Gentlemen, Start Your Obsessions | Our Town | Chicago Reader

Gentlemen, Start Your Obsessions 

At NASCAR, who you root for may not have much to do with the driving.

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If Dale Earnhardt wasn't the greatest driver of all time, he certainly had the most fans. At his 2001 memorial service, hordes of crying men lined their pickups outside Charlotte's Calvary Baptist, a short drive across the border from my South Carolina hometown. My buddy Greg, who worked in the library across the street from the massive church, told me it was one of the more comically moving things he'd ever seen. My brother, Jeff, watched a live telecast of the service from 80 miles away in Columbia, skipping his college classes for the day to do it.

I was reared on NASCAR. In his younger days my father was a rabid, partisan fan of Richard Petty, and though he's currently rooting halfheartedly for Jeff Gordon, his enthusiasm for the King was drilled into me through years of Sunday afternoon races. But when I moved to Chicago in 1998 I took a vacation from the sport--until two years ago, when I began to watch the race broadcasts regularly again and found myself pulling hard for Mark Martin, drawn to the comic tragedy of his corporate sponsorship. Don't get me wrong, Martin is a tenacious driver--in 2002 he contended for the season championship--but on the hood of his blue-and-black Ford is an exceedingly large Viagra logo. I stand in admiration of whatever it is deep in this man that releases him from the attendant burden of shame.

A running joke between me and Jeff originated at the beginning of the 2003 season, after a spate of blown engines put Martin out of contention in race after race. To this day our phone conversations typically include the following exchange:

"Did you see that finish?"

"Yep. Hell of a way to win."

"How 'bout old Martin?"

"Looks like he blew his load again."

When I got the chance to attend the Chicagoland Speedway's Tropicana 400 a few weeks ago--as a reporter embedded, as it were, in the pit crew of rookie driver Brendan Gaughan--I jumped. And when Jeff found out I'd be at the race, he urged me to get his current favorite's autograph. He'd long ago recovered from his grief over Earnhardt's death and was currently fascinated with another Dale--Dale Jarrett. He's a little less a driver than Big E, but then NASCAR fans' enthusiasms often have nothing to do with skill behind the wheel.

Jarrett's one of four Carolina-raised drivers left, which is part of his appeal, but Jeff also says he admires Jarrett because he's a "class act." In interviews Jarrett never loses his temper, calls an accident what it is, and accepts his fate with grace. This is less common than you might think.

Take Tony Stewart, a former housemate's favorite. Joey's into Stewart on account of his notorious recklessness both on and off the track, a quality ever present in Joey's own approach to life. When in the fall of 2002 he discovered that our basement apartment had been invaded by a troop of alley rats intent on stealing our bread and terrorizing our water-heater closet, Joey took matters into his own hands. On advice from a pal in southern Ohio, he proceeded to scour every surface in the place with carburetor cleaner, which left the apartment smelling like a garage. The rats continued their activities undaunted.

The week before the Chicagoland race, in Sonoma, Stewart was slapped with a $50,000 fine for a shoving match he started with rookie Brian Vickers after an on-track incident of otherwise minor importance. It was the umpteenth in a string of altercations involving Stewart, and it wouldn't be the last. On the lap-128 restart at the Speedway, Stewart edged past the second-place car and drove right into the back of leader Kasey Kahne, sending Kahne's machine into the outer wall and precipitating a wreck that took down a score of others. Stewart emerged unscathed and in the lead.

A brawl erupted in Stewart's pit box between the two drivers' crews, and 139 laps later Stewart won the race, but not before, like clockwork, Mark Martin's Viagra Ford blew its load in a plume of black smoke and sputtered off the track with three laps to go. I stood in the pits laughing my head off as Stewart's Chevy crossed the finish line to raucous booing from the crowd.

Joey later declared, "I wouldn't have wanted it any other way."

When the brawl broke out I watched it on a TV monitor in the vendor's area outside the track proper. I'd walked out in search of a beer with my companion, Dan Martin, who was in the market for a cap to commemorate his own favorite driver, Matt Kenseth. Dan comes to NASCAR via Indy and Formula One racing, having caught the bug last year as Kenseth rode to a season championship, but he was also attracted by the color scheme of Kenseth's sponsor, tool manufacturer DeWalt. As Dan picked out a mesh trucker cap with the yellow-and-black logo emblazoned across the front, I chatted with two women staffing Kenseth's merch trailer, both placed there by their Chicago modeling agency. Were they race fans? Absolutely not, they said.

Many fans also pull for drivers according to their cars' owners. Dale Jarrett's car, for instance, is owned by Robert Yates Racing, which also owns the car Elliott Sadler drives. If Sadler happened to be doing well in a race, my brother wouldn't flinch at pulling for both Sadler and Jarrett at once, nor would he be considered a traitor in doing so. In a pinch, though, Jarrett trumps. When I called home to tell Jeff that I'd be at the race, he said nothing about getting Sadler's autograph.

Before the race I flexed my press pass and jumped the wall separating pit road from each team's stall to join the host of reporters and photographers attempting to weasel their way into interviews with the drivers, who all stood by their still-idle cars. As I waltzed down the line on this fool's errand I spotted Jarrett about halfway down the road with a couple members of his pit crew, young, slick, crew-cut guys in slim-fitting fire suits and wraparound shades. Television cameramen stood back, wary of approaching the old man while he chatted with a member of another team. I ambled up to one of the young guys, who promptly waved me off: "He won't do it."

"I was just wondering if he'd autograph, for my little bro..."

"He won't do that either."

And at that moment a NASCAR official in a logo-festooned oxford shirt asked me for my credentials. I showed her my pass. "You're not supposed to be out here," she said, rather nasty. "Get on back over the wall, son."

I tried. Sorry, bro.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Dan Martin.

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