John Hatchell is the sheriff of Darlington County, S.C. He stands 6'5" and weighs 235 pounds. Although he is polite enough, he is not exactly the cheerful type. He has, in fact, the cold look of a man who has killed before and, if necessary, would kill again and not feel too badly.
The infield crowd began to assemble in earnest on Saturday. Before that the action had been slow; a stray family or maybe an entire clan, or just three or four men with nothing else to do who had set up their barbecues, iced up their coolers and lived out of their campers and tents in open fields near the track. Saturday, though, the crowds thickened and one could almost have named their hometowns just by their accents. There was the languid, honeyed drawl of the plantations, the grating, nasal twang of the hills, the old English lilt of the Geechee from the tidewater below Charleston, and a dozen more. They were unpretentious and relaxed people for the most part—although there was a lively sprinkling of college students, this being the first long weekend of the school year—and on Saturday night electronic rock competed with the taut strings of the hill guitar along the road that fronted the main entrance of the raceway. By noon Sunday the lines to the infield were well formed.
Tyler and Hatchell are there when the gates finally open at 1 p.m. Then the steady flow of vehicles begins, all seeking the most advantageous points from which to watch the race. There is another reason for seeking the infield: $6 per person is not a bad price to pay for a party that will last for nearly a day and a half. The stories of the Darlington infield are legend and, like most legends, tend to the apocryphal. There are tales of knifings and shootings and gut-busting benders; of bare-knuckle fighting, of young and old love, of the night a motorized Lady Godiva paraded around the place; of the local palace of pleasure that brought hearses into the infield to provide special services for its clients.
There is little of that today. "Still," says Tyler, "there's gonna be a lot of tent-flappin' tonight." At midnight, with the crowd well settled, the gathering point for the infield police force, which numbers about 125 at its peak, is the track field hospital. Safety Director Julian Graham, a slight man with a pencil mustache, remembers the year some drunk got mean with a broken gallon jug and it took 206 stitches to sew up one of his victims. "I'd like to see that old guy back," says Graham. "I doubt he'd come back," says Tyler.
This year, however, the hospital is quiet. One man moans on a cot in the throes of an early hangover, and a teen-aged boy, pale, bespectacled and not yet rid of his baby fat, looks on silently as his left arm slowly turns purple in a bucket of ice, the result of a short-fused cherry bomb.
Before Tyler begins his midnight round, a cop warns him, "Be careful out there."
Tyler answers, more to himself than to anyone else, "I wouldn't spend the night out there for.... well, it'd take a lot of money."
Outside, there are few lights, not nearly enough to illuminate the infield. The air is still, punctured only by the sudden staccato crack of a string of firecrackers or the whoosh of a Roman candle. Smoke from the barbecues and from the various fireworks hangs layered in the air.
There is a report of a motorcycle on the racetrack—this now around 1 a.m. Monday—but Tyler and Hatchell can't find it. All considered, it is a rather docile gathering, not like in years past. There are reasons: tents, campers and vans have replaced just plain cars in the infield. They take up more space, and social functions are not exposed so much to public view. Also, Sunday has been a hot and cloudless day, a good day for drinking beer, and no doubt more than a few of the assembled are already asleep in preparation for their final Labor Day binge. (Still, the next morning a newspaper will report that a longhair had been severely slashed and that his skull was fractured the night before, and then one remembers that a friend of Tyler's had said, "This is a typical South Carolina crowd—mean.")
Throughout the night the track appears as if chiseled in black sandstone. It is caught in a Gothic calm that does not diminish until the first morning light from beyond the third turn bathes the empty grandstand in pale whiteness. The infield crowd stirs slowly. Around seven o'clock the pit crews arrive and start to uncover the race cars.