It’s 3 a.m. at Texas Motor Speedway, and Mario Batali’s red pony tail is flapping in the breeze. He’s gunning a golf cart over an uneven gravel road carving through the track’s throbbing shantytown of RVs, trailers, motor homes, and repainted school buses.
“We’re on a mission to find the real Americana,” Batali says, and he’s taking his good pal along for the ride. On the back of the zigzagging cart, a laughing Rachael
Ray is blowing kisses to fans shouting, “We love you Rachael!”
Packed into the infield are thousands of camping and recreational vehicles of varied shapes, sizes and payment schemes. Some are hitched to huge cylindrical metal smokers cooking sizzling slabs of choice American beef, which catches the attention of the super chefs driving past converted old school buses with crushed velvet sofas bolted onto the roof and sleek new Prevost motor coaches that require a jumbo mortgage.
The cart’s headlights catch the reflection of silver beads hanging from the horns of a wildebeest’s head which is mounted to a school bus painted silver to resemble a 40-foot long Coors Light can.
The beads are everywhere. Fans whooping it up in all directions are awash in them – glittering strands of silver, ruby, pearl, aquamarine, cherry cola, emerald green. Some are the size of marbles, others as big as golf balls. A life-size John Wayne cutout is adorned with several strands. Gold ones for the Duke, who is standing in front of scaffolding three stories high with a jerrybuilt viewing platform up top along with a bright neon sign proclaiming, “The Redneck Taj Mahal.”
Across the way, “Sweet Home Alabama,” the one tune that from the opening guitar lick can take a juiced-up assemblage of fans into blissed-out nirvana, is blasting from a cooler equipped with giant speakers. A dozen young men and women are swirling around the amazing cooler-slash-boom box. They’re engaged in a sort of rhythmic tribal dance, slowly wind milling their arms as if swimming leisurely through the smoky balmy Texas night.
The state of innovation in America may be declining overall, but an impressive spirit of can-do invention is on display throughout Texas Motor Speedway. A host of creative contraptions like the spindly erector-set village of scaffolding, the juke box producing southern rock and cold beer, and the smokers made from rusty underground propane tanks are helping fans view the track, cook, dance, play music, and dispense adult beverages. An enterprising fan will probably one day invent a device that does all of the above in one contraption you can hook to your Ford F-10 and tow to the races.
At the helm of the golf cart, Batali, a gregarious man with a heavy foot and military-strength RADAR for locating a good time regardless of the hour, veers down a road doglegging to the left. He drives a few hundred feet and instinctually pulls up to a western saloon. It’s an ingeniously constructed replica of a dusty storefront, the kind of plywood structure you’d see on a Hollywood lot with a hand-painted sign announcing, Me Til Monday Saloon.
“Me till Tuesday,” Batali says.
Rachael Ray doesn’t hear that because she’s off the cart before her good friend and sometime partner in crime brings it to a halt. The insanely popular chef, award-winning TV talk show host, magazine publisher, cookware entrepreneur and best-selling author busts through swinging saloon-style western doors onto an elevated black-and-white tiled dance floor.
In the middle of the floor, the object of everyone’s attention, the thing that dominates a scene with plenty of side-show diversions of eye-candy, is a gleaming stripper’s pole.
Rachael Ray marvels at the silver pole.
It seems to rise improbably from the floor, but after a moment’s reflection you can’t imagine the Me Til Monday Saloon or the raceway without it.
Rachael eyes the DJ booth and the giddy beaded dancing women and the rough-edged, crew-cut boys intent on their affection, and she exclaims in a raspy whiskey-and-sandpaper voice that’s fading fast, “We’re in the middle of a race track! These people know how to bring it!”
“Raych, the infield is the heartbeat of NASCAR,” Batali shouts. “We happen to be in the geometric center.”
This comes from experience. Batali has been to nearly 50 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races since Rich Bodmer, a friend from The Sporting News, brought him to an event at Dover International Speedway.
The globally renowned uber-chef, who darts in and out of Greenwich Village traffic on his Vespa, immediately “fell in love” with the speed of the sport, along with the drama-laden cat-and-mouse games drivers and crew chiefs will play to outfox the other teams.
Batali has been known to bend the rules – of what a restaurant should serve and how a restauranteur should act. He takes off-putting parts like beef cheeks and squab liver, and from the seemingly inedible cast-offs makes incredibly delicious dishes served in restaurants cranking rock and roll music way too loud. He wears shorts in the winter.
When you’re with Batali, the notion that some rules apply exclusively to other people starts to make sense.
It’s no surprise his favorite driver-crew chief tandem is Johnson and Chad Knaus, the duo in the garage known to be most adept for taking periodic expeditions into the gray areas in NASCAR’s black-and-white rule book.
But the combination of creative wits at war and creative techniques to push cars to breathtaking speeds was only part of the sport’s appeal to Batali.
NASCAR is famous for its multiple-day tailgaters, and the chef, who had recently returned from Spain where he and another famous fabulous New York running mate, Gwyneth Paltrow, shot a highly rated PBS series, Spain on the Road Again, naturally wanted to assess the foods of NASCAR and its fans as well.
“I got to Dover and expected hot dogs and hamburgers,” he said. “What I saw and tasted was surprising and delicious. The fans were making crab soup, crab cakes, crab stuffing, pasta with crabs, and lasagna with crabs. These were almost luxury food items being made right in the camp grounds. It was a real eye opener.”
Batali next went to Pocono Raceway, New Hampshire Motor Speedway, Talladega Super Speedway, and Texas Motor Speedway. He found delightful regional variations and hard-core race fans doubling as “obsessive foodies.” He saw each track expressing the region’s food. In Pocono, they were cooking venison and quail.
At New Hampshire, it was lobster and chowder. In Texas, beef and brisket were all the rage, and at one camp site, he saw an entire steer on a spit, barbecued for 48 hours then carved with a giant sword and served on white bread.
“That, my friend, is impressive, and you see that kind of cooking creativity all over the circuit. I like to say, NASCAR is a microcosm of the James Beard Society. It’s like going to a three-day rock concert with great food – Woodstock meets Mad Max meets the Super Bowl meets the Iowa State Fair. I’ve gone to a lot of sporting events, and I will tell you NASCAR fans are not only having more fun, they’re also eating better than fans in other sports.”
Batali has seven strong-selling cookbooks, and the NASCAR experience motivated him to write one of them, Mario Tailgates NASCAR Style, the first major cookbook attached to the sport. Batali developed recipes like Eggs in Hell, Speedway Guacamole, Restrictor Plate Chili, and Brickyard Barbecued Game Hens to capture the taste, texture and smells of the racing culture. The second-generation Italian-American boy from Seattle who went to high school in Spain is now as comfortable and familiar in tapping the cuisines of Renaissance Tuscan aristocracy and modern day Spanish field workers as he is in channeling the cooking styles of NASCAR fans in the campgrounds of races across America.
“I see myself as an interpreter of 3,000 years of cultural and gastronomic history,” Batali said. “I’m blessed because I don’t have to come up with too much that’s new and revolutionary. I’m someone who explains to people how they can make dishes that have been part of other cultures for many, many years.”
He happens to be very good at it. Batali’s record in “Iron Chef,” a televised 60-minute cooking competition among the world’s top chefs, is an astounding 31 wins and three losses. While the taste of food is subjective, and cynics would contend critics can be bought and swayed, that kind of winning record against the titans of the culinary world suggests Batali may be the best chef on the planet.
So when Texas Motor Speedway pitched him on the “Asphalt Chef,” a culinary battle at the race track pairing top chefs with NASCAR drivers, Batali accepted, and roped in his friends Rachael Ray and Tim Love, a meat-loving Texan who favors cowboy hats, western shirts, dusty boots and Crown Royal whiskey.
Love is no cooking slouch; he grills a mean rattlesnake, has an Iron Chef victory to his credit as well, and he’s well known in the Lone Star State.
But his celebrity Q factor is nowhere close to that of Batali, who has the rare distinction of being able to truthfully open a conversation by saying, “When I was on Oprah…” Yet in pop culture awareness, Batali is still a notch below Rachael Ray. Through her food and talk shows, lifestyle magazine and products now including a personal brand of dog food, Ray exists in the upper echelon of celebrity, able to elicit shrieks and tears from grown men and women through merely showing up in a public place. The dogs probably recognize her, too.
The Asphalt Chef competition was held next to a large pool in the shape of Texas below the condominiums overlooking Turn 2 of Texas Motor Speedway. Track executives have completely lost their minds, said people who comment on these kind of things when the announcement was made about new luxury condominiums to be built at the speedway. Today, the condos are worth more than a million dollars each.
While a band played light Texas blues and well-heeled corporate guests and friends of the speedway settled into their chairs at the Lone Star Clubhouse, the cooks were told the secret ingredient – hot chili peppers.
A 20-minute time clock was activated, and the teams scrambled for their ingredients, fired up the grills, and began chopping and marinating. Batali was paired with Juan Pablo Montoya, the Formula One superstar who had shocked the motorsports world by jumping to NASCAR. Montoya looks sharp in his chef’s smock, though he’s not smiling, probably because he hates to lose, whether it’s the Daytona 500 or tiddlywinks, and who wants to get up in front of a group of rich people, out of your element, not only losing but appearing foolish in the process. Juan’s eyes are locked in concentration on a pepper he’s slicing.
Rachael Ray was matched with Carl Edwards, who informed his partner he doesn’t grill, can barely prepare toast, and pulls the cheese off his pizza as part of a health kick ruling out nearly all foods outside of soup. “Carl tells me all this with a big smile on his face as if it’s good for our team,” Rachael later explains.
Tim Love, toting a bottle of Crown Royal, cooked with fellow Texan Bobby Labonte. The duo’s rib eye steak marinated in Coca-Cola with shrimp, cannoli beans, basil and chili peppers drew strong reviews. Bobby earned extra points for working his sponsor into the recipe.
The judges swallowed any concerns that blood from a grater-induced cut on Carl’s finger might have made it into his team’s dish. There had been a catch can at the bottom of the grater Carl didn’t see. The driver was grinding the cheese with a strong sense of purpose but nothing came out. So he ground the cheese faster and harder. Carl is one determined dude, and he finally just bore right into his finger. The judges overlooked that and thoroughly enjoyed Carl and Rachael’s chili and spicy quesadillas, heavy on the onion and garlic.
But Mario and Juan Pablo ruled the night. Their winning dish was an impressively presented Vietnamese-Colombian surf and turf consisting of a flank steak with red curry and a summer roll featuring Napa cabbage with shrimp, chili peppers, scallions and cilantro cooked in orange juice.
Batali denied that the dish’s fancy name and multitude of ingredients contributed to yet another Iron Chef triumph. “Juan Pablo and I won for three simple reasons,” he said in accepting a faux gold medal for his efforts. “Tim was drinkin’, Carl was bleedin’ and we were cookin’.”
Despite Edwards’ cheese-grating mishap, the professional cooks were impressed by the NASCAR drivers’ determination and sportsmanship. “These guys are not just danger mavens. They’re cool, and they’re real people, not like many celebrities today,” Batali said. “I don’t care where you live or how much money you earn, I judge anyone by two things. First is your attitude toward food – the ability to enjoy and share delicious things. Second is the way you treat busboys. I look at a lot of celebrities and they don’t make the cut by that standard. NASCAR drivers do.”
Human decency, generosity and community spirit are traits also shared by the hundreds of NASCAR fans Batali has met. His late-night jaunt with Rachael Ray in Texas reminded him of exploring the infield at Talladega at a time way past most folks’ bed time.
“Some fans had created a whole bar scene with a parquet wooden floor and Tikki lamps. They’d ring a bell and serve gumbo to anyone who wanted it. Anyone! I love that about these fans everywhere you go on the circuit. They epitomize the essence of good cooking: making something delicious and sharing it with your friends.”
Just as a friend introduced Mario to NASCAR, he was able to sell his good friend Rachael Ray on the sport. “I sincerely had the best time of my life at the track,” Ray said in the shred of her voice remaining. “I’m just upset it took me 40 years to discover all this. I’ll be back.”
Mario Batali and Rachael Ray are world-famous figures, wealthy beyond the dreams of most NASCAR fans. Yet, they are celebrities of the people. In the morning, they arrived at the racetrack in a private helicopter. But by nightfall, they were among the fans, passing good jokes and even better bottles of wine, and tearing it up in a golf cart on the way to the most extraordinary western saloon imaginable. They found the geometric center of the sport and are now proudly part of it.
Published with permission from The Weekend Starts on Wednesday: True Stories of Remarkable NASCAR Fans (Motorbooks), which is available on amazon.com and wherever fine (and ridiculously insipid) books are sold.