Sometimes being in a position where it’s my job to scrutinize all things NASCAR under a microscope with a fine-toothed comb can skew the reality. Sometimes looking at every angle, every minute piece and part somehow takes away from the whole. And it’s that whole that I find myself desperately wanting to grasp again as the 2009 season is just beginning. Because while the pieces and parts look tainted and broken, the whole machine is still as impossibly, achingly beautiful as it ever was.
I never intended to make racing a hobby, let alone a lifetime commitment. Writing was something I always hungered for, and I wanted to write about baseball. But in the late 1990s, women still weren’t taken seriously in that field. So I gave up that dream for a steady job and the paycheck that went with it. But I never forgot the hunger.
And then came the racing. Like the baseball, the racing was my dad’s fault. I’m an only child, and Dad loved baseball. He might have made it a career had it not been for a knee that didn’t share the enthusiasm. Instead he raised his daughter to play the game – any game – as hard and as clean as you knew how. It didn’t matter to him that I never could hit a curveball, but it mattered that I learned every nuance of the game until it was ingrained in my mind and I could see it for what it was, for the beauty of the certain purity that baseball has, the game that required a square of green in a concrete jungle. It mattered that I was awestruck when we made the trip to Cooperstown. It mattered that I loved the game.
And so when my dad asked me to go to a race, it was a no-brainer, really. I didn’t know every nuance or even every driver, but it didn’t matter. I just wanted to see what it was like in person. I never expected it to be perfect.
But it was as close to perfect as those green diamonds in the hearts of cities. It was everything a ballgame wasn’t – it was loud, and snarling and, well, angry. And the engines made pure music. There was strategy as complicated as any chess match. I went because we had an extra ticket and because I was curious. I came back changed.
The hunger that I buried under the “real” job rumbled its insistence deep in my core. I toyed with it for a few years, almost satisfied. And I learned. I didn’t know much about the sport when I went to that first race – only that the object was to turn left and go fast. I knew a few of the drivers – the big names like Rusty Wallace and Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt. At that first race, I learned a few more, like Jeff Burton, with the pink car (well just the hood, and it was a pretty badass car, really) and Kenny Wallace and Ken Schrader.
What really got my attention that day was the sound of the engines. First, when they gave the command and the engines roared to life like so many angry beasts, primordial in their sheer dominance. And then, there was that moment – that one perfect moment when the pace car slipped silently onto pit road and they roared into full power, bursting from the forced confinement of the pace laps. That moment was perfection beyond my wildest hope, beyond all of my previous reference points. It was magic.
As I learned the sport, I learned what else there was to love – the sport’s roots in a place and time that will never come around again, a place where proud defiance of the authorities while running ‘shine turned into proud defense of a man’s car modifying skills. The gritty early days when organized racing was little more than the shady promise of a few dollars if you were lucky enough to win – and sometimes just to survive. The defining years when drivers were almost all heroes and the later years where winning can make a man hated from the jealousy of it all. It felt right. History lived on in the drivers and in the racetracks themselves. It was right.
But as I learned the sport, things were still changing. And these changes were twisted, grotesque caricatures of what the sport once was. Those changes never felt right–they felt forced and contrived, as though the greedy jaws of some serpent waited for the right moment to strike, to take it all away forever. In some ways, over those years, something somewhere has snatched away some of the best pieces of the sport – old men named Lee and Bill and Dale; young men named Adam and Kenny and Blaise. The other losses aren’t so easy to define, but are just as hard to fathom and to heal from – the loss of the old tracks, the old fans, the old stories. The loss of any sense of what made this sport different and special.
I lost my dad this winter, too. With him, I lost the long conversations about the sport and the future. I lost the heart of my passion for sports – but in the process of redefining my entire being, I found a soul that is mine, though molded in part by him. And I found the hunger, the desire to grasp this sport and make it mine again. I don’t know if I’ll ever learn to tolerate some of the changes, let alone embrace them – some parts of the sport are too far gone for that to come ‘round this way again. And in a way that is not a bad thing – if I became complacent about something I love so deeply, how can I justify professing my love at all?
But what made the sport right and good and a perfection beyond reason are still there. There are still the drivers giving every ounce of their own beings, every single week, some to win glory on glory, some just to make it back the next week. There is still the unbridled joy and aggression both in the song of the engines. Still the moment when the pace car slips silently away and unleashes the tide so that the sound and the fury wash over us like water, like air. Sometimes, I just have to find them again. Thanks, Dad, for reminding me of that.