The car bursts into flames at full speed, a 150-mph fireball careering toward an ambiguous fate, and no one feels bad about gawking. This is the space where it's O.K. to rubberneck after wrecks, even to anticipate misfortune, without shame or apology. A car catches fire and electricity fills the scene. The car skids to a stop, the pyre persists, men rush to assist, time slows down.
"Holy——, get there, get there," a man in a mechanic's jumpsuit says to no one in particular. He is standing in the garage area while tens of thousands of fans at the Charlotte Motor Speedway view the spectacle with a mixture of horror and fascination. A red van zooms onto the racetrack toward the burning vehicle, which is resting near the start-finish line. Workers in yellow fire-resistant suits sprint toward the ugly black cloud above the car. "Oh, my god," says a woman in pit row, "look at the smoke."
White, pasty fire retardant is sprayed over the wreck; it looks as though a freak snowstorm has blanketed this part of the track. Spectators stand and point, many snapping away with their disposable cameras. A driver named Mickey Hudspeth waves as men in orange suits pull him from the car and into an ambulance; he will spend some time in the medical tent and then walk away without injury. After the cleanup crew is done, the Sportsman 100 race—a preliminary to the Coca-Cola 600, the longest event on NASCAR's Winston Cup circuit—resumes. Sneaking a peek at the folksy, unpretentious world of the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR) is as much fun as hanging backstage at Lollapalooza or going on location with Steven Spielberg. In a sports world tarnished by a widening gap between performer and consumer, NASCAR is a grand exception, an unspoiled bastion of Americana, a traveling road show in which even the biggest stars are taught to regard themselves as commoners. The garage area is a place where even the most decorated drivers are expected to behave with humility, where infidelity and aggression coexist with faith and family, where the corporate sponsor is unabashedly lionized and where little attempt is made to dress up blemishes for the benefit of outsiders.
Once confined mostly to the Southeast, NASCAR's support now extends across the U.S., as evidenced by regular tour stops in Sonoma, Calif., Loudon, N.H., and, since last year, the hallowed temple of open-wheel racing, the Indianapolis Speedway. The 33-race Winston Cup series includes superspeedways, short tracks and road courses, and concludes with a black-tie awards banquet in New York City. Still, the hog's share of the series' attendance of 4.9 million in 1994—up from 2.6 million in '87—was drawn in the South.
Any NASCAR-inspired journey must make its way through the mobile office of Bill France Jr., and this is where our weekend begins. France's father, Bill Sr., founded NASCAR in 1947, ruling with a leadership style that made Fidel Castro's look wimpy. When Bill Sr. died in 1992, Bill Jr. was already in place as the next autocrat. Everyone in NASCAR is aware of the junior France's power, but few are critical of him. That's what happens when you have the fastest-growing spectator sport in America, with 17 of 18 host tracks on the Winston Cup circuit in the process of adding seats. "He is a dictator," car owner Robert Yates says, "but he's taking care of the show."
The junior France's iron fist has been particularly active this year. NASCAR has issued a record number of fines—15, totaling $237,250—based on fighting among drivers, unapproved car parts and on-track procedural violations. Series leader Jeff Gordon's crew chief, Ray Evernham, paid the biggest tab: $60,000, for using an unapproved wheel hub.
On this overcast Saturday, France is decked out in dark duds. He looks as comfortable in black as Johnny Cash. Taking a drag off a cigarette, he discusses the corporate presence that has helped make NASCAR the most popular motor-sports series in America. "I don't know if we were ahead of our time," he says. "I think it's more that we were on time with corporate sponsorship, and other sports were just late. Twenty years ago, nobody thought corporate sponsorship of college bowl games was a good idea; now, the bowls need it, and every one but the Rose Bowl has it."
Under France's reign, Ford, Pontiac and Chevrolet vie for competitive advantages, with NASCAR handing down ever-changing regulations in the name of achieving parity. Fans are well aware of these automobile duels. When a driver switches from one make of car to another, it is as if the Boston Celtics had moved to L.A. In addition to appreciating the importance of equipment, most NASCAR loyalists understand how integral a driver's crew is to his performance. Understandably, though, it is the driver who is royalty. In France's words, "The drivers are the actors on the stage."
This is a tradition that predates the reign of NASCAR's first and biggest megastar, Richard Petty. Not only was Petty, with 200 career victories, the King of stock car racing, but his patience, magnanimity and down-home grace were unsurpassed by anyone in sports. It's a refreshing concept you don't often see today: Petty and his peers knew that their careers depended on the image they projected to the people who paid their salaries.
Clad comfortably in jeans, COORS LIGHT T-shirt, cowboy boots and a pair of silver hoop earrings in his left ear, Richard's son, Kyle, 35, is the metaphor for what NASCAR has become. He's a good ol' boy who still lives near the tiny North Carolina town of Randleman, which his father made famous, yet he possesses an unmistakably hip edge. With his long, curly locks, bushy mustache and sharp goatee, Kyle looks like a cross between his father and the singer Yanni. And while he sings the praises of Jeff Gordon, NASCAR's newest star, Kyle is worried that those in charge of the 23-year-old boy wonder's career are part of a trend toward detachment, one symbolized by the NO INTERVIEWS UNTIL AFTER QUALIFYING sign on Gordon's trailer.