“Welcome to rednecks’ Burning Man!” That was my greeting from an -almost exactly spherical- American chap, who was sporting a cowboy hat as we pulled up to the 50-Acre Campsite at Sonoma Raceway in Southern California.
Disclaimer: Not the actual guy I spoke to but I think it says something that he popped up when I searched for 'NASCAR fan'
The definition of Redneck is ‘A working-class white person from the southern US, especially a politically reactionary one.’ We were in Sonoma to watch a NASCAR race - American stock car racing that started in the forties and is the sport of choice for any aspiring redneck. Burning Man is an annual gathering of self-expression and like-minded people in Nevada. So my portly new friend was simply saying that this was more than just a sporting event.
I had spent three weeks of summer 2017 working in Truckee, a town nestled in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California. My boss, Roy, had spent most of that time trying to ‘Americanize’ me. This would be my ‘final exam’. Apparently I needed to experience every bit of a NASCAR race weekend before I could call myself an American. All the pick-up trucks, RV’s and hundreds of flags - each one more patriotic or offensive than the last - certainly looked pretty American. Sonoma is wine country and this massive splurge of neon flags and questionable mullets did look a bit out of place amongst the beautiful rolling hills and vineyards.
While we would be camping, it wasn’t exactly
tents and trenches. Roy runs a foundation for i
njured winter sports athletes back in Truckee
and he seems to know everyone on the west
coast of America. He had borrowed the RV
we would be staying in from the owner of an
NFL American football team. Roy’s friend,
Mitch, who has worked as a chef for Red Bull
and now lives on a farm and grows his own
ingredients, joined us on our pitch. I am no gourmet,
but the food he grilled on the barbeque seemed worthy of a few Michelin stars. The contrast of rednecks and luxury camping meant that my NASCAR weekend was off to an intriguing start - and I hadn’t even seen a race car yet.
After we finished setting up the camp we sat down to wait for one of Mitch’s - very fancy - barbecue meals. He brushed a huge beef brisket with various herbs and basted it with freshly-made marinade. Our camp had welcomed a few new additions and we were all edging our way towards this tempting hunk of Americana. It looked like a real-life remake of those old cartoons where the characters float towards the kitchen – drawn by the scents of the delicious food.
“You Brits eat meat?” snapped Mitch. He is a very friendly man who was born and raised in Montana. But for some reason Mitch adopts a very strong Texan accent when he’s holding a pair of barbecue tongs. Thankfully, there was no need to break his heart: “I do and I love barbeque sauce.”
I felt he was almost proud of me as he handed me a plate with a giant hunk of cow, accompanied by one – lonely —
Soon the sound of people undoing the top button on their trousers was pinging around the campsite. Everyone had been back for seconds (or fourths). Before bed, we slid out the massive 60-inch flatscreen from the side of the RV to watch Talledega Nights — a Will Ferrell comedy movie about NASCAR — to get us in the mood for tomorrow’s race…
“America’s favourite food, the only way to start a NASCAR race-day!” The words that woke me were accompanied by the sound of sizzling and smell of the honey-roast bacon from Mitch’s barbecue. The stereotype of Americans being over-weight seems perfectly acceptable if they all cook like Mitch!
Roy emerged from the RV clutching a small bundle of clothes:
“This is your uniform for your final exam.”
It was a NASCAR driver’s shirt and a camouflage baseball cap.
I got dressed and realised two things that were missing
from my shirt…
“Sleeves are just un-American!” Roy explained,
as I stood there in the first sleeveless garment I had
experienced, since the vest I had worn under my school
uniform in the winter of 1992.
The track was just across the road from 50-Acres. We would be watching the race from a box that was owned by camera-company Go-Pro–another one of Roy’s connections. Joey Logano, a driver who would be racing in about an hour’s time, met us in the box. He told me that my shorts were: “A bit euro!” I’m not entirely sure what that meant but it didn’t seem to meet the high fashion-standards of a man in a giant romper-suit emblazoned with petrol and beer logos.
Fighter jets screamed overhead, trailing red, white and blue vapour trails.
This was obviously a cue for everyone to stand and sing the
Star-Spangled Banner. Everything in NASCAR is America turned up to
eleven, so I stood as we sung and cheered for ‘our’ veterans!
I would be lying if I told you I knew exactly what happened in
the race, but people seemed very excited. We made full use of
our pitpasses, getting within inches of the cars as they stopped for fuel and tyre-changes, with all of the accompanying fumes and smoke. The race was won by a bloke called Kevin Harvick. Poor Joey finished in 18th— But looking at his sponsors he would not be short of beer to drown his sorrows.
That night there was a massive party, 50 Acreshas 982 spots with more than 3,000 people on NASCAR weekend. There were impromptu bars set up all over the campsite. The whole event had gone from Silverstone to Glastonbury almost as soon as the chequered flag was waved. I was drinking in the atmosphere, as my fellow Americans drank everything else. After many visits to the various cool-box/bars, one of the ‘Barmen’ summed up the whole experience, as he lent over and slurred: “NASCAR’s not a sport, it’s a lifestyle.”