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David Caraviello, Charleston Post & Courier

Inside The NASCAR Bubble, Nothing Else Matters

This week in the bubble, they're fixated over who's going to crew chief Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s car next season, and whether Kurt Busch and Jamie McMurray can get out of their contracts. They're stressing over brake wear and front-end durability. They're obsessed with the Chase for the Championship, now only three short weeks away.

Inside the bubble, there is no room for outside influences. The start of college football season? Forget it. Hurricane Katrina storming toward the Gulf coast? Take a message. Inside the hermetically-sealed world of the bubble, there is only NASCAR, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, for 10 months. Entire nations could vanish from the face of the earth, and the citizens of the bubble would hardly notice unless a crew chief mentioned it over his radio. But whispers of one car manufacturer developing a new cylinder head, or rumors of one mid-level driver switching teams, causes a frenzy.

The bubble is the recycled-air world within which the NASCAR circuit travels, where only stock-car issues matter and where even the smallest bit of minutiae is scrutinized like the Pentagon Papers. It is a place unto itself, consumed by innuendo and speculation, powered by people who never clock out. The bubble is populated by crew chiefs and engineers who dissect data until the early hours of the morning, fabricators and machinists who work six and half days a week, reporters and public relations reps who spend maybe three nights of every seven at home.

They date, marry, and raise children within the bubble, change jobs within the bubble, retire within the bubble but never dare leave it because they know no other life. They live not in subdivisions or communities, but off Interstate 77 exits, as if they're talking about stops along the New Jersey Turnpike. In the real world, they're known as Huntersville, Cornelius and Mooresville. In the bubble, they're called exits 23, 28 and 33.

In the bubble, everything seems crucial. The most mundane of matters — such as whether NASCAR will change the car templates for next year, or whether Sterling Marlin will find a ride — take on an artificially inflated importance. The only real parallel is Washington, where every piece of political flotsam and jetsam seems earth-shattering, while outside the Beltway people are too busy living their lives to care.

The bubble is a nice place to visit, but it's a demanding place to live. It's a monster that feeds on Thursday afternoon flights out, Monday morning flights back, and three days of constant grinding in between. Work fewer than 12 hours a day, and people treat you like you're slacking off. Skip a race weekend, and be prepared to get needled about how you're never at the track anymore. Try to work in a little personal time, like a round of golf or some sightseeing, and people slyly question your commitment.

Never mind that we're talking about a sport, a pastime, a diversion. Whether you're an engine builder, mechanic, newspaper reporter or sponsor representative, the NASCAR bubble demands nothing less than complete dedication, absolute personal sacrifice for the cause. CIA operatives get more free time. If you work in NASCAR, virtually everything from eating to sleeping to breathing takes place in this specially-constructed world.

In fact, there's only one thing missing: Life.

Asphalt, Concrete And Memories Loaded Up And Carried Away

SUMMERVILLE – The grandstands have been demolished or relocated, the asphalt surface has been broken up and removed, the buildings have been reduced to jagged piles of metal and concrete. All that remains of Summerville Speedway are earthen mounds where the banked corners once were, and a scoreboard looming over what used to be the second turn.

Soon they'll be gone as well, part of the process of turning the former racetrack into a suburban housing development. The place where Lowcountry drivers visited victory lane every Saturday night for 39 years, which ran under a NASCAR sanction for two decades and once attracted greats like Dale Earnhardt and Davey Allison for exhibition events, is now a demolition zone.

On a recent afternoon, a backhoe scooped up debris from what used to be the track's infield and dumped it into a nearby container. Trucks bumped over a rocky path between this construction site and an adjacent one across Central Avenue. Everywhere there were piles of debris smashed cinder block, fencing and other things too mangled to identify. The only engines heard now are those powering construction equipment.

James Island driver Raef Judd, who won the track's final Late Model championship last October, recently received an e-mail containing a photo of the demolished speedway where he and his father each competed for so many years.

"To be completely honest with you, it nauseated me," he said. "I didn't go and cover my head and cry or anything, but I did sit on the bed and reflect back to when I was 6 or 7 years old, watching my daddy race there and winning the championship and what a great thing that was. It's all gone now. It's sickening."

Charlie Powell has a hard time seeing it, too. The track's former operator sold the land to the Landcraft development company, closing a once-flourishing speedway that in recent years had struggled to draw fans and drivers, and couldn't compete with newer, publicly funded sports facilities in the Charleston area.

Before demolition began in early May, Powell moved some items such as newer grandstand seats, lights, and the public address system to another track he runs in Florence. One time when he and his wife Zonda visited the site, all that remained was the three-story scoring tower, its windows broken by vandals. He hasn't been back in about two weeks.

"I've stayed away from it a good bit," he said. "I was there for probably three weeks taking things down with some help. After I did that, I decided I needed to be away. I'd had about all I could handle, physically and mentally."

More than just a racetrack has been lost with Summerville Speedway's demolition. The facility's car count had gradually declined, as racers at even the lowest levels struggled to keep up with the escalating costs of the sport. With Summerville gone, Judd and a handful of other locals drive up to Florence to race. One or two others now compete at tracks in Hardeeville or Myrtle Beach.

The rest? "I guess they just quit," Powell said. "The economy has gotten so tight for stock-car racing, and the thrill of it seems to have gone away from when I raced. It seemed like guys were right on the fence and could go either way. You're going to stay on the fence until the wind comes and blows you off."

Powell shifted his Florence program from Saturday nights to Fridays, in hopes of attracting drivers who once raced at Summerville. So far, that hasn't happened. Powell estimates that about 15 percent of his old Summerville drivers have shown up in Florence, most of those in the lower classes.

"The guys who ran 4-cylinders and some of those other divisions (at Summerville), I see them at Florence every now and again," Judd said. "There are still a handful of guys racing. But I think the lion's share must have thrown their hands up. I haven't seen them around."

Brick by brick, driver by driver, the four-decade legacy that was Summerville Speedway is already fading away.

Residential homes – could they at least call the development Speedway Acres? — will occupy the spots where local drivers like Robert Powell and Jerry Williams won NASCAR weekly division titles, where stars like Rusty Wallace and Kyle Petty signed autographs, where family traditions were passed on with grease-stained hands.

One thing will survive. The asphalt that once coated the .4-mile speedway will be recycled. Some day, some place, tires will roll over a little piece of the old track once again.

"Somebody is going to get to ride on Summerville Speedway," Powell said excitedly. "I thought about that the other day. If people knew where that came from, they'd think, 'Boy, that used to be fast right there.'"

The Dark Heart Of NASCAR Beats In Talladega

TALLADEGA, Ala. – The anecdote that best sums up Talladega Superspeedway comes from 1993, a story equal parts comical and horrific that tells you everything you need to know about this nefarious facility in the Alabama hills. That was when a tremendous accident sent the car of Jimmy Horton flying -- over the Turn 1 wall, out of the track, and onto an access road beyond.

"I knew I was in trouble," Horton would say later, "when the first guy who got to me was holding a beer."

It's funny, until you realize another driver named Stanley Smith nearly died in the same accident when his skull was crushed and a neck artery was severed.

Such cruel episodes have been a part of this racetrack for so long, rumors once surfaced that it was built on a Native American burial ground, and cursed as a result. The neighboring town of Eastaboga, a popular myth once held, was named after the Creek Indian word for "bad water."

It's not true -- Eastaboga actually comes from the Creek terms "people" and "dwelling place" - but given everything that's happened here since the former Alabama International Motor Speedway was dug out of the ground in 1968, it seems appropriate. If there is a dark heart of NASCAR, it surely beats in Talladega, a place where the gladiatorial Roman emperor Commodus would have felt right at home.

The place looks mean, with dark veins of tar snaking throughout the asphalt racing surface. It sounds mean, with large packs of cars generating a sinister buzz more appropriate for giant insects than automobiles. The sprawling campgrounds, cloaked in acrid wood smoke that lingers all weekend long, have an almost "Deadwood" quality to them. Passing by on I-20 at night, when shadowy figures are silhouetted against raging campfires, it looks like Burning Man.

Talladega has been controversial from its very first race, which was boycotted by Richard Petty and other top drivers over safety concerns. It was a place too big and too fast for the era in which it was built, and its reputation was burnished by fatal accidents that claimed the lives of Larry Smith and Berkeley County's own Tiny Lund.

Things have happened here that almost defy explanation. There was Randy Owens, a crewmen and Petty's brother-in-law, killed when a pressurized water tank exploded as he tried to extinguish a pit-road fire. There was Bobby Isaac, who abruptly parked his car on Talladega's pit road and retired, claiming voices had told him to do so. There was Davey Allison, who died when the helicopter he was piloting crashed in the parking lot of the infield media center.

No other racetrack on the Nextel Cup tour feels as menacing, from the impossibly wide expanse of the grandstand, to the sheer drop-off from atop the 33-degree banking in the corners, to the horrific accidents that drivers have thankfully walked away from in recent years. It's a place where wrecks pass for good racing, where bedlam like the 17-car pileup in the opening laps of Saturday's Busch event is accepted as the norm.

It just gets more and more curious. Two years ago, the mayor of Eastaboga held a press conference here to announce that a local physician had beaten the Wright Brothers to the First Flight by 13 months. In the nearby city of Anniston, where the military's chemical weapons stash is being destroyed at an army depot, there used to be television commercials urging residents to "know their evacuation zones" and "prepare safe rooms" in the unlikely event of an accidental release.
No wonder the drivers run so fast here. They're trying to get away.

Gordon's Retirement A Model Others Will Follow

DAYTONA BEACH, FLA. – There is so much left for Jeff Gordon to accomplish, on the track and off. There's the matter of winning seven championships in NASCAR's top division, and creeping closer to 100 race wins. But he also wants to go on an African safari, swim with great whites – in a shark cage, of course – and even try skydiving.

That's the interesting thing about America's most successful active race car driver: his other interests. He doesn't spend every second of free time on a dirt track or in a sports car like so many of his contemporaries. He lives in the NASCAR-free zone that is New York. When he's not in the race car, Gordon likes to get away from his job and see the world, just like ... well, just like a normal person would.

The days when Gordon would compete in Busch and IROC events are long gone. His non-NASCAR dalliances, like a spin in Juan Montoya's Formula One car or an appearance in the Michelin Race of Champions exhibition in Europe, are few. He simply has too many outside interests, which is why one day he might step out of his Nextel Cup car earlier than any of us expect.

"Racing has given me the opportunity to do all these things, and so I don't want to step away, because I love it," said Gordon, who will start 15th in today's 2 p.m. Daytona 500. "I love getting behind the wheel of the car and racing. I might think, because of that grind, sometimes that I might want to step away. But if I did, I can guarantee I'd want to get back into it, because I'd miss it."

NASCAR's top series is in the midst of a historic generational shift, with the drivers who were at their peak when the sport went nationwide gradually easing into retirement. All of them, like Rusty Wallace and Terry Labonte and Mark Martin, are in their late 40s. All of them are men who sleep and eat and breathe to race, whose lives have been consumed by the quest for speed, and who now want to make up for lost time.

They are the last of their kind. The generation of drivers behind them began racing much earlier in life. They're making more money and enjoying more success earlier in their careers. And they're much more likely to spend their 48th or 49th birthdays in Fiji or Spain, instead of at a racetrack.

Gordon is the vanguard of that next generation, the driver who will bridge the gap between the likes of Bill Elliott and the likes of Kyle Busch, the driver whose retirement will become the model for those who follow him. Just as Elliott's move to a partial schedule set an avalanche in motion, Gordon's retirement at 39 or 40 will free those behind him to do the same.

There is some business to attend to first. Gordon is 33, with four championships and 69 career wins. Tying the mark of seven titles shared by Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt is still a possibility, as is moving up to third behind Petty and David Pearson on the all-time victory list. How much longer he races could depend on how close he is reaching those marks.

"There are a lot of ifs, ands, and buts there," he said. "If we had seven championships, and things are still going well ... I want to stay in this sport as long as I'm healthy and competitive and I'm enjoying what I'm doing. It has nothing to do with numbers. But if I just came off winning seven championships, I'd probably want to try for that eighth one. I'd be crazy not to if I'm still feeling good and things are still going well."

If not, he'll surely find something else to do. Gordon has taken an interest in real estate development. He wouldn't mind doing voice work. Although he doesn't want to act - forget memorizing all that dialogue - he's always been comfortable in front of a camera. And there's always travel, probably to some remote, exotic location with no racetracks and no NASCAR on TV.

"If I were to step away from the sport next year, you wouldn't even see me for a year," he said. "I'd be gone."

Who Said Kansas City Isn't NASCAR Country?

KANSAS CITY, Kan, FEBRUARY 2012 – These days, the opening of the NASCAR season is greeted not by temperate breezes blowing in from the Atlantic, but a cold wind howling off the prairie. The smell of salt air has been replaced by the stench of stockyards. The roar of stock cars is the only constant, the lone connection between the first race of a year ago and the first race today.

NASCAR outraged purists when it moved its marquee event, formerly known as the Daytona 500, from its traditional home in Daytona Beach, Fla., to the bluffs of east Kansas. So what? Whether it was because of changes to the points system, shutting down Rockingham, or dropping the Southern 500, NASCAR has outraged purists before, and only grown bigger and stronger in the process. The new Super Bowl of stock-car racing, the Kansas 500, is just another step down that road.

It's the culmination of a movement that began back in 2001, when Kansas Speedway opened and this region quickly became a favorite of NASCAR and International Speedway Corp., the quasi-independent track conglomerate run by the same France family that runs NASCAR. Whether it was Nextel Cup, Busch cars or Craftsman trucks, fans poured through the gates by the thousands. Metro Kansas City quickly became NASCAR's prototypical new market, a place with a large population base and no other major motorsports facility within hundreds of miles.
It proved not only a captive audience, but a willing and lucrative one. Wyandotte County was so eager to attract NASCAR, it gave the speedway a 30-year exemption from property taxes. According to the Richmond (Va.) Times-Dispatch, $96 million in revenue bonds were sold to finance the track's construction. According to the Orlando (Fla.) Sentinel, a minimum of $150 million from state, county, city and local agencies was used to underwrite the project.

That kind of sweetheart wheeling and dealing can create quite a tight relationship, one that paid off nicely in late 2005 when this corner of the Sunflower State beat more traditional markets such as Charlotte and Atlanta for the NASCAR Hall of Fame. Forget for a minute that we're not in the major-league Kansas City, the city of the Chiefs and Royals and the Final Four, which is across the river in Missouri. This Kansas City is better known as the home of the National Agricultural Hall of Fame (see Harry Truman's plow!).

No matter. In a decision that was surely influenced heavily by Sprint, the K.C.-based wireless company that now owns NASCAR title sponsor Nextel, the $100 million Hall of Fame was built near a shopping mall at the intersection of two Interstate highways. Members of the inaugural class – Richard Petty, David Pearson, Dale Earnhardt, and series founder Bill France Sr. – were memorialized not in gold busts, but in gold-plated cellular telephones.

The all-star race, also sponsored by Nextel, quickly followed, creating a combination Hall of Fame induction and all-star race weekend here each May. More sweetheart deals were cut, more tax exemptions were promised, and in 2008 NASCAR and ISC left their combined headquarters at the corner of International Speedway and Bill France boulevards in Daytona Beach for a sparkling new complex on Brian France Way in Kansas City. And they said this isn't NASCAR country.

Well, it sure is now. Despite temperatures in the mid-30s and occasional snow flurries, reigning series champion A.J. Foyt IV won the pole for today's season-opening race. The grandstands, which were recently expanded to hold 200,000 spectators – at public expense, of course – are sold out. This state, which had never hosted a major race prior to the 2001 season, has become the center of the NASCAR universe. It's amazing what a few, enterprising local politicians can do when they put their minds to it.

Forget that six Kansas City public schools have been targeted for improvement by the state for failing to make adequate progress under the No Child Left Behind Act. Never mind that the Sierra Club has ranked metro Kansas City as the fifth most sprawl-choked big city in America. We've got a race to run.