Good Sport: A night without peace at Bowman Gray

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by Jeff Laughlin

I found no peace.

I should explain why I expected to find any at Bowman Gray Stadium. I’ve never truly understood the art of stock-car racing — though I would not sell it so short as to say it wasn’t a sport in the first place.

I blame the hangover.

Avid drinker and comic novelist Kingsley Amis once defined the malady: “When that ineffable compound of depression, sadness (these two are not the same), anxiety, self-hatred, sense of failure and fear for the future begins to steal over you, start telling yourself that what you have is a hangover. You are not sickening for anything, you have not suffered a minor brain lesion, you are not all that bad at your job, your family and friends are not leagued in a conspiracy of barely maintained silence about what a s*** you are, you have not come at last to see life as it really is and there is no use crying over spilt milk.”

He then goes on to say that learning a new art form, or at least trying to, might also help. I decided that racing would be my art form.

Perhaps, I thought while in the throes of a metaphysical hangover, I would gain some inner clarity from the repetition of the contest. I wanted to believe that the structure of racing — the yo-yo like changing of speeds in and out of turns, the slingshot moves and back-and-forth juking of the cars — would encourage peaceful contemplation.

That’s precisely what my metaphysical hangover needed.

As it stands, NASCAR holds the belt for second-most watched sport in the United States, and the South’s foothold on that cannot be understated. Racing bred a master class of know-it-all mechanics — sideline experts that would run you over to prove that their tires go the hardest under extreme conditions.

Even amidst the rubble of hoodless cars and Harley Davidson tattoos, there had to be in stock-car racing a sanctum, a reprieve from the relentless battles of this life. Why would so many people cram into an outdoor stadium on a Saturday night if the sport had nothing to offer?

If sports are meant to help us escape, I had to believe that one with fast cars would get me there quicker.

Instead of sanctity, I found a church of noise. Revving engines, multiplied twentyfold, might be the loudest of all man-made inventions. From a half-mile out, I could hear the cacophony of pure acceleration.

On the streets we drivers have conscience and reservation, an etiquette to keep us safe. Such rules of order, though not totally absent, do not exist in the same way on the track. Accidents marred every race. My first stock-car experience — the modified-car division — took over an hour for 13 short laps. The regulars, more abundant and feminine than usual since it was $2 ladies night, stood restlessly shifting their weight while awaiting restart after restart.

Effectively, each race starts as 15-20 cars and then the herd begins to thin. As my friend Kyle Hefner, whom I needed more than ever to explain this madness, texted me blithely, “Too many cars, not enough track.”

Saturday proved the stigma that race fans adored accidents as an escape. Though more wrecks meant less racing.

I reveled in that. While I had too many sleeves still connected to my shirt and too few matching confederate flag elements to my outfit to truly fit in, I could agree with these folks on something.

The poetry and flair I needed resided in the crowd.

“Won’t nobody damn racing, man,” said a gentleman in an unbuttoned button-down shirt and a massive cowboy hat. He refused his name for the paper before his similarly dressed friend said, “I didn’t come here to watch people sit in a damn line.”

Neither did I. I got the feeling that if this stadium had a court of law, the arguments drivers would make would amount to “Rubbing is racing, your honor,” while the fans would likely counter with “Won’t nobody damn racing, your honor.”

I would definitely side with the fans.

And who wouldn’t? No one wants to watch a free-throw contest or a walking contest. No athlete would sign up for the Ironman if it involved sleeping, sitting and standing.

The races ended up being cut short due to all the wrecks. Some went as few as 15 laps. At one point, the announcers had to concede that if people were leaving early, “they should do so safely and listen to the policemen parked all around the stadium” as they left the area.

I found no peace, to be sure, but the local race fans had not either. This stadium was supposed to serve as the cure to their metaphysical hangovers, even as mine raged with renewed strength.

Idle cars made for idle minds. As I left early, I reminded myself to follow the rules, lest I lose my sanity or my hood after a night at the races.