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…