And NASCAR, unlike sports without a central governing authority, makes sure fans have unprecedented access to the athletes—that family autograph opportunities are plentiful at every racetrack and at the many personal appearances the drivers routinely make. Like the music business down in Nashville with its annual FanFest, NASCAR enforces a grassroots interaction between its stars and the paying customers. At a time when NFL players are nothing more to most autograph seekers than an angry silhouette behind the tinted glass of a giant SUV fleeing the stadium parking lot, NASCAR understands the responsibilities of mythmaking and corporate endorsement and touts its heroes as good ol' boys from right next door who will sign just about anything you hand them and would love to hunker down with a bottle of Bud and some nachos if they only had the time.
In the interest of customizing this myth-making, NASCAR manufactures matinee idols of several stripes, from the young, square-jawed All-America hotshots like Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson and Tony Stewart to the avuncular, deep-fried elders like Dale Jarrett, Mark Martin and Rusty Wallace. And once a driver earns himself a regular ride in the Show, he'll find that he's got a prefab, presold fan base and a gleaming merchandise hauler on the racetrack midway hawking his now-heroic headshot on hats and shirts and jackets.
All this is far more than a redneck cult of personality, however. NASCAR has, for its fans from Manhattan to Manhattan Beach, transcended its self-limiting Southern origins. Instead it has institutionalized Southern hospitality and charm. Even the television announcers are unrelentingly sunny and upbeat.
"It can't be good when the car starts burnin' that way, can it, Darrell?"
"No, sir, not even one little bit!"
Fans are also taught to cheer the teams and car owners for whom their idols race and to follow even the performance of their pit crews with an abiding passion. (There are televised competitions now among the crews. Gold medal fill-ups! World-class tire changes! The base, animal thrill of windshields wiped squeaky clean!) And, as in no other sport, fans applaud the equipment, too, devoting themselves, sometimes for life, to the cars, either Ford or Chevy, Pontiac or Dodge, driving one brand to the exclusion of all others, a loyalty manufacturers have been exploiting since stock car racing began in earnest after World War II. "Win on Sunday, sell on Monday" is as true now as it was when the hottest ride on the track was a Hudson Hornet.
Eight weeks ago 100,000 fans washed over Fontana, Calif., over the track and the stands and the garages, running and pooling everywhere, lapping gently against the fences and the walls and the cars and the drivers. On a Saturday afternoon Dale Earnhardt Jr. watches this tide flow quietly around him from the upholstered anonymity of his immense motor home.
Even stretched to full length on the sofa, watching yet another race on TV with his buds, he seems restless and animated. He shifts his weight, sits up, reclines again, energetic but relaxed, ready for something—the race tomorrow, maybe. Jeans, shirt, cap. Chin whiskers this week. He looks you straight in the eye when he listens and when he speaks. He can dial the North Carolina in his voice up or down, but it's nothing you could dip a biscuit in. He looks stronger, more substantial, away from the car. He is handsome, certainly, but he is not the looming Apollo his billboards portray. He looks more like the lube 'n' tune guy he used to be at Dale Earnhardt Chevrolet than the object of national obsession he's become. In the right light he looks like a guy who looks just like the guy on the billboard.
"Two years ago, when I'd walk from my motorcoach to the car in practice, there were less than half the people asking for autographs, so I see that there's a big change as far as the hard-core fans that we have now. It's changed quite a bit. There's a responsibility that goes with it now. A lot of the fans say, 'Man, we like you because you're yourself—stay yourself, always be yourself.' And that's true to a point, but I'm finding now, more and more, that we're under the microscope, that some of the things I would do in the past aren't accepted now. Something that was just a prick on the rosebush before is a huge problem now, something I might say in an interview or something. It's taken quite a lot more seriously now." And he's right. His every remark is broadcast, typeset, satellited, sent resonating down that clacking NASCAR telegraph. Whom does he date? How many beers does he drink? What's his favorite band? An encyclopedia of banalities. Try as he might to unplug himself, he can't.
On his way out the door for yet another interview he is confronted by thousands of reminders of his father—portraits, banners, flags snapping in the breeze. "I used to miss him every minute," he says. "Now I've got it down to about every five minutes." Then he's gone.