the air, causing mouths abound to water, in the makeshift party area. Chargrilled burgers, plump sausages and crispy brown chicken legs take up residence on the grills beside the Christmas-colored peppers and onions. Competition meets camaraderie among new and old friends alike as footballs and plush corn hole bags fly around like the hands on the clock. Tailgating complete, we plod across the fields like a herd of overweight sheep, stopping periodically to get another ice-cold beverage, visit the rancid facilities or to whine like school children about the weight of the overfilled cooler. Upon entering the track it sounds like 100 pagers from the 1990’s going off at the same time as the employees wearing bright yellow jackets scan tickets and check bags and coolers that push the boundaries of what is allowed inside the paperclip-shaped track. We find our seats and bow our heads as a grey-haired balding gentleman in a button-up shirt as crisp and white as a sheet of paper delivers the invocation. Both the crowd, which is a sea of colors, and the drivers and pit crews stand as the National Anthem blasts through the speakers. Jets cut through the clouds with a thunderous roar as we try to be manly and pretend the small drops of water under our eyes are not tears. “Gentlemen, start your engines!” blares through the PA systems, and our excitement begins to peak.
43 cars, adorned with more colors and decals than we can count, follow the red and white pace car around the track for a couple laps. The crowd stands in unison as the green flag waves, signaling the start of the race. Engines roar like angry lions as the cars make their way around the half-mile track. As the brakes heat up, cooler heads prevail; after all, it’s only the first lap. We imagine we’re in Las Vegas for the moment as we pull out a couple worn, torn one-dollar bills and make prop bets. Adorned with earplugs we try to