Sunday, October 31, 2010

A Matter of Life and Death

Maybe it’s the countless hours they spend huddled around campfires. Or maybe it’s because so many of them enjoy fishing, and we know how fishermen exaggerate. The wealth of priceless raw material available—the daily soap opera in the garage, the late-night revelry in the campgrounds—certainly contributes to it. Whatever the reason, NASCAR fans have amazing stories to tell about other fans. There are some bona-fide whoppers.

In sifting through tales of out-of-the-ordinary NASCAR fandom, it’s difficult to separate historical truth from possible urban — or, in this case, shall we say “rural” — legend. It’s fitting the most fantastic story I’ve come across, which several high-placed industry sources confirm to be true, originates at Talladega Superspeedway, the track known for the highest speeds, most spectacular wrecks, and biggest, rowdiest fan parties. (Oh, yeah, and the track that was supposedly built on an Indian burial ground.)

Talladega is NASCAR’s largest track, a 2.66-mile tri-oval ringing a large, raucous infield. Tens of thousands of fans come to ’Dega in RVs, campers and converted school buses, often arriving at the track days before the race and, once there, flying their flags proudly. In fact, when fans set up camp in the infield, the first task is to mark their turf and announce an allegiance by raising their NASCAR flags.

At one NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Talladega not too many years ago, a fan was raising the banners of Dale Earnhardt Jr. and, of course, his dad, the late, great Dale Sr.—the ubiquitous menacing black No. 3, a flapping pennant seen at this track and wherever the circuit visits, then and always.

This particular fan happened to be performing this flag-raising ritual during one of the fierce storms that will, with little warning, tear across the Alabama countryside. This time, the rain and winds were no surprise. The fan saw the sky darken and greenish-black clouds gathering wrath in the distance, low, fast, and fierce like the flyover to come on Sunday. He’d be damned if a little weather was going to prevent the flags of the Earnhardts, NASCAR, and America from going up before the cars hit the track for qualifying.

In the driving rain, the fan was securing his metal flagpole. An apocalyptic crack of thunder, as loud as if the sky had split apart, erupted. It came with a brilliant flash of blue-white light. The searing bolt of electricity beamed into the flagpole.

Even a mild lightning strike generates nearly a billion volts of juice. This unlucky fellow holding the pole was instantly fried to death by the sizzling laser. His buddies inside the camper heard the thunderclap and a thud—the body hitting the ground. They ran outside to discover their burnt and lifeless friend. They waited out the storm, and following a brief discussion featuring mild dissent quickly dismissed, the group made an improbable decision: to dig a shallow grave there in the infield and continue their race weekend plans. After all, “it’s what he would have wanted,” they agreed. One may have mumbled a joke about it being the NASCAR version of the movie, "Weekend at Bernie’s."

Since none of the crew had any special religious convictions, did it really harm anyone, including the deceased fellow’s family, to delay a funeral anyway? Their friend was horribly, tragically, irreversibly dead. Nothing would change that. You can book a church and call in flowers and cold cuts anytime in modern-day America. After the race, they’d take care of grim details no one wanted to think about just yet. Until then, a race was to be run.

The weather cleared. A southern belle proudly belted out the national anthem with fans proudly at attention, hands over hearts and then lifted to the sky cheering military jets screeching past. Gentlemen started their engines. The pack of 43 cars freight-trained around the track. There was the requisite big wreck. And one happy driver surged first to the checkered flag.

And then, after the last bottle of champagne was sprayed in a banshee Victory Lane celebration, a few hundred yards away, the boys dug up and cleaned off their friend. They solemnly reported the death to local authorities. Not many questions were asked. An open-and-shut case of death by lightning strike. No one’s ever charged Mother Nature with murder. Tough to prosecute that one. The boys lowered their flags and drove home with a little more room in the pickup truck than when they arrived a few days earlier.

This story is the epilogue in "The Weekend Start on Wednesday" (Motorbooks, 2010). It is shared here with permission, and may be quoted with proper attribution to the NASCAR Library Collection book.

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