"I don't think our sport needs that right now," says Kyle, driver of the number 42 Pontiac. "If guys are not as accessible, the whole sport will take a slam. Before, you could never be a smart aleck, because the other drivers didn't let you. Now, the sport has grown beyond the grass roots, and drivers are becoming more like football and baseball stars. A lot of drivers are paying lip service to taking care of the fans but not really caring about them."
That is a shame, because these fans give back. Not only do they lavish love upon injured drivers like Ernie Irvan, still hoping to come back from his horrific, near-fatal crash last Aug. 20, but they literally wear their allegiances on their sleeves. Advertising surveys have shown NASCAR fans to be the most brand loyal in sports, and business is booming. In 1990 sales from apparel, souvenirs and collectibles totaled $60 million; last year it was $400 million, although that still pales in comparison to NFL-licensed goods, the most popular official sports merchandise, which totaled $3.15 billion last year. At every NASCAR stop there are long lines at the scores of souvenir trailers bearing the logos of each racing team.
"And the fans are getting smarter," Kyle says. "A few years ago the feeling was, These fans are so stupid, we can sell 'em anything—like dental floss for dogs with a driver's picture on it."
Though the fan base is becoming more upscale, the redneck element remains. Before his crash last year, Irvan, during the tour's stop in Sonoma, took this now-infamous jab at a heckler who was partial to seven-time series champion Dale Earnhardt: "I can tell you're an Earnhardt fan because you're rude...except you differ from Earnhardt fans in one respect. You have teeth."
Good ol' boys will be good ol' boys. Even considering a recent study that indicates women make up 38% of NASCAR's fan base, the ambience at the tracks is still white male. The women appear to cope with the panting sexuality that permeates the crowd by fighting fire with fire: They wear bikini tops, tube tops, halter tops and knotted-up T-shirts amid signs exhorting them to show off their breasts. The racial tone at the tracks is tougher to take. When confronted with the army of Confederate flags hung atop the motor homes that fill the infield, is a person of color supposed to feel at home?
In the hours before a Winston Cup race, entrants inevitably appear in two places—the drivers' meeting and the chapel service. Attendance at the former gathering is mandatory and might as well be at the latter. As one might expect from a vocation in which one errant flinch could mean death, a deep belief in God permeates the garage area. A Christian ministry, Motor Racing Outreach (MRO), has become a race-day force, with everything from a staff chaplain to rosy-cheeked gospel singers to a day-care center.
The drivers' meeting on this Sunday is lighthearted. As a NASCAR official talks logistics, Earnhardt and Petty take turns wearing a possum-tail hat. Then it's off to the garage area for chapel, where driving legend Darrell Waltrip, doing his best Oral Roberts, pitches for cash in the collection basket: "Remember," he says, "this is a full-service ministry. Dig deep, spare what you can."
Sitting in the back row of folding chairs, Darrell's younger brother, Michael, and his wife, Buffy, hold hands as the choir sings, "I'm just a sinner saved by grace."
Buffy, 27, believes in the church's power on several levels. She has heard the gossip about drivers carousing, sleeping with other drivers' wives. In an atmosphere so condensed, intimate details—such as which wives have had breast-implant surgery—are bound to make the rounds. "It's a little bit like high school," Buffy says. "I really think the MRO program has become so strong that it has helped some people overcome the temptation to gossip or have an affair."
Buffy has a marketing degree from UNC Charlotte and would like to run a restaurant someday, but for the moment her job is to travel with Michael via motor home to every race. Her tasks include setting up appointments, timing practice laps and packing his prerace lunch. Before a race she restricts her conversations with Michael to benign small talk and must often react to his mood swings—and other swings. After some last-lap jousting in a race on June 18 at the Michigan International Speedway, the normally personable Waltrip tagged fellow driver Lake Speed with a pair of right crosses through Speed's car window.