On Sunday, the biggest day in auto racing, Dan Wheldon passed what was left of rookie J.R. Hildebrand to win the Indianapolis 500, while in Charlotte, Kevin Harvick sped past an out-of-gas Dale Earnhardt Jr. to take the Coca-Cola 600.
I could give a shit, but it’d be about as hard as staying awake watching droning cars drive in circles for hours at a stretch.
Despite my sad existence as a white middle-aged Southerner, I’ve never been a fan of auto racing. I look at the car as merely a vehicle to get from one place to another, not as a high-powered machine with the ability to burn more petroleum in one afternoon than exists in the Arctic National Wildlife Reserve.
Turning the workaday routine of driving into a “sport” makes about as much sense to me as forming a league for those who are fastest at using an ATM or at tying their shoes.
But summer is here, and quality television has started its four-month hiatus. Flipping the dial on Monday afternoon for something to watch, it came down to cats from hell, Kardashians from hell, and swamp people. So I tuned in to the so-called “greatest spectacle in racing,” the Indy 500.
This was the 100th running of the Brickyard classic, and befitting such a long-standing institution, the race was filled with tradition. The racers gathered to kneel and kiss the hallowed road surface in one of the most unhygienic traditions in all of sport (second only to hockey champions’ ritual group-pee into the Stanley Cup). An honored guest was designated to announce the classic line “Ladies and gentlemen, start your engines,” as if the drivers wouldn’t think of it unless reminded. The winner gets to drink a half-gallon of milk, exactly the kind of refreshment I’d be looking for after four hours in the stifling heat.
Amidst all this, they also held a car race, and it was one of the most exciting contests in history, or so I was told. For a while, someone I had actually heard of, GoDaddy spokeswoman Danica Patrick, was in the lead. She gradually fell behind a hard-charging Belgian named Baguette, who was then passed by Hildebrand, a driver making his first start at Indy.
Hildebrand had the race all but won when he rocketed into the final turn and crashed into a wall. His battered vehicle skidded toward the finish line only to be passed by the largely intact Wheldon. If any part of Hildebrand’s disintegrating ride had managed to be flung ahead of the wreckage, or any amputated piece of Hildebrand himself had skidded past the checkered flag, the rookie would’ve been the lucky winner pouring dairy products into his maw. Instead, it was the lactose-tolerant Wheldon who hoisted the Hallowed Half-Gallon to his lips in victory.
A few hours later, it was time for NASCAR’s Coca-Cola 600, held just up the road from my home near Charlotte. This is where the good ol’ boys race real cars, not those road-hugging open-wheel homo-mobiles they run at Indy.
Long a favorite of those whose necks tend toward the red persuasion, NASCAR has its traditions too. Some — like running large parts of the race under a caution flag because beer cans constantly roll onto the track — are as quirky as anything Indy might offer. Others — like adding a hundred miles to the 500-mile length of most races in a piteous attempt to make the contest 20% better — are just dumb.
Much of NASCAR’s tradition comes in the form of nepotism. Most drivers are related to other drivers in an attempt to appeal to the sport’s largely inbred fan base.
Two of the biggest stars were near the lead when I tuned in near the end of Monday’s race. Kyle Busch is the brother of Kurt Busch and made his most recent splash in the news by being ticketed for going 120 m.p.h. on a 45-m.p.h. road that fronted a nearby church and daycare center. He’s also well-known for looking like a pinhead.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. is the son of racing legend Dale Earnhardt Sr., who died in a 2001 crash at Daytona. “Junior,” as he’s called, has been the most popular driver on the circuit since his father’s death. Unfortunately, being related to someone with a particular skill doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll inherit that ability, as Junior’s career-long losing streak has shown. (See also the presidency of George W. Bush, the singing career of Frank Sinatra Jr., and the bankrupt barber shop run by Abraham Lincoln Jr.)
Earnhardt Jr. too looks like a bumpkin.
But approaching the end of the 600-mile race, he was a bumpkin who appeared ready to shatter his losing streak in spectacular fashion. Then he ran out of gas. On his previous pit stop, he had been careful to make sure the windshield washer fluid was topped off, that the cup holders were cleaned of pretzel crumbs and that the eight-track tape deck still worked. But while he was in Gomer’s store buying a Mountain Dew and a chaw, he had forgotten to ask his crew chief to “fill ‘er up.” Eventually, with the help of Triple-A, he coasted across the finish line in seventh place.
Earnhardt Nation, many of whom had been camping in the speedway’s infield for a week in anticipation of a breakthrough for young Dale, sat stunned that the same result that had happened in his 103 previous races had occurred yet another, 104th time.
I was not particularly impressed with the “drama” of such an exciting finish. I’d have preferred to see something different. Maybe having the Target race team’s pit crew, each wearing a large target on the back of their jumpsuits, run for their lives as other drivers aim oncoming cars at them. Maybe having a second race run simultaneously with the first one, but in the opposite direction.
Fortunately, I was able to switch channels and enjoy the rest of my Memorial Day weekend watching the Hub Channel’s “Batman” marathon. That Batmobile could win any race.