I went home to the Far East for a weekend back in June. My aunt's retirement party was Saturday night, and my cousin’s daughter was being baptized on Sunday. However, our plans changed on Saturday night when my dad learned that we could get free tickets to the next day's NASCAR event at Sears Point. Dad isn't particularly a NASCAR fan, but he has gone to a few motorcycle races in the past few years. I don't think I've even seen a NASCAR race on television before. Nevertheless, we were both curious enough about the world of NASCAR to accept the free tickets, plus baptisms are pretty boring.
There was an immediate wardrobe problem before we even got going. I had packed my clothes thinking I would be visiting a church the next day, not an enormous racetrack in Sonoma. Clearly, my yellow button-down shirt and khaki pants was unacceptable, so Dad offered to lend me some clothes. He had a pair of shorts, but told me he didn't have any NASCAR-specific attire, "like a Hooters t-shirt."
I laughed, but then realized, thanks to a gift from sister-abroad Molly, I actually did have a Hooters t-shirt, direct from Santiago, Chile. Wearing a shirt advertising the Hooters in Santiago, Chile, sends a certain message: I enjoy international travel, and tits. I added a mesh hat commemorating the 49ers triumph in Super Bowl XXIX, and we were ready to go.
We left the house at 7 AM for the race, which didn't begin until 12:30. Our first stop was at Safeway, to buy donuts and sandwiches. The clerk asked where we were going, and when we told her Sears Point, she shook her head, knowing the traffic we were sure to be facing. "I saw some other people headed out there, loading up on beer, but that was over an hour ago," she said. Yes, even a completely disinterested party - one who appeared to actively dislike NASCAR, in fact - knew we were leaving too late.
Our own high-powered vehicle was an early-90's Acura Integra, formerly Molly's college car. Having observed both my dad and Molly behind the wheel of that car, I can identify the main difference in their driving styles: Molly refuses to put the car in first gear, while Dad refuses to leave it.
Dad and I decided to root for Jimmie Johnson, no relation to the former football coach, since we got our tickets from one of his sponsors. His teammate Jeff Gordon figured to be the crowd favorite, since he is a local guy and wins at Sears Point fairly often. We would soon learn not to underestimate the incredible popularity of Dale Earnhardt, Jr. I asked my dad to refer to me as "Little K" for the remainder of the day, but he refused.
Once we merged onto 121, the expected traffic jam appeared. As we slowed the Acura to a crawl, a motorcyclist with "John 3:16" on the back of his helmet passed us on the shoulder. KFOG was the only radio station coming in, and so every driver that left his or her Tobey Keith CDs at home was listening to the same station. This was especially entertaining because KFOG was doing their "KGAY" format, in honor of Gay Pride Weekend. Upbeat 80's dance music provided the soundtrack as our cars crept toward the racetrack.
Would Gay Pride be factor in the race? Would Jeff Gordon, driving the rainbow car, have an advantage? Something told me they weren't going to mention Pride at the event.
Announcer: We'd like to take a moment, before I introduce the race's Grand Marshal, Larry the Cable Guy, to acknowledge the struggles of our homosexual brothers and sisters. We stand with --
Announcer: -- against prejudice, and unfair --
Crowd: BOOOO! BOOOO!
Larry: Git 'er done!
Just as we got within sight of the racetrack, the engine began to overheat, and we were forced to make a pit stop at the side of the road. To Dad's credit, Molly would have just kept driving. One popular feature of a NASCAR race is that fans can use their radios to listen in on conversations between each driver and his pit crew. If Dad and I had radios, fans could have overheard this kind of scintillating strategy talk:
Dad: Looks like there's still coolant.
Dad: You have no idea how an engine works, do you Sean?
Me: No, I do not.
Dad: Is there a rag to wipe off this grease?
Me: Molly has an old shirt in the backseat.
Dad: Give it to me.
That conversation would have been followed by five minutes of spitting and wiping sounds. Sorry, Molly.
Upon our restart, we ended up behind a car sporting an Earnhardt, Jr. license plate holder. The Acura wasn't doing a lot better, but Dad had developed a strategy of turning off the car while we were stopped, and relying on frequent restarts. This strategy kept the engine from getting into the red zone, much like how the 49ers' strategy of handing off to Kevan Barlow twenty times a game keeps their offense from getting into the red zone.
The Acura reached the parking lot unscathed. We got out fast, just in case the car exploded. Already there was a marked increase in: Winnebagos, country music, goatees, pickup trucks, and Port-o-Lets. Not as well-represented: Anti-war bumper stickers, teeth. On the long walk to the gates, the people behind us talked about peeing for a solid ten minutes. Dad wondered if he should have just peed on the radiator to cool it off. "Not one of these people would have judged you for it," I replied.
Dad and I both brought books, thinking we'd have a lot of pre-race downtime, but we kept them in our backpacks, so as not to alarm other spectators with signs of dangerous book-learnin'.
At a NASCAR event, it is difficult not to adopt fan mannerisms. Fifty yards into the gates, I was already tugging my cap in greeting to other Jimmie Johnson fans. Fifty yards further, I was taking my cap off and smoothing my hair back, along with the cap tug. Two hundred yards in, I had signed up to participate in a reenactment of the First Battle of Manassas.
Exceeding my wildest expectations, Larry the Cable Guy opened the race by saying, "Gentleman, git 'er done and start your engines!"
It didn't take long before I was hopelessly lost, trying to follow the race. I don't know the rules of how and when you can take a pit stop, or when you're allowed to pass, or what happens when there's a caution flag, so as far as I could tell, everyone was just driving in formation. To compound my confusion, Jeff Gordon made a late pit stop on the fifteenth lap, and the announcer referred to him as the "lucky dog". Even now, I don't exactly know what that term means, but it didn't stop me from referring to random drivers as "lucky" and "unlucky" dogs for the remainder of the afternoon.
My shirt was a big hit with other spectators. A Sears Point employee even stopped me to ask about it.
Female employee: Hooters, Santiago, Chile. I've always wanted to go there. I hear it's nice.
Me: My sister is in Santiago right now. She really likes it.
Female employee: No, I meant Hooters.
Jimmie Johnson disappeared into the pits quite early in the race. We sat in his sponsor section, stocked with food and Bloody Marys on demand, with a group of fans that were quickly slowly turning their interest to the promotional t-shirts and hats. One fan informed me that JJ was suffering from "tranny issues", which are nothing like Dave Stewart's, or even Eddie Murphy's tranny issues. Johnson was out of the race within about fifteen laps, taking more pit stops than a chalupa chef with IBS. Dad and I decided to root for Jeff Gordon, as a representative of Johnson's race team and also the Union.
The remainder of the race was unexciting, as a large number of crashes caused the last half of the race to run almost entirely under caution flags. This served as a preview of what our drive home would be like. Jeff Gordon was not a factor, and NASCAR bad boy Tony Stewart ended up winning.
We left early to beat the traffic. Unfortunately, we didn't leave early enough, as we had misjudged the length of the race. This confusion came from the track's distance being measured in kilometers, and our own shoddy mathematical reasoning. It was during a discussion about metric conversions that I realized how foolish I'd been to think that books would mark us as nerds, rather than our personalities.
The Acura's heater ran constantly, to pre-empt overheating, which made the drive literally hellish, especially since many parts of Vallejo smell like burning hair. It was a sleepy, half-drunken kind of scene, since every car on the road was coming from an afternoon of wine-tasting, or eight hours of drinking Coors Light in the sun. We may have been the two most sober men on the road.
Me: Do you think the NASCAR event helps the wineries?
Dad: I'm not sure if this is a wine-tasting crowd, Sean.
Me: Does Franzia have a vineyard around here?
In the end, NASCAR wasn't the best spectator sport, but it did let me spend a nice day with my dad. Really, our day embodied a lot of what NASCAR is all about: Family. Car trouble. Inadequate education. Distrust and fear of people that are different from you. And Larry the Cable Guy. Get 'er done, Sears Point!
*(11/2)Edited to correct the spelling of LTCG's signature phrase.