The need for speed
I was into bad hair bands in 1991, so having Daytona International Speedway as my noisy neighbor was not exactly an assault on my senses. Renting an apartment of the shag-carpet variety, located one Denny's away from the erector-set expanse of DIS, I lived within tobacco-spitting distance of work as a NASCAR writer.
The exterior of the grand racetrack wasn't much of a prize, with its steel girders, corrugated roofing and a concession-stand row that resembled aisle six at the Home Depot. The inside, though, that was a different party animal.
To this day, the tunnel linking the sane outside world to the infamous infield at DIS still functions as a wormhole to a time and place where there are no rules, no inhibitions and no crested blazers.
What I love about this sports arena within the arena is its class freedom. Economic statuses come to die on this dirt and grass patch inside a magnificent oval, where the rich and poor -- the motor coach with mahogany trim and the Winnebago tricked out in checkered-flag upholstery -- are only separated by a parking spot.
The scent of fried Spam happily mingles with that of Prime Rib. Ladies in the latest Elly May Clampett halter tops stand in restroom lines with chic gals in Prada shades. Men in John Deere caps split six-packs with stockbrokers of mid-cap obsessions.
Drinks, they've had a few. And there is no doubt the rowdy fans of the Daytona infield have pushed past the boundaries of taste at times. Moons, I've seen a few.
But there is something good and right about the absence of luxury boxes and the presence of core fans in an area that is shared with racing's stars. With only a chain-link fence to divide them, drivers sleep and eat in RVs within a couple hundred feet of some fans.
The accessibility is special. And for all the drivers who stop at the fence -- signing caps, flags, flesh and air-brushed Ts -- fans provide unconditional support through wins and losses, crashes and fights at a speedway that illuminates the best traits of NASCAR.
Race day in the infield is sacred. By racin' law, the fans root for every driver who has ever been named Junior. By rite of passage, children must wear giant radio-scanning headsets (think Princess Leia's hair buns) to learn the lingo of drivers and crews.
Who wins, and how, matters to every lug-nut aficionado in the infield. Even the most ornery of competitors have paid homage to these savviest of race fans. I once caught the late Dale Earnhardt Sr. in a good mood -- kind of like catching Garbo at the mall -- and we talked about the infield mystique over a can of Bumble Bee tuna.
He waved a plastic fork, and marveled at how many plumbers and beauticians, as well as and doctors and lawyers, poured in from all parts of the country to let go a little. They've never been cheated on excess.
Once the race is over, there is no wild hurry to leave. Some fans linger long after the checkered flag, reluctant to crank up their Fords and Chevys and luxury coaches. What's the rush to exit the tunnel? Why hurry to surface in the real world?
3. Atlanta Fulton County Stadium (pre-demolition)
4. Madison Square Garden
5. Lambeau Field