The Best American Travel Writing 2011

The Best American Travel Writing 2011 by Sloane Crosley Read Free Book Online

Book: The Best American Travel Writing 2011 by Sloane Crosley Read Free Book Online
Authors: Sloane Crosley
"Fans want to see a wreck, not a blood sport. The mandate to 'have at it, boys,' it's a very debasing way of treating a sport in order to sell tickets and drive ratings."
    Long known as the hottest ticket in NASCAR, Bristol had sold out fifty-five straight races, with a season-ticket renewal rate of over 90 percent. But in the days before the race it appeared that, for the first time since 1982, the speedway would be nowhere near full. The local hotels were reporting steep drops in reservations, and on the neighboring campgrounds—normally blanketed by monster RVs—much of the land remained vacant. The track's management decided against lowering ticket prices—which started at $93 a seat—opting instead to "add value" as a way to draw walk-up ticket buyers. One of the added-value features was a thirty-five-lap "legends race," a competition featuring twelve of NASCAR's most beloved former drivers. Rounding the second turn on lap thirty, fifty-six-year-old Larry Pearson slid into the outer wall and aimlessly drifted back down along the track, into the path of Charlie Glotzbach, age seventy-one, whose throwback stock car hurtled into Pearson's sidelong vehicle, plowed it into the infield wall, and erupted in flames. An unconscious Pearson had to be cut out of his car. Over the next twelve days he would undergo six surgeries to treat two broken legs, a shattered pelvis, two broken ribs, a broken ankle, and a broken right hand. So much for resurrecting NASCAR's fabled past.
    Having only recently moved to Nashville from Brooklyn, I was new both to the South and to stock-car racing. When Mike Helton learned that Bristol would be my first race, he said, "Any fan sampling NASCAR today who felt it like I first felt in 1963, they're going to stick around in the sport just like I did." We were sitting in a trailer parked on Bristol's chockablock infield. Helton, who grew up in a nearby county, said that this track embodied NASCAR's core values—values, he admitted, from which the sport had veered. "We were so busy growing that our respect and proudness of our heritage got overshadowed. What you've seen in the last couple of seasons are moves that NASCAR is making to remind us of that heritage, of what made NASCAR what it is."
    To help me feel NASCAR as he had first felt it, Helton offered to arrange a ride in Bristol's official pace car, a Ford Mustang painted in a checkered-flag motif. I thanked him but said there was no need; the guys at Ford Racing had already extended the same invitation. When I arrived, as instructed, at 7:30 A.M. , the empty stadium felt like the inside of a Coca-Cola can, the metal bleachers rising up on all sides, a stripe of red running along the top. I folded my six-foot-three-inch self into the Mustang's back seat. Nestled back there with me was a writer from
magazine, also tall, also a Yankee new to the track. Riding shotgun was Claire B. Lang, a petite reporter from Sirius NASCAR Radio. She waved a microphone in front of our driver, Brett Bodine, a former Cup Series racer in his fifties whose job it now was to pilot the pace cars at NASCAR events. "Have at it, buddy. Step on it," Lang said. And Bodine did.
    The Ford rocketed to 80 mph, which on the short track felt like twice that, the car careering into the next turn almost as quickly as it came out of the last one. Since its dramatic 30-degree banking allows for more speed than at other short tracks, Bristol has long called itself the "World's Fastest Half-Mile." This superlative proved insufficiently exciting: in the run-up to this race Bristol's marketers rebranded it "the half-mile of havoc," airing ads that replayed the radio call of the Edwards-Keselowski crash followed by a narrator ominously intoning, "The one question on everybody's mind is: What is going to happen at Bristol?"
    There, in the pace car's back seat, the question on my mind was much the same. On the corners, Bodine skimmed the walls and then, on the

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