Bristol is a full metal racket

- By Jeff Passan, 

Aug 22, 2010  3:51 am EDT

BRISTOL, Tenn. – The roar started, and Kasey Kahne scurried up the tunnel to catch the tail end of the wreck that set Bristol Motor Speedway aflutter. Smoke plumed into the air, and debris flooded the front stretch, and damn if all 100,000 or so witnesses didn’t collectively convulse with pleasure.

Fifteen minutes earlier, Kahne himself crashed out of the Nationwide Series race. His wasn’t much eye candy. Some body damage. A busted radiator. Nothing like this three-car mess caused by a 19-year-old named Chase Austin.

“Wow,” Kahne said. “Just wiped them out.”

He leaned over a white retaining barrier to sneak a better look at the replay on the scoreboard in the infield. Kahne’s face contorted. This wreck needed no explanation, other than one word that every racer digests with equal amounts of excitement and reticence.

“Bristol,” Kahne said. He shook his head and walked away, knowing that less than 24 hours later he’d be back out there in this little eastern Tennessee town that, for one night every summer, takes a sport full of men crazy enough to drive within inches of each other at 150 mph and matches them with a mass of humanity every bit as mad.

Almost two weeks ago, the RVs started rolling into town. They park on hills adjacent to the racetrack and stay there in anticipation of NASCAR’s night race at Bristol, the toughest ticket in the sport even though the place seats 160,000. They want to venerate the unlikeliest of shrines: a .533-mile track in a sport of superspeedways, a complete stadium that looks more like a football venue on Nandrolone, a concrete surface with such steep banks that physicists have to appreciate it for its application of centrifugal force.

Among the rest of the NASCAR circuit, Bristol stands unique, which explains how a fan base crushed by the recession still manages to brave the traffic on Route 11e and sit under the stadium lights – and a bright red sign above the back stretch that blares: THE WORLD’S FASTEST HALF-MILE.

And it is, each lap 15 seconds of havoc that titillates the bloodthirsty – or at least paint- and carbon fiber-thirsty. When the city of Bristol adopted a flag three years ago, it should have been yellow. Perhaps the most famous moment at Bristol came at the end of the 1999 race, when Dale Earnhardt repaid Terry Labonte – who eked out a .10-second win over Earnhardt four years earlier – by spinning him out on the final lap and earning the victory.

Bristol hasn’t always been the type of track that would have more Facebook fans than Daytona, Talladega and Indianapolis, or the sort that would make a man so rabid to attend he blogged about doing house and garden work for a neighbor just to procure the funds. When it opened back in 1961, it wasn’t enclosed. Thirteen years ago, it seated only 71,000.

Now it’s like the Colosseum times three. With the requisite pomp, of course.

Military jets dance over Bristol’s skies ahead of the race. The whole track sings “God Bless the U.S.A.” as a flag-bearing skydiver descends onto the track. The drivers’ children lead the national anthem, drowned out by tens of thousands of voices. It’s a good ol’ mess of patriotism and jingoism and beer and raw speed, the perfect NASCAR cocktail.

The straightaways are short and the turns ridiculous, not quite the 36 degrees they’re billed at – that changed in a 2007 renovation – but still something like 26 degrees, which may not seem like much until you see the sparks jumping sideways when cars whirl around the edges.

“When people come here, I guarantee their ass won’t hurt,” said Rusty Wallace, a nine-time winner at Bristol. “Because they’ll be standing up the whole time.”

Most of the 160,000 who pack Bristol for NASCAR’s Sprint Cup Series actually sit during the race, the action so fast-paced they haven’t any time to move, lest they miss something. There are outliers, like the man who Friday night roamed the stands shirtless and hauled along his gut and the beer bong that made it. He asked random spectators if they could spare a pop, and many obliged. By Lap 200, he looked toward the top of the grandstand and nearly succumbed to the vertigo induced by drunkenness mixed with extreme height.

To get to the 84th row of seats, at the peak of the grandstand, fans walk up 190 steps, a sure recipe for jelly legs. They relax with bags of deep-fried peanuts and a view that is luminescent: cars glide along like dolphins swimming in and out of formation, and the infield bursts with color – red and orange and yellow and fluorescent green and blue and purple, a rainbow of 18-wheelers that carry teams from city to city.

“You’ve just got to look at this place,” points leader Tony Stewart said. “There’s nowhere else you can go in the country and see a race track and facility like this where you can pack that many people around such a small race track. I mean, this is an awesome site whether there’s a person in the grandstands or not. It’s just an awesome facility. For 160,000 people to be this close to the action like they are, that’s an answer that speaks for itself.”

Those who prefer the bottom of the grandstand treat themselves to a three-hour massage and a dirt-and-dust facial. Ear plugs are de rigueur, the noise deafening in the truest sense. Only a mesh cage woven in tight hexagons separates the front-row viewers from the cars they came to watch.

As Bristol has grown, so has its commercialism, and that, combined with the renovation that cut down on bump-and-run racing, leaves some fans disaffected. During the night race’s qualifying laps Friday, a hype man roamed the stands to drum up excitement among fans during Kevin Harvick’s two-lap run.

“Sir, are you a Kevin Harvick fan?” the man asked a spectator.

“No,” the spectator answered.

The awkward conversation ended soon thereafter. The man was at Bristol. He wanted to watch cars, not talk with some foof. There was action, and for what does Bristol exist if not to tickle the limbic system?

Later in the evening, long after Chase Austin had knocked Nationwide points leader Kyle Busch out of the race with his spectacular crash, a pit camera found Austin. He looked like a kid who might have been racing go-karts last week, and he felt remorse. One of his left tires blew. He made a bad decision. He was apologetic. For the most part.

“At least I made it for the fans,” Austin said.

Following the pre-race festivities Saturday night, a 50-year-old man will climb into a stock car and run his 1,000th race in NASCAR, and he’ll start from the pole. The wrinkles on Mark Martin’s face are like rings on a tree, telling stories about where he’s been and what he’s done and who he is.

Martin is arguably the best racer to have never won a NASCAR championship, and despite taking a series-high four races this season, he’s not a lock to make NASCAR’s 12-driver playoff. With three races to go before the field is set, Martin sits in 12th, just 12 points ahead of Brian Vickers.

So fans will cheer for him Saturday night, and they will back Stewart, and they will support Dale Earnhardt Jr.And they’ll likely get to see Vickers and Kyle Busch – rivals who exchanged insults Friday – share an uncomfortable pre-race lap in the back of a truck waving to fans.

The individual that matters most Saturday can’t wave or talk or even drive. People come from around the country to see the Bristol Motor Speedway because it’s one of those things every NASCAR fan must do, like St. Andrews and Fenway and Wembley. They pack into the stands and listen to all 500 laps of the night race on the radio and watch intently and froth for what their ticket owes them, a track in all its wreck-inducing glory.

Bristol never fails to oblige.