Twice a year, when NASCAR comes to Richmond International Raceway, I get really excited and my Twitter feed gets really pissy.
Judging by the tweets I see on race days, a sizable portion of the people whose interests usually align with mine wouldn’t go near the track if you paid them. Phrases like “worst day in Richmond” get thrown around left and right, and blanket accusations of racism are routinely levied against the 90,000 strong who flock to RIR for the day-long tailgate and ensuing 400-lap race.
In fairness, NASCAR’s far from perfect. As an organization, they’ve lagged behind Formula One and Indy in taking steps to reduce carbon emissions. Certainly not ideal. There’s also the consumer culture it fosters. Large, sometimes predatory corporations set up elaborate hospitality tents just outside the track, offering swag and samples in exchange for contact information, and racing teams line up dozens of brightly colored trailers in rows, hawking the overpriced, driver-branded merchandise that a staggering percentage of the crowd buys and wears, yours truly very much included. Because of all this, attending isn’t exactly a guilt-free exercise. But racism? Of the dozen-ish Saturdays I’ve spent at the raceway complex, racism played a significant role in exactly zero of them. Are there racists at RIR? I’m sure there are, just as I’m sure you could find them at Richmond Flying Squirrels games, Innsbrook After Hours concerts, the Greek Festival, Shamrock The Block, or any other situation in which a large number of people is assembled in one place. But calling a stadium full of people racist without meeting or talking to them is blatantly prejudicial, and it does nothing to advance racial sensitivity in our community.
I see it as a classic baby-bathwater situation. Sure, you can decide to never, ever go to a NASCAR race and write off the whole thing as a herd of drunk rednecks watching a few dozen sober rednecks drive around in a circle. But you’d be missing out on some of the beautiful — yes, beautiful — things I saw two Saturdays ago. The middle aged couple seated near where I was, so in love that it seemed like they spent more time smiling at one another and giving each other pecks on the cheek than they did watching the race. The family just in front of them, three generations all in one place, together, enjoying the same crisp and cloudless spring night. (The decked-out dogs at the top of the post aren’t so bad, either.) That’s heartwarming, soul-replenishing stuff. If you’re willing to look past people’s tattoos and t-shirts, you can find these scenes of excitement and bonding everywhere.
There’s a hidden depth to the tailgate scene as well, especially when it comes to music. You’d expect to find a bunch of pickup trucks with their windows rolled down playing Kenny Chesney and Skynyrd (OK, so I may have played a little Skynyrd — it was the Drive-By Truckers version of “Gimme Three Steps” if that makes it any better), but once again, when you dig a little deeper, there’s so much more going on. I decided to take a few videos as my F-150 owning friend Keith and I walked around the lot so you fine folks could get a sample of the all the non-country than can be found at one of these shindigs…
As a kid, I had ridiculously sensitive hearing. There’s this crazy story my mom tells about the first time I heard fireworks and how she thought I was having a seizure. Freaky stuff. Anyways, the Episcopal church we went to when I was growing up had a special service each year called the Kirkin’ o’ the Tartan (those apostrophes aren’t being used for effect — that’s really what it was called), featuring bagpipes, drums, sword dancing, the whole nine yards. It was nuts. At the beginning of the service, the massive corps would start at the back of the church and slowly march forward, bouncing an insane number of decibels off congregants’ eardrums, one… pew… at… a… time. I should have hated it — maybe I did, I should ask my mom — but I have such warm memories of those Sundays, and the sound of bagpipes wheezing into action always makes me happier.
I have no idea who the people in the video above were, but hearing “Danny Boy” was a real treat, and I’m really glad Keith and I stumbled across their jam session.
I have a love/hate relationship with the dude in the plaid shirt who stood directly in front of me while I was trying to film the VCU pep band in action. On one hand, he gets in the way and makes a crappy angle even worse, obscuring the band’s players and their at-times-hilarious gesticulations. On the other, I absolutely love his attentiveness. He was transfixed. He didn’t even move when they stopped to rest. I’m not kidding — after I stopped filming and put a few bucks in their donation boot, I looked back and he was still standing there, 100% zoned into the next song.
This was actually the second time I’d seen the Peppas at RIR. I believe the first was at one of last year’s races, but I’m not sure. Either way, the thing that stands out in my memory is that it was drizzling that afternoon, but the band was still going strong, stopping people in their tracks and drowning out car stereos, despite the fact that they were getting more and more soaked by the minute. I have a huge amount of respect for the dedication that takes. Rain or shine, walking the lot at RIR all afternoon can’t be an easy gig, and I sincerely hope their boot was full as Saturday’s tailgate came to a close.
Speaking of second meetings, I took this video when Keith and I were on our way into the race, but I ran into this guy again this past Friday night, while Mrs. YHT and I were leaving Brown’s Island after seeing Shovels & Rope. I thought he looked familiar, glanced behind him and saw the same woman sitting in the same position, half grooving and half supervising the proceedings. I couldn’t believe it. I don’t know if he heard me or not, but I tried telling him over the sound of bouncing buckets and crashing cymbals that I’d seen him at the race.
Thinking back, I really wish I’d stuck around to talk to him on Friday. I would have loved to hear about his NASCAR experience — his general impressions, how he did financially, whether he stayed for the race, whether he experienced any of the racism so many people associate with the event. Absent that conversation, what I take away from our two meetings is that Richmond can be a pretty small town sometimes, and that taking the time to stop and appreciate the music that surrounds us can yield some pretty satisfying dividends.