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The car bursts into flames at full speed, a 150-mph fireball
careering toward an ambiguous fate, and no one feels bad about
gawking. This is the space where it's O.K. to rubberneck after
wrecks, even to anticipate misfortune, without shame or apology.
A car catches fire and electricity fills the scene. The car
skids to a stop, the pyre persists, men rush to assist, time
slows down.

"Holy ----, get there, get there," a man in a mechanic's jumpsuit
says to no one in particular. He is standing in the garage area
while tens of thousands of fans at the Charlotte Motor Speedway
view the spectacle with a mixture of horror and fascination. A
red van zooms onto the racetrack toward the burning vehicle,
which is resting near the start-finish line. Workers in yellow
fire-resistant suits sprint toward the ugly black cloud above
the car. "Oh, my god," says a woman in pit row, "look at the

White, pasty fire retardant is sprayed over the wreck; it looks
as though a freak snowstorm has blanketed this part of the
track. Spectators stand and point, many snapping away with their
disposable cameras. A driver named Mickey Hudspeth waves as men
in orange suits pull him from the car and into an ambulance; he
will spend some time in the medical tent and then walk away
without injury. After the cleanup crew is done, the Sportsman
100 race--a preliminary to the Coca-Cola 600, the longest event
on NASCAR's Winston Cup circuit--resumes.

Sneaking a peek at the folksy, unpretentious world of the
National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR) is as
much fun as hanging backstage at Lollapalooza or going on
location with Steven Spielberg. In a sports world tarnished by a
widening gap between performer and consumer, NASCAR is a grand
exception, an unspoiled bastion of Americana, a traveling road
show in which even the biggest stars are taught to regard
themselves as commoners. The garage area is a place where even
the most decorated drivers are expected to behave with humility,
where infidelity and aggression coexist with faith and family,
where the corporate sponsor is unabashedly lionized and where
little attempt is made to dress up blemishes for the benefit of

Once confined mostly to the Southeast, NASCAR's support now
extends across the U.S., as evidenced by regular tour stops in
Sonoma, Calif., Loudon, N.H., and, since last year, the hallowed
temple of open-wheel racing, the Indianapolis Speedway. The
33-race Winston Cup series includes superspeedways, short tracks
and road courses, and concludes with a black-tie awards banquet
in New York City. Still, the hog's share of the series'
attendance of 4.9 million in 1994--up from 2.6 million in
'87--was drawn in the South.

Any NASCAR-inspired journey must make its way through the mobile
office of Bill France Jr., and this is where our weekend begins.
France's father, Bill Sr., founded NASCAR in 1947, ruling with a
leadership style that made Fidel Castro's look wimpy. When Bill
Sr. died in 1992, Bill Jr. was already in place as the next
autocrat. Everyone in NASCAR is aware of the junior France's
power, but few are critical of him. That's what happens when you
have the fastest-growing spectator sport in America, with 17 of
18 host tracks on the Winston Cup circuit in the process of
adding seats. "He is a dictator," car owner Robert Yates says,
"but he's taking care of the show."

The junior France's iron fist has been particularly active this
year. NASCAR has issued a record number of fines--15, totaling
$237,250--based on fighting among drivers, unapproved car parts
and on-track procedural violations. Series leader Jeff Gordon's
crew chief, Ray Evernham, paid the biggest tab: $60,000, for
using an unapproved wheel hub.

On this overcast Saturday, France is decked out in dark duds. He
looks as comfortable in black as Johnny Cash. Taking a drag off
a cigarette, he discusses the corporate presence that has helped
make NASCAR the most popular motor-sports series in America. "I
don't know if we were ahead of our time," he says. "I think it's
more that we were on time with corporate sponsorship, and other
sports were just late. Twenty years ago, nobody thought
corporate sponsorship of college bowl games was a good idea;
now, the bowls need it, and every one but the Rose Bowl has it."

Under France's reign, Ford, Pontiac and Chevrolet vie for
competitive advantages, with NASCAR handing down ever-changing
regulations in the name of achieving parity. Fans are well aware
of these automobile duels. When a driver switches from one make
of car to another, it is as if the Boston Celtics had moved to
L.A. In addition to appreciating the importance of equipment,
most NASCAR loyalists understand how integral a driver's crew is
to his performance. Understandably, though, it is the driver who
is royalty. In France's words, "The drivers are the actors on
the stage."

This is a tradition that predates the reign of NASCAR's first
and biggest megastar, Richard Petty. Not only was Petty, with
200 career victories, the King of stock car racing, but his
patience, magnanimity and down-home grace were unsurpassed by
anyone in sports. It's a refreshing concept you don't often see
today: Petty and his peers knew that their careers depended on
the image they projected to the people who paid their salaries.

Clad comfortably in jeans, COORS LIGHT T-shirt, cowboy boots and
a pair of silver hoop earrings in his left ear, Richard's son,
Kyle, 35, is the metaphor for what NASCAR has become. He's a
good ol' boy who still lives near the tiny North Carolina town
of Randleman, which his father made famous, yet he possesses an
unmistakably hip edge. With his long, curly locks, bushy
mustache and sharp goatee, Kyle looks like a cross between his
father and the singer Yanni. And while he sings the praises of
Jeff Gordon, NASCAR's newest star, Kyle is worried that those in
charge of the 23-year-old boy wonder's career are part of a
trend toward detachment, one symbolized by the NO INTERVIEWS
UNTIL AFTER QUALIFYING sign on Gordon's trailer.

"I don't think our sport needs that right now," says Kyle,
driver of the number 42 Pontiac. "If guys are not as accessible,
the whole sport will take a slam. Before, you could never be a
smart aleck, because the other drivers didn't let you. Now, the
sport has grown beyond the grass roots, and drivers are becoming
more like football and baseball stars. A lot of drivers are
paying lip service to taking care of the fans but not really
caring about them."

That is a shame, because these fans give back. Not only do they
lavish love upon injured drivers like Ernie Irvan, still hoping
to come back from his horrific, near-fatal crash last Aug. 20,
but they literally wear their allegiances on their sleeves.
Advertising surveys have shown NASCAR fans to be the most brand
loyal in sports, and business is booming. In 1990 sales from
apparel, souvenirs and collectibles totaled $60 million; last
year it was $400 million, although that still pales in
comparison to NFL-licensed goods, the most popular official
sports merchandise, which totaled $3.15 billion last year. At
every NASCAR stop there are long lines at the scores of souvenir
trailers bearing the logos of each racing team.

"And the fans are getting smarter," Kyle says. "A few years ago
the feeling was, These fans are so stupid, we can sell 'em
anything--like dental floss for dogs with a driver's picture on

Though the fan base is becoming more upscale, the redneck
element remains. Before his crash last year, Irvan, during the
tour's stop in Sonoma, took this now-infamous jab at a heckler
who was partial to seven-time series champion Dale Earnhardt: "I
can tell you're an Earnhardt fan because you're rude ... except
you differ from Earnhardt fans in one respect. You have teeth."

Good ol' boys will be good ol' boys. Even considering a recent
study that indicates women make up 38% of NASCAR's fan base, the
ambience at the tracks is still white male. The women appear to
cope with the panting sexuality that permeates the crowd by
fighting fire with fire: They wear bikini tops, tube tops,
halter tops and knotted-up T-shirts amid signs exhorting them to
show off their breasts. The racial tone at the tracks is tougher
to take. When confronted with the army of Confederate flags hung
atop the motor homes that fill the infield, is a person of color
supposed to feel at home?

In the hours before a Winston Cup race, entrants inevitably
appear in two places--the drivers' meeting and the chapel
service. Attendance at the former gathering is mandatory and
might as well be at the latter. As one might expect from a
vocation in which one errant flinch could mean death, a deep
belief in God permeates the garage area. A Christian ministry,
Motor Racing Outreach (MRO), has become a race-day force, with
everything from a staff chaplain to rosy-cheeked gospel singers
to a day-care center.

The drivers' meeting on this Sunday is lighthearted. As a NASCAR
official talks logistics, Earnhardt and Petty take turns wearing
a possum-tail hat. Then it's off to the garage area for chapel,
where driving legend Darrell Waltrip, doing his best Oral
Roberts, pitches for cash in the collection basket: "Remember,"
he says, "this is a full-service ministry. Dig deep, spare what
you can."

Sitting in the back row of folding chairs, Darrell's younger
brother, Michael, and his wife, Buffy, hold hands as the choir
sings, "I'm just a sinner saved by grace."

Buffy, 27, believes in the church's power on several levels. She
has heard the gossip about drivers carousing, sleeping with
other drivers' wives. In an atmosphere so condensed, intimate
details--such as which wives have had breast-implant surgery--are
bound to make the rounds. "It's a little bit like high school,"
Buffy says. "I really think the MRO program has become so strong
that it has helped some people overcome the temptation to gossip
or have an affair."

Buffy has a marketing degree from UNC Charlotte and would like
to run a restaurant someday, but for the moment her job is to
travel with Michael via motor home to every race. Her tasks
include setting up appointments, timing practice laps and
packing his prerace lunch. Before a race she restricts her
conversations with Michael to benign small talk and must often
react to his mood swings--and other swings. After some last-lap
jousting in a race on June 18 at the Michigan International
Speedway, the normally personable Waltrip tagged fellow driver
Lake Speed with a pair of right crosses through Speed's car

"How he does affects his whole personality, and we kind of live
life on a roller coaster," Buffy says. "All your emotions are
linked to how the race car is running, and that's pretty sad.
I'm very ambitious, but Michael comes first, and running his
life is a full-time job. Obviously, everything revolves around
the men in this sport."

Before each race Buffy walks Michael to his car and kisses him
for good luck. Then she heads for pit row, dons headphones and
observes pit stops, later reporting her perceptions of the race
to Michael.

On this day Buffy's feedback is destined to be positive.
Michael, who has never won a Winston Cup race in 285 starts, the
worst such streak among current drivers, seizes the lead coming
out of a midrace pit stop and, despite losing first and second
gear shortly thereafter, finishes third.

Kyle Petty, starting from the 40th position, is more frustrated.
He's penalized for passing Steve Grissom before reaching the
starting line and is sent to the pits for a stop-and-go penalty.
The car eventually started handling poorly, especially at top
speed, and Petty and crew chief Barry Dodson tried everything
from changing tires to adjusting the spring tension, all to no
avail. Watching high above in his marble-floored luxury suite,
car owner Felix Sabates says over the radio to Petty and Dodson,
"What a day."

Dodson: "I wouldn't put my ex-mother-in-law through the ----
Kyle's been through today."

Petty: "We need to put a sermon on this car."

Sabates: "We need an exorcism."

Their prayers will be answered the next Sunday, as Petty breaks
a 59-race victory drought with a win at Dover (Del.) Downs
International Speedway.

The Charlotte race is won by Bobby Labonte, who edges his older
brother, Terry, to gain his first victory after 74 races on the
circuit. The two hug, and then Bobby begins thanking his
sponsors, a ritual more predictable than an Oscar winner
thanking his or her mother. You can look a little silly when
your team is sponsored by, say, Spam, but these guys are
indefatigable. Labonte puts on more than a dozen different
sponsors' caps while spending nearly an hour in victory lane.

Back in the garage area, a nauseated Michael Waltrip struggles
through an interview while Buffy explains that he has been
"fumed"--efforts to repair his transmission caused a leak that
allowed noxious air into the vehicle. "He might need oxygen,"
Buffy says, then retreats into the trailer.

The exiting fans have turned the surrounding area into a giant
parking lot, and motor homes like the Waltrips' will be among
the last vehicles to leave the speedway. After 600 miles of
driving at insane speeds, Michael still has another 20 or so to
log in the motor home. Legions of smiling fans line the fence
that borders the far end of the garage. Eyes glazed, Waltrip
wades into the crowd and heads instinctively toward the RV, like
a salmon swimming upstream. Most fans leave him alone. Then a
chubby man who looks as though he stepped out of a Smokey and
the Bandit chase scene approaches with a sheet of crumpled
yellow paper.

"Hey, Michael," he says in a thick Southern drawl. "Can you
sign?" Without flinching, Waltrip looks the fan in the eye,
scribbles his signature and manages a faint smile.


B/W PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY GEORGE BENNETT At the Bristol, Tenn., oval, the cars just keep on truckin'. [aerial view of NASCAR race]

TWO B/W PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY GEORGE BENNETT NASCAR fans are wedded to their sport, and to the notion they can enjoy smashups, because their heroes rarely get hurt. [bride and groom stepping out of car at Atlanta Motor Speedway; cars colliding during NASCAR race]

THREE B/W PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY GEORGE BENNETT If the power plant isn't precisely tuned by the team of in-house surgeons, and the oil isn't the right stuff to stand up to the heat of battle, a car's driver, crew and sponsors won't be well-served when the rubber finally meets the road. [crew members working on engine of stock car; crew member putting air into tires; crew member pouring oil into engine]

B/W PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY GEORGE BENNETT Nothing gives a pit crew a high like the thrill of victory. [pit crew celebrating]