This excerpt is from Chapter 6: Star Gazing of A Little Bit Sideways by Scott Huler. The book takes you behind the scenes of NASCAR racing in 1997. In this short piece, the author is describing the action in the infield.
Back out on the infield, under a high sky with filmy white clouds, the fans barely pause in their own setting up to notice the hooligan race. There’s a scant crowd of less than 10,000 in the grandstand, and those in the infield are much too busy to pay much attention to a race that’s just to see who gets into the sort of AAA-level Busch race. The fans in the slots right next to the track in the turns climb aboard their platforms and raise their beers to the cars and wave at the drivers as they go by, but most fans are paying closer attention to their tents than this little—well, tin cans that couldn’t make a shitbox red dog race.
That’s not to say that they don’t notice the race cars running while they carry around their coolers, while they pull around their wagons, while they set up their tents and lay out their horseshoe pitches.
In fact, that’s why they’re here. Watching the fans set up with the roar of the cars in the background is almost surreal—it’s something beautiful. Red, back near Redneck Hill, doesn’t climb his platform to watch the hooligan race. He takes his beer in hand, waves a cigarette, closes his eyes, and starts dancing to the music of the motors.
Stand on Redneck Hill and it’s not just Red dancing. The whole infield is a hive, cars and trucks coursing in evenly through the Turn 3 tunnel, slowly cruising the infield looking for their assigned spots. Row TB, or UB, or AA, a little cement block in the grass will say, and then you’ll follow down to find 8, 10, or whatever, either spray painted on asphalt, if there’s asphalt, or set in a little block of its own if it’s lawn. Then the truck opens and out pour women in tank tops and tattoos, men in shorts and long classic rock hairstyles. They stand for a moment as if sniffing the air, but what they’re doing is listening.
And there’s so much to hear. When the Busch cars are in the near turn, thought is almost drowned out. When they’re far off, the hollow sound echoes off the empty grandstands and makes an airplane drone everywhere. Generators putt, and Lynyrd Skynyrd and Hank Jr. sound from different corners. Everybody works on their camping setups, as the cars go around and around.
That’s the lovely part. Even after the hooligan race is over, the Busch cars come back out to practice. As the fans set up, their background noise is the sport they’ve come to see. And it’s not in front of them, it’s not across some fence from them: It surrounds them. They’re the only sports fans who are quite literally in the middle of the action. Race fans never say they’re going to see a race. They say the same thing the teams say: “We’re going racing.” They’re not just watching the sport. From the infield, and from the stands and outside among the souvenir trailers, they’re part of the scene. They’re part of racing. And when they set up in the sun, surrounded by the sounds of the cars, smoking and drinking their first beers and greeting the neighbors they haven’t seen since last year or last race, they know it.