Feature Story

Carnival World

It is a carnival world. The caravan of crew members and support staff arrive late in the week to unload the equipment, pitch the hospitality tents, and prepare the souvenir trailers. They tear it down after the race is completed and move on to the next stop on the tour.

The view from Dover on this particular Sunday morning is partly cloudy as the sun slowly rises. In less than six hours, over 110,000 race fans will congregate in this small city in the middle of Delaware. Specifically, they'll head to the Dover Downs track on Route 13 to watch the carnival.

The stars of the show awaken in posh motorhomes in a tightly guarded area near the track. The audience files in from hotels, motels, campgrounds, and the like. But, some don't; they're already there.

The core fans could be called "diehard" fans. They don't stay in motels; they camp out on the infield of the track. It's usually safe, but sometimes not. They'll arrive in motorhomes, old school buses, even VW wagons. All in the name of NASCAR racing. The infield is NASCAR tradition crashing what seems to be an upscale party. These are the people with friends in low places that Garth sings about. No doubt about it. A place where beer flows freely as the music of Lynard Skynard envelopes the area. If I leave here tomorrow..... Around midnight, an otherwise quiet night on the infield is broken by incessant tapping. A fan knocking on the doors of motorhomes asking for a beer in a less than polite manner. On the eighth knock, the door to the motorhome swings open and a can of Miller Lite is thrown out the door toward the individual. He says, "Thank-ya, go Rusty!" Even in a drunken fog, he's sponsor loyal.

At dawn, the doors swing open. Breakfast is served. Not eggs benedict or even an egg mcmuffin. A few eggs in a frying pan over a barbeque; an infield gourmet. By 8 o'clock, chairs are arranged on top of the motorhomes and schoolbuses. The roar of engines is heard from the garage area. Race day has arrived.

As the spectators congregate along souvenir row, the stars of the show are off in their own world. Shuttling between hospitality tents to fulfill sponsor obligations. Smile, shake hands, sign your name 200 times. After that, Motor Racing Outreach conducts a religious service. Attendence is optional, but silently required. Next on the busy agenda is the drivers meeting where attendence is mandatory. The penalties for "cutting" are severe; start at the rear of the field.

Outside the track area, business is booming. The $25 t-shirts are selling at a rapid clip. Along with banners, hats, keychains, sweaters, watches, pins, and assorted paraphanelia. Racing is what the audience pays to see, but the real battles are fought on souvenir row. Which driver will outsell their competition? Dale Earnhardt and Jeff Gordon are lapping the field in that department.

By noon, the national anthem has been sung and the "gentlemen start your engines" command is given. As the drivers take their pace laps, the crowd slowly rises to its feet. When the pace car makes that hard left hand turn onto pit road, the roar begins. The "stage lights" go on and the "curtain" goes up in another city. This time it's Dover, Delaware. But it could easily be Daytona Beach, Florida or Charlotte, North Carolina or one of the lesser known outposts on the caravan such as Loudon, New Hampshire. The carnival is underway.

After commencement, the crowd returns to their seats rising when the lead changes or a car hits the wall. The yellow flag flies and the crowd rises once again. The race off of pit road is a competition in itself. As the cars exit pit road, a combination of cheers and boos is heard from the audience. Jeff Gordon has beaten the competition back onto the track.

The afternoon progresses with a multitude of stirring performances. The battle for the lead has been virtually nonexistant. But, the real battles are deeper in the field. Drivers fight to stay on the lead lap. Go a lap down and you can't win. The struggle continues as the 3 o'clock hour approaches.

The last fifty laps are the day's encore. You lay all your cards on the table at that point. Every ounce of energy goes into winning the race. One driver wins; 42 others lose. That's racin'.

In victory lane, the winning driver sits in his steel chariot. He motions that he's coming out to wave to the masses. But is told to wait "until TV goes live." Ever the showman, he waits while the party goes on the outside. Finally, it's time. A quick wave to the audience, a few words for the television viewers, and the interviews. Oh, the interviews. After posing with the trophy in every sponsor's cap, the winner is escorted to a press room. After thirty minutes of questions, he returns to the privacy of his team hauler to change clothes. From there, he's whisked out of the track and to the airport for the jet ride home.

After the winner is declared, a mass exodus occurs. Local police spring into action closing local roads. It's no use. You can't get 110,000 people to leave an area without causing a traffic nightmare. The best of a bad situation is often made. Fans of the winning driver honk horns when they notice a partisan bumper sticker on another car. Derisive comments toward fans of the runner-up abound. They'll bottleneck to the interstate. From there, some have two hour drives to get home, and some have twelve hour drives to get home. Some will arrive home just before dawn. Enough time to shower and grab a bite to eat before a full day's work on Monday.

Back at the track, the crew takes the "stage" apart as the sun sinks over the western horizon. By the time Dover is basked in moonlight, the haulers are headed toward North Carolina. In a few days, they'll arrive in another city ready for their carnival experience. It's still the greatest show on earth. You can't beat it with a stick.

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