This is NASCAR weekend in Richmond. 

Saturday Night Thunder

More than 103,000 people are screaming in Richmond and no one can hear them. Any sound they may have hoped to make has been snatched from their throats by the thunderous roar of 43 NASCAR race cars rumbling around the track of Richmond International Raceway. It is June 6, 7:15 p.m., just seconds from the drop of the green flag. The cars are in their warm-up laps waiting for the signal from atop the flag tower at the starting line, where a race official is holding the green flag high over his shoulder. The drivers jockey for position, swerving side to side to warm up their tires. The cars themselves seem anxious, like jungle predators ready to pounce. As the drivers clear turn 4 and head for the straight-away, the green flag drops. The response is a sound that splits the night in two. Thunder in the ears, an earthquake in the chest. For miles around, from the Fan to Northside, from the Near West End to Shockoe Bottom you can hear the low booming. People often mistake it for something else. That's how it got its nickname in Richmond. Saturday Night Thunder. Nearly a week earlier, the circus that is NASCAR weekend in Richmond rolled slowly into town. Fans who follow the races trickled into town from all over the country in their campers and RVs, with the kids and dogs and the food and the beer. Lots of beer. They follow the races the way Deadheads followed the Grateful Dead. Yes, the music — or in this case, the race — is important but every bit as important is the culture: the friends made from town to town, the spirit of being part of something, a sense of belonging. These are the things die-hard NASCAR fans talk about when they explain the allure of the sport. They gathered here in June for the NASCAR Busch Series Grand National Hardee's 250 on Friday and then the big one: the Winston Cup Series Pontiac Excitement 400 on Saturday night. In little more than two weeks they'll be back for three nights of NASCAR racing — the Virginia is For Lovers 200 truck race, the Busch series Allied Signal Autolite Platinum 250 and the Winston Cup Exide NASCAR Select Batteries 400. At the Winston Cup race, fans will root for their favorites — Mark Martin, Dale Jarrett, Ernie Irvan — to knock the mostly reviled golden boy and points leader Jeff Gordon down a notch or two. If the upcoming race weekend is typical, it will be a wonderful traveling spectacle in which heart-pounding excitement mixes with tailgating and lollygagging; where the corporate monster feasts at the table of middle America; where the brand of a car's engine determines the loyalty of a man; where Confederate flags fly over sport utility vehicles and where an average Joe can look up to a multimillionaire for being a regular guy. Shortly after 11 a.m. on Saturday, June 6, two men stand on Laburnum Avenue holding a professional-looking sign reading: WE NEED TICKETS. It is the first sign heading north that something is afoot. Little by little the scenery begins to take on a circus atmosphere. Up on the right, a car is painted to be a dead ringer for Ricky Rudd's No. 10 Tide car, but on closer look it actually says Died. It's another one of those clever pranks courtesy of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals urging people to boycott Procter & Gamble for using animals in their product testing. Cute, but not likely to sway much thinking among Rudd's legions of fans, or any race fans for that matter. Outside the Laburnum Veterinary Hospital, campers watch the goings on — as if not part of it themselves — while relaxing in fold-up chaise lounge chairs. Outside the Pizza Hut across from RIR, a tent is set up where every kind of racing gear and memorabilia is for sale. But the outside tent is like a stray ant on a kitchen countertop. Wait till you look under the sink. Once inside the gate at RIR, rows and rows of merchandising trailers lie before you like a city on wheels. Vivid colors and corporate logos blaze and beckon like Oz, where everyone can find what they need — from the ostentatious (the $70 giant silver NASCAR 50th anniversary belt buckle) to the outrageous (Looking for an Elvis car hood? Head to the Miller Lite trailer.) to the high-tech (scanners which allow fans to listen to conversations between drivers and pit crews, costing hundreds of dollars on the high end) to the low-tech (Dale Earnhardt baby bottle, $5.) Naturally, there are the thousands of T-shirts, hats, beer cozies, window decals and posters. Just try not buy to something. The Big Johnson trailer is a big draw. There are a great many people, it seems, who just cannot get enough of double-entendre penis jokes. Customers chuckle and try to decide between shirts that read: "Smoke my Big Johnson" or "Big Johnson Army. Drop 'em and give me ten." "Oh, I like that ass kickin' one," a burly man says passing and pointing to a T-shirt with a can of beer with the brand name "Ass Kickin'" on it which reads: "Don't make me give you one." It's a tight squeeze just to get past the throng of men standing — just standing — at the Hooters trailer ogling the beautiful young women in their tight orange shorts and cut-off T-shirts. "I'll bet they sell a lot merchandise," one woman says out of the side of her mouth as she pushes through the crowd. Meanwhile at the front, a man takes a picture of a Hooters girl signing another guy's T-shirt. Though not as scantily clad as the Hooters girls, attractive young women are also the bait Winston uses. Outside the gates and along the concourse, the young women wearing bright red T-shirts reading "No Bull" hand out free samples of Winston cigarettes. "Y'all smoke?" one calls out in hopes of snagging a convert. Around noon, the grandstands themselves are sparsely occupied with die-hards who want to see every practice run. Down in the pits, the cars begin rolling out of the garage area and onto the track as a cluster of fans gathers to snap pictures and gawk. Two young women inspect each car as it rumbles by — here come Brett Bodine, Ted Musgrave, Mark Martin, Jerry Nadeau, Jeff Gordon, Lake Speed, Jeff Burton and Randy LaJoie. The helmeted drivers are barely distinguishable. The cars alone — emblazoned with everything from the colorful rainbow of DuPont paints to the cat-and-mouse team of Tom and Jerry on the Cartoon Network car — have the power to make the girls squeal. The lucky fans are April Butler, 16, and Jennifer Wood, 18, of Ashland who are here with the group Ashland Explores. Butler is a Jeff Gordon fan ("I won a racing pool a few years ago off of him," she explains.) and Wood roots for No. 2, Rusty Wallace in the Miller Lite car. As the cars zoom through their practice laps it becomes impossible to carry on a conversation, but Butler does her best to try to sum up why she's been a race fan for all of about a year: "We like to see the wrecks." The fans are bit more philosophical out in the woods. Out behind turn 2 another kind of city has emerged, not quite as shiny and slick as what the corporate giants have built in the parking lot. Where the blacktop roads turn to gravel and the parking lot's just an open field is where the seasoned fans converge. Here it's pick-ups and folding chairs, horseshoes and boom boxes. Barbecue grills smoke all day long and the smell of ribs, burgers, hot dogs, chicken and shrimp crawls up your nose as a welcome respite from motor oil and burning rubber. Chris Smith, 32, a regional car sales manager for Enterprise Rent-A-Car, who lives in Richmond's Near West End with his wife and baby daughter, is tailgating with a bunch of friends and serving marinated shrimp fresh off the grill. He is rabid in his love of NASCAR but that wasn't always the case. He came to his first race at RIR "six or seven years ago" because he lost a bet with cousin. "I used to make fun of him," says Smith, who admits he used to paint all NASCAR fans with the same redneck brush. He knows, like so many other NASCAR fans, that the sport is not an airborne disease. You simply can't catch by watching it on TV. You've got to be there to get infected. "The first time they drop the green flag it's like, 'Holy smokes!'" Smith says, his dazzling blue eyes widening with excitement. Smith is with his wife's stepfather, Jim Holland, a Franklin, Va. school principal, who says that every year he sees more and more schoolchildren wearing NASCAR gear. He's become a NASCAR fan, he says, because the whole scene is something he feels comfortable in. "Average individuals that can't attend certain functions ... can come to a race like this and be [themselves]," he says. But he also wonders if the sport might not be creeping away from its blue-collar image: The race fan stereotype — "redneck, backwoods, conservative" — is a thing of the past, he says. "It's not the old Thunder Road image anymore." Holland is keenly aware that NASCAR is a big-money sport, with corporate giants pouring millions into team sponsorships. "It may become a team sport in the next 10, 15, 20 years. ... It could be America's first corporate team sport." That's something that doesn't sit too well back here in the woods. These fans, like Smith's brother-in-law, Hudson Williams, lament the erosion of the "super strong rivalries." Nowadays, owners like Jack Roush own multiple cars, so how competitive can Mark Martin and Ted Musgrave really be when they race for the same guy? Dale Earnhardt and his wife, Teresa, own the No. 1 Pennzoil Chevy. But Earnhardt put former rival Darrell Waltrip behind the wheel when he needed a substitute for an injured driver. "A little guy can't make it anymore," says Donald Smith, Chris' cousin, who worked in the Busch circuit pits for a time, of the mega-bucks required to compete. "If you don't have two, three million dollars, you can't show up." He adds that he is rooting for "anybody in a Ford." Tailgate conversation turns from NASCAR to women and families and back to NASCAR. Rusty Wallace is deemed a "crybaby." Jeff Gordon is called a "pansy;" he's "too young," and "doesn't look like a race car driver." A guy everyone calls Animal says "Nobody likes a successful man." If these fans have a little fun taking jabs at drivers, it's out of an extreme, almost curious loyalty to the drivers they follow. Todd Fisher, sales manager at Richmond Ford, tells a story about a woman he knows who went to stay with a friend and brought her own Tide with her because, as a Ricky Rudd fan, she wouldn't dream of using anything else. "I don't get Budweiser anymore," says Fisher, "because it's a Chevy product." Smith, a Jeff Burton fan, vows, "When I go get batteries for my boat, they're Exide batteries." It is an aspect of NASCAR not found in any other sport. Though individual players like Michael Jordan have multimillion dollar endorsement contracts, no other sport is as enmeshed with corporate sponsorship as is NASCAR. Clearly, companies would not spend $476 million this year — according to the research group IEG, Inc. — sponsoring NASCAR if they did not see a return on that investment. And if the tens of thousands of fans at one race in Richmond, Virginia is any indication — with their Tide hats, Winston coolers, Kodak film, Skoal chewing tobacco and Miller Lite beer — NASCAR is the first sport to create not only the loyal fan, but the brand-loyal consumer. According to NASCAR, 72 percent of the fans are brand-loyal. "NASCAR fans are so loyal," Smith says, "they'll buy your product all day long." Somewhere, you can bet a CEO is grinning. The reach of the corporate arm extends all the way down to pit road. A few hours before the start of the race, a perky p.r. type is holding a presentation in the Skoal Bandit pit area for well-dressed people who look as if they are getting their first taste, figuratively speaking, of motor oil and high-performance 76 gasoline. The media room, housed in a small building near the garage entrance, is not free from corporate influence either: Free Skittles, Pepsi and Winston cigarettes, which are laid out in cartons on each table, keep reporters and photographers on a sugar and nicotine surge throughout the day. Shortly before 6 p.m. those pesky PeTa kids are at it again, taking a shot at Procter & Gamble with an airplane circling the track pulling a sign which reads: "Procter & Gamble poisons animals. Boycott Tide." Despite these small distractions, the pit crews are already focused, busying themselves with crucial preparations for each of their drivers. Along pit road, crew members dressed in their brightly colored jumpsuits carefully epoxy lugnuts to the proper holes on dozens of tires. This is a delicate job. If the lugnut is even the slightest bit crooked, it could mean lost time in the pits, at best, or an improperly screwed-in bolt, a loose tire and catastrophe, at worst. There are little jobs too, that are equally important if only to the mental game. After all, someone has to tape the sticks of chewing gum to Ricky Rudd's roll bar and the $2 bill, the four-leaf clover and the three dimes, heads up, to his dashboard. "Somebody gave it to him for good luck," says Tim White, a member of Rudd's pit crew of the four-leaf clover. "He's just trying anything to turn it around," he says, referring to Rudd's recent slump. In the Havoline pit, the dry erase board has a message, if not a strategy, for the crew: "Head's up!! Good Attitudes!!" As the time for driver introductions nears, a palpable excitement begins to fill the pit area. At least one dignitary arrives, Gov. Jim Gilmore, surrounded by a small entourage. As he emerges from the tunnel leading from the grandstands and is swiftly led toward the garage area, he directs: "I tell you what I'd like to do, I'd like to see Rusty Wallace ..." Funny thing is, you don't have to be governor to get that kind of access. The pits are full of regular fans who have gotten pit passes and who collect autographs with relative ease. Some of the drivers walk through the dense crowd for a presentation at the starting line and oblige fans with autographs. At 7:10, each driver circles the track sitting atop a Pontiac convertible, waving to the cheering fans. Soon, each pit crew pushes its car out onto pit road along with generators the size of grocery carts. The generators rumble a loud, rough purr that's only a small taste of the aural onslaught to come. All at once, the drivers themselves begin pouring out of the garage area toward their cars — Dale Jarrett, Dick Trickle, Dave Marcis in his trademark wingtip shoes, Rusty Wallace, Ernie Irvan, Kyle Petty, Dale Earnhardt, Bill Elliott and Jeff Gordon with his arm around the waist of his leggy, blonde wife. They don't actually stop to sign autographs, but they do sign, walking briskly in their shiny silver shoes toward their waiting machines. The crowd, all 103,000, stand for the national anthem. There is barely the space for a slice of bread between them. While the anthem is sung the track is the quietest it will be for the next four hours. The cheers for the Star Spangled Banner turn to cheers for the drivers, who pull out of pit road and onto the track for their warm-up laps. The ground begins to vibrate. While holding their starting positions the cars gain speed as they circle the track and wait for the green flag. To a person, the crowd is on its feet, and as the green flag drops the crowd delivers the collective scream that will never be heard. The drivers blast forward at full throttle, and at that moment it feels as if someone has started a lawnmower inside your chest. The individual cars are nearly unidentifiable as they pass, creating a streak of vibrant color, a man-made, fuel-injected aurora borealis. In the pits, the guys are cool as cucumbers. Chad Little's crew watches patiently and purposefully from the John Deere pit. They are waiting for the right moment to call him in for a pit stop. From a scanner, you can hear the conversation between the No. 97 car and the pit crew. "Fresher tires, fresher but not new." "Hold on there, big guy, it's coming." The team prepares for Little's pit stop. One member attaches a water bottle and a windshield sponge to two long poles. Another places tires on concave pedestals. Another stands perched on the edge of the knee-high wall holding a jack. One stands ready with a pneumatic wrench to make the tire switch. When Little pulls in, the crew springs from the wall. In seconds, Little has four fresh tires, a mouthful of water and a clean windshield, but as he pulls away, one of his team members throws down the water bottle in disgust. He is not happy with the pit stop, so he rewinds a videotape taken from directly above the car and team watches its instant replay. In lap 120, Robert Pressley in the 77 car, suddenly hits the wall in turn 3 after making contact with Michael Waltrip's Ford. "Son of a bitch!" he yells to his pit crew. "You'll have to wait a lap maybe to come in." ... "I don't know what the hell's wrong with that guy," the driver says, frustrated. "I'm just driving along there and he just skids into the side of me. ... I ain't touched him!" It's a brief diversion marking an otherwise, let's face it, dull race. After the first 100 laps or so, the crowd's initial excitement diminishes from infectious and palpable, like an electric shock on the surface of your skin, to controlled enthusiasm to detached interest. Until lap 373. That's when all hell breaks loose. Going into that lap Rusty Wallace is leading in his Miller Lite Ford when Jeff Gordon, who started the race on the pole, makes his move. Gordon zigs to the inside with no success, so he zags to the outside on his way to a clean pass when Wallace moves up and taps Gordon's Chevy. The 24 car swerves out of control and slams into the concrete wall. Gordon is out of the race. The crowd erupts, cheering like Romans at the first sight of gladiator blood. A steamed Gordon fumes as he heads back to the garage. Then it gets strange. In lap 394, just six laps from the end of the race, officials stop the race dead because of a wreck that left the track slick on turns 1 and 2. It's a surreal sight — machines built for speed standing perfectly still in their natural habitat, like stuffed cheetahs in a natural history museum. Officials stop the race because they don't want a dull finish under a caution flag, and they won't get one. Just two laps from the finish Terry Labonte, in the No. 5 Kellogg's Chevy, bumps leader Dale Jarrett's Ford, leaving the 88 car momentarily wobbly. Before Jarrett can regain control and lead, officials throw the caution flag because of another wreck on another part of the track. Labonte sails to victory. Jarrett grumbles all the way to the garage. And 103,000 fans pour out of the grandstands and pits and into the parking lots, satisfied by an appropriately wild ending to a weekend that offered a little bit of everything. They get into their cars and inch their way toward home. Most of them anyway. Some lag behind, fire up the grill, and stick around for just one more hot dog. NASCAR for Dummies A quick primer on the strategy of racing, proving once and for all that it's not just cars circling a track. by Mark Stroh Although it may be hard to believe once the cars take off and start flying around the track, a lot more goes into winning a NASCAR race than just putting the pedal to the medal from green to checkered flag. Here's a quick guide to some of the more important strategic aspects of NASCAR racing: Qualifying To win a race, a car has to qualify first. Only 43 cars make the cut, so a few are usually left behind, like the hometown favorite Circuit City car at the June 6 Richmond race. And the higher a car qualifies, the better its chances are to win. The first round of qualifying sets the first 25 spots, and cars can stand on their first round time, or risk making another run in the second round, which determines spots 26-43. The 43 fastest times over the two rounds determine start order, although there are provisional bids available for points leaders and past Winston Cup champions who fail to qualify. Cars qualify with one engine, and use another for the race. The goal of qualifying is maximum speed for a very short two-lap run. Any openings in the chassis of the car are taped up, so as much fuel as possible, and not wind, gets sucked into the engine from the carburetor. The cars make practice runs of 30-40 laps before and after qualifying, and in many ways this is where the race is won or lost. Crews make adjustments based on the track, its length and angle of bank, the weather, and what the car is doing under those conditions. In a sport of fractions of seconds like NASCAR, the pre-race fine-tuning that the crews accomplish means qualifying places, and points in the race. Crews adjust tire pressure, the angle of the tires, the shocks and the car's suspension in the days and minutes leading up to the green flag. The pit stopThe key to this is communication between the driver and the crew chief. Once the race begins, it's the driver-chief communication and the pit stops that make the difference in the race, and avoiding a wreck. That's part of the reason that position matters so much — most wrecks occur in the middle or back of the pack. But cars stay in the race with the help of the pit crews and the chief. The crew chief decides when the driver should pit based on the two big considerations: tires and fuel. Crews will try to pit during a caution, which occurs after a wreck, because speeds decrease and racers don't lose much ground while the yellow caution flag is out. But if there are no wrecks, the stop is up to the judgment of the chief. This is especially tricky given that the cars don't have conventional gas gauges. The chief calculates when to stop based on how many miles per gallon the car gets and how much fuel went into the car at the last pit stop. And seconds count. An 18-second pit stop is very good, and a 16-second stop is exceptional. Anything over 22 seconds could take a driver out of the race. As much as the performance of the cars increases with the technology, and crew chiefs rely on computers and statistics, their job still hinges on instinct, experience and a staggering knowledge of their car from bumper to bumper. Seconds count, and chiefs gamble on how much fuel they have, how worn their tires are, and what split-second adjustments they can make on the cars based on what the drivers can tell behind the wheel. Every track is different, and each car runs differently on any given day, and anybody can catch a break on a quick pit stop or fortuitous wreck. And that's the thrill of NASCAR. The Big Shows Virginia Is For Lovers 200 Truck Series Thurs. Night, Sept. 10 7:40 Start Adults $30, Children 12 and under free with ticketed adult. Autolite Platinum 250 Busch Series Fri. Night, Sept. 11 7:40 Start Adults $35, Children 12 and under free with ticketed adult. Exide NASCAR Select Batteries 400 Sat. Night, Sept. 12 7:40 Start All Seats Reserved. Tickets required regardless of age. Sold Out. Tickets: Call 345-RACE (7223), or write to or visit: Ticket Office/ Richmond International Raceway/ P.O. Box 9257/ Richmond, VA 23227. For race information, see RIR's website at: To link to this and other web sites of interest, visit Tickets for the spring race: RIR announced last week that its spring race, the Pontiac Excitement 400, will move from June to May 15, 1999. Tickets can be purchased through a lottery system. Here's how it works: Send in a postcard with a name, address, daytime phone number and the number of tickets you want. You can ask to purchase up to six per household. You can send in as many postcards as you like. All postcards postmarked between Feb. 1-Feb. 26, 1999 are eligible for the lottery drawing. Winners will be notified by mail and will be sent an invoice to purchase tickets. NASCAR Links Winston Cup drivers — That's Racin' — Racing Today — Stock Car Fans — Fan Links — Essays, news and commentaries — Live in-car audio — NASCAR screensaver — Car Image Gallery —


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