It was my first time.
I couldn't decide what to wear. After an intense discussion with my husband about the vague team color parameters, as far as I could tell, and too many teams involved to settle on just one to throw support behind, I pulled on my cute, brown, cap-sleeve tee with a touch of pink and the words Nothing to Wear. It expressed my eagerness to participate while acknowledging that I had no idea how.
I was overdressed.
Come to find out, shirts are optional at NASCAR. But seeing so many bare-chested fans wasn't as surprising as the observation that none even had a shirt in his possession. They already knew the NASCAR secret: It doesn't matter what you wear because someone will be wearing something worse.
I'm a quick study, however: It didn't take long for me to figure out that tattoos are optional at races and that most folks opt in. The cheap in cheap seats holds more than monetary meanings. NASCAR fans have definite negative feelings about Sonny Perdue and Kyle Bush, expressed with loud expletives and vigorous universal hand gestures for strong dislike. (I was deeply relieved that my chosen T-shirt did not link me to either man.)
Beer is brought in by the cooler-full, pocket-full, purse-full, and koozie-full. Smoking is not taboo and is taken seriously. With all the exhaust fumes breathed in, inhaling a field of tobacco won't be the thing that kills anybody, anyway.
Learning on the fly during my day at Atlanta Motor Speedway, I found myself lost in the land of exposed bellies and bad posture, proud Americans and PBR, infield fans and bleacher butts, halter tops and facial hair, a land inhabited by a people escaping the slow pace of the economy, and their lives. If the fellow next to me had known I was looking around thinking, "This place is Wal-mart jacked up on Red Bull and doughnuts," he would have invited my husband to the breezeway and ripped the collar and sleeves off of his shirt just to put us in our places.
There is nothing dainty or delicate about NASCAR. If the Masters is an Angus rib-eye, NASCAR is homemade venison jerky, and no one looks like a lady when eating jerky, even if she extends her pinky. The prettiest thing about NASCAR is the pre-race display in which the drivers wave like beauty queens in a homecoming parade as they ride around the racetrack in shiny convertibles.
But, when the announcer said, "Gentlemen, start your engines!" and a low hum drifted across the infield and rose into the stands and suddenly the noise of the crowd dimmed, I discovered the magic of NASCAR. I slipped my earplugs in as the pace car led the drivers into their first lap. The growl of eager engines electrified the air and the crowd in unison rose to its feet, including me.
Finally, the pace car pulled off. In one heady pack, drivers gunned forward, reaching our grandstands, located in the third turn, at race speed, sending a powerful rumble up through the bleachers into the soles of my feet. It traveled the whole of my body until it thundered into my torso and resonated there. Then a gust of wind carrying the pungent aroma of burned rubber followed a breath of pseudo silence.
That awe-filled moment, repeated after every caution flag, must be why people love NASCAR. Well, that and the fights. Beer, shirtless pecs, and the tedious buzz of cars drive men to brawls of proportions of which I had never witnessed.
(Lucy Adams is a syndicated columnist, freelance writer, and author of "If Mama Don't Laugh, It Ain't Funny." She lives in Thomson, Ga. Lucy invites readers to contact her at email@example.com and to visit her Web site, www.IfMama.com.)