Racin' in Upstate South Carolina
By Phil Noble
You can hear it before you get there. At first, it’s a dull roar that slowly grows louder as you get closer. Like a siren call to the initiated, it means there’s racin’ up ahead – and it’s already started
The parking lot was a ruddy muddy field but unlike more upscale sporting venues, there was no ten dollar parking charge. This is dirt track racin’, not NASCAR with high priced sponsorships and TV deals. As we crossed the parking lot/field, I noticed that the predominant vehicle seemed to be somewhat aged pick up trucks. I’m sure their drivers all considered themselves patriots – some wore their Vietnam veterans’ cap – but I saw no bumper stickers of support for the current Commander in Chief.
At the track’s cinder block building with the faded yellow paint job, there was a little window busted out of one side that served as the ticket window. It’s clear that the need for the ticket window was an afterthought and the architectural deficiency had been effectively, if somewhat imprecisely, remedied by a strong man with a heavy sledge hammer.
Behind the window sat a friendly lady with slightly bluish hair who took our $10 and offer us packs of orange foam ear plug for $2 each. Not wanting to appear to be the urban pansy we were, we declined.
Even when the roar reached somewhere way north of OSHA noise level safety standards, we were glad we heard it full force. Sitting on the front row, the roar was near deafening as the cars flashed by; you could feel their power and speed reverberating through your chest. It was racin’ – full on.
Of all my family and in-laws gather for a recent family weekend, my only companion on this cultural sojourn was my 24-year-old niece Annie. She instinctively knew how to dress the part. She donned her cowboy boots and head band and in between were her white shorts that were too short and her T shirt that was too tight. As she paraded the concrete bleachers (and she paraded and not merely walked) there were a number of solicitous remarks which were more amusing than offensive. She was lovin’ it.
One welcome surprise was the absence of Confederate flags and the presence of a smattering of black folks. One middle aged black man with his small son sat on the first row, next to the exit – just in case. There was even a lone black driver. He followed all the cultural rules, customs and protocols of the track and the only way you knew he was black was when crossing the finish line first, he extended his arm out the window and pumped his black fist. The middle aged black man and his son cheered loudly; but not too loudly. Welcome to racin’ in the ‘new South’ of the 21st Century.
Yes, this was a somewhat tamer time than the racin’ of the past. These drivers didn’t get their start running moonshine from the hills like the legendary folk hero drivers of years gone by. And unlike trips to similar tracks in my youth, there were not even fights among drivers, their pit crews or their fans. I was a tad bit disappointed.
The announcer over the garbled loud speaker was pushing the concession stand right hard. “Come on folks”, he said plaintively, “if you don’t eat a hot dog at the races, you ain’t an American.” Despite his pleas to patriotism, there is no great rush to the concession stand. After a while, Annie and I wander over to do our patriotic duty and get a hot dog. “You’re lucky, you got the last ones” said the aging concession queen as she reached into the rusty red insulated box to fetch the dogs.
Since there was no line, she had time for conversation and we learned that she also happened to be the announcer’s wife and she had fixed the hot dogs herself. It’s then we realized that promoting the hot dogs and patriotism had a little old fashion capitalism mixed in as well.
Upon unwrapping the tin foiled hot dogs, Annie took one look at the vaguely gray oblong hunk of something topped with a brown strip of something that was supposed to be chili. She said with a patriot’s resolve, “I love my country but I’m not eating this.” A wise move on her part. Being the super patriot that I am, I managed two bites and then consigned the rest to what passed for a trash can. God bless America.
There were basically two classes of cars racin’. The announcer pronounced them as ‘pure stock’ and super renegade’. I’m sure there are very strict rules governing the division with highly technical requirements for each class. But to us, it looked like the principle division was if the numbers on the side of the car were painted on with a spray can or if it was a professional job. The professional jobs went faster but somehow the spray paint boys elicited a stronger connection. “I could get a can of spray paint and go to work on my car and beat those guys,” Annie said. And she was probably right.
But what we could not see from the stands was what we knew as the existential reality of racin’ for folks in both classes of cars. And that was what the drivers, their crews and assorted hanger’s on in the pit, had – it was the intangible love of and faith in racin’. A faith akin only to, and as real as, their faith found on Sunday morning at the First Missionary Baptist Church. They loved racin’.
And that love and their faith meant all sorts of tradeoffs, gambles and joys/hurts of the finish line that we uninitiated would never know. It was the sacrifice of the driver or chief mechanic who would spend a half week’s wages from the mill for the re-conditioned carbonator that would be ‘just what we need’ to win the race and take home the $750 in prize money – once the rent money spent on the carburetor was repaid.
But when Billy threw a rod on turn four he also blew any chance of domestic tranquility for the week as he knew he would have to explain to his wife that he was ‘a little short’ on the rent this month. Hell hath no fury like a woman short of the rent money.
So it was, our trip to the track was a great adventure. It was a close up expedition to a venerable sub-culture of the Deep South – it was racin’ in the Upstate.
And, Annie and I were lovin’ it.
Phil Noble has a technology firm in Charleston and writes a weekly column for the S.C. Press Association. www. PhilNoble.com firstname.lastname@example.org