BRISTOL MOTOR SPEEDWAY
The August night race at Bristol Motor Speedway is consistently listed as one of the top ten live sporting events in the world alongside Wimbledon, the Olympics, and Le Mans. I have been photographing the races in Bristol, Tennessee, my current home, for the last five years. Why does this race warrant such high regard? It isn’t the 160,000-seat coliseum, which is impressive, or the fact that it’s a NASCAR race, as there are plenty. A race in Bristol is a unique culture unlike any other.
About a week before the race, the sleepy town of Bristol starts to transform. Port-a-potties start dotting the rolling hills and campers start coasting in; vendor village, corporate sponsors, and hospitality all make a nest around the giant track.
Most people coming in early are groups that have been camping in the same area for upwards of thirty years. Small villages have formed and are recognized by the speedway at a special ceremony. The loudest is Jelloville, which grows every year with people from all over the country. The Mayor of Jelloville, who wears a white bathrobe and cowboy hat and little else, greets everyone warmly and coordinates the handing out of Jell-O shots the night before the big race. The most elaborate grounds are kept by the Pennsyl-tuckians, who bring a swimming pool, cots, a makeshift bar, and games. Their defacto leader, simply called Jesus, is a quiet man who only gets loud while speeding down the side of a hill on a small trike one night of the year.
The Saturday night race excitement starts building Thursday with the Food City Family Race Night in downtown Bristol. Fans line up for driver autographs, free samples of all sorts of food, and to catch glimpses of the Dale Earnhardt look-a-like. Dogs dive in swimming pools and kids tour the famous Weinermobile.
Later that night, after being meticulously washed by their drivers in the mall parking lot, the haulers containing the well-tuned cars make their way to the track for the Transporter Parade. People line up all along the eight-mile trek to cheer the big rigs on. Gas stations and grocery stores take advantage of the traffic and have little events like mechanical bull riding. People are psyched down by the track and watching the lights streak by is magical. As the last truck turns into the track to do the intricate dance of parking in the small pit, fireworks go off in the background. Everyone is already a big family, easily talking to everyone else. (Once, a young man claiming to be Burt Reynolds’ son chatted me up.)
Friday and into Saturday morning, the die-hard fans watch the qualifying races and a few odds and ends races. Meanwhile, people spend their time in the campground cooking, drinking, partying, listening to the races, and walking the grounds. There is a great camaraderie as fathers play cornhole with their sons and friends spend time together. Vendors set up activities and giveaways and often your favorite driver zips right by you in a golf cart and waves.
Then it’s the countdown to the race. The more outgoing of the masses don their special garb. I’ve seen a man with a 30 days till marriage bucket list written across his naked chest (I briefly considered flashing him so he could check it off), a man dressed as a leprechaun, couples with matching homemade t-shirts with jokes that race fans would get, and even a waterskiing squirrel. Most simply wear the shirt with their favorite driver and meander to their seats.
About an hour before the race, pre-race ceremonies begin. Music is sung by the likes of Billy Ray Cyrus, big checks are given, flags are unrolled, and the sky jumpers fly in with precision.
Driver introductions are a new and welcome addition. In NASCAR, like pro wrestling, there are good guys and bad guys. As each driver comes out in reverse starting order, the collective crowd either erupts into cheers or growls of disapproval. Drivers with a family history or connection to the South, tend to get the applause, while mouthy younger drivers tend to get the boos. I always get choked up at this unique noise as it spirals up to the sky. “Cry baby” Kyle currently gets the most nays, while Jr. always gets the most ayes. Former villains, like Jeff Gordon, have stuck around long enough that they now get at least half claps.
There’s a growing hum emanating from the center of the world’s fastest half mile. Engines start to rev until the roar becomes overwhelming. The famous words “Drivers, Start Your Engines” echo out into the mountains. In the front rows, people like Beetle (famously wearing his beer bong hat and consuming more alcohol than I thought possible) and American flag man (dressed head to toe in flag clothes) roll up their giant flag brought out for the pledge of allegiance in order to protect it from rubber now flying off the track. Quickly, the third lap of 500 begins which means the crowd holds up three fingers and looks down reflecting on their favorite fallen driver. Then the laps start to add up.
Battles are fought until a single driver wins the war. After hours of racing, champagne is sprayed and the winning driver inexplicably shoves a piece of gum in his mouth or drinks a warm soda awkwardly filling sponsor obligations. Small family units are formed during the race and everyone is safely deposited back at their campsite unharmed to sleep it off.
After days of shooting and miles and miles of walking (somehow uphill both ways) I am exhausted. The next morning, I consume the last of my race morning cocktails: an iced mocha from Starbucks and two ibuprofen and I am already counting down to the next race.
* * *
Tammy Mercure is a State Guide to Tennessee. She was recently named one of the “100 under 100: The New Superstars of Southern Art” by Oxford American magazine.
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