In NASCAR’S Defense

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Maybe you don’t understand: NASCAR handles time differently. That’s OK. I don’t think I understood either.

I’ve covered sports for nearly 10 years now and yet only a handful of times have I reported on racing. It wasn’t until I left my home state of North Carolina that I began to feel NASCAR’s pull, and it wasn’t until it suspended competition in March that I knew why.

Races don’t rely on the artificial time of scoreboards. Instead, other clues signify time’s passing presence. Miles tick by while melted rubber pools at its own pace, darkening the track’s grooves. Shadows stretch across the straightaway. Time’s more natural here, and more reliable.

Daytona in February signals the coming of spring. For all I know, NASCAR’s arrival in Martinsville brings with it the first morning dew in October. And on a life-size scale, generations of drivers replace each other, those who paved the way yielding to their heirs, who’ve aged up, dying to get behind the wheel. 

NASCAR, I’ve learned, is the sport of time.

Other games handle time like a tool, to set boundaries or measure success — a shot clock controls its court while a marathon’s timer signals a world record. A bell can start time, a coach can stop time, and referees can add extra time as needed. As clocks tick up and down, time is played with and killed.

This split is most clear on autumn Sundays, when NASCAR shares the screen with NFL Redzone, that expertly produced medley of cut-together must-watch moments that should get my heart racing but instead lulls me to sleep.

On the track, time is everything and everywhere, unceasing and all-controlling. You can’t go out of bounds to save seconds, kneel out the win, or foul to extend the contest. Time doesn’t set the stage for a comeback or buzzer-beater. It is the stage.

NASCAR, I’ve learned, is the sport of time.

Which is all to say that of course NASCAR struggles in the age of viral clipping. Yanking a highlight from its place in time is a mistake, because a race is not a series of moments but one long, uninterruptible one, a chunk of time that resists meddling. In football, a scoreboard instantly shows where things stand. In NASCAR, the official results tell the story only as much as sheet music sings. 

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Yet it’s exactly this ill-suitedness for our present moment that makes NASCAR essential.

Technologists are waging an assault on our sense of time, battling over our attention like it’s disputed territory, creating their own timelines, algorithmitizing needed context into nothing, as if it were a waste of space. 

NASCAR has shown me why they are wrong. Racers’ reputations—developed over years—are as vital as the results captured in photo finishes. If they let a faster car go by on lap 20, they can hope to be repaid in kind on lap 200. If they bump the leader out of the way in 2012, they’ll have to keep their eyes on the rearview mirror in 2020. NASCAR competitors, more than just about anyone else today, still play the long game. 

In our Instagram age, what could be a better antidote for the infinite feed than the closed loop.

NASCAR’s rhythms only feel uncomfortable because of how comfortable we’ve become with a new, engineered, and imposed sense of time. Growing up, NASCAR seemed too traditional. Yet holed up in my New York apartment, dreaming of North Carolina, I came to cherish those hours each week when time was restored to its natural settings. I could be restored with it.

Checkered flags aren’t conclusions but culminations, like the triumphant scene earned at the end of a blockbuster thriller, or a romantic opera’s heart-filling finale. They can only be interpreted in context, and in order. NASCAR is a lot like opera, I think, as an art form that simply outscales its siblings with melodic roar and colorful flames, drama at 100 decibels and 200 miles per hours. A race’s emotions are on full display, you just have to sit there and let them overcome you. And I love this quote from Kasper Holten, the opera director at England’s Royal Opera House:

When I meet people who say they don’t like opera, it turns out nine out of 10 haven’t ever actually seen one. “Isn’t opera where they sing ‘I love you, I love you, I love you’ or ‘I am dying, I am dying, I die now’ – and it takes them 10 minutes to do so?” I get asked. To express something about love or death in 10 minutes is fast! These are emotions we struggle with our whole lives. 

I commiserate with Holten. And, I’d add, the length of a race doesn’t even need to be justified. It’s a feature, not a bug. 

In our Instagram age, what could be a better antidote for the infinite feed than the closed loop.

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Yes, let’s talk about repetition. Stock car tracks were built in a circle to maximize two things: speed and viewability. The straighter it is, the faster they go; the more contained it is, the more we can appreciate the culmination of a million little moments. But there’s another benefit too: relatability. 

Don’t we spend our days going in circles? And now more than ever? All they do is turn left. All we do is go to sleep and wake up. All we do is earn and spend. All we do is reply to e-mail chains. We’re treading the same ground, them and us, racing to where we started, hungry for a finish line.

You’d be a fool to think NASCAR’s disappearance even registers on the same scale as the mounting tragedies we’re now facing. But as we begin to reconcile how a pandemic might rewire us, it’s not a bad place to start.

They’re isolated too, those drivers, strapped into machines. Racing, particularly at NASCAR’s shorter tracks, has been likened to “flying fighter jets in a gymnasium,” to emphasize just how tight the quarters can get, like playing chess in the center of a rodeo. But now, I sense the isolation amidst the madness evident in that quote. There won’t be any high fives until this is over. 

Despite their separation, though, drivers are reliant not only on their teams—spotters’ advice crackling over the radio, pit crews leaping into action—but on their competitors. Just like us. We don’t take on single opponents on identical fields of play. We’re in one giant mess together, just as liable to get knocked out by someone else’s mistake as we are to ride someone else’s success.

Speaking of messes… 

In October, I lost my job (as did many of my colleagues). With it went the daily routine I’d developed and the decades-long career arc I had once—perhaps foolishly, given the state of journalism—mapped out. Three days later, I watched the Drydene 400, where a 27-year-old driver snapped his 75-race winless streak. He’d spent 756 days losing because a victory required 757 days of work, all piled up. Watching him bask in victory lane was a good reminder. I don’t think my colleagues and I lost; I think we ran a good race.

News of a now literally incalculable job loss rate has reminded me of those disorienting days. Surely many more have had their life plans upended for other reasons. Hopefully their reminder comes soon.

I will concede that NASCAR isn’t the only game with something to teach us about time. In 2012, a trip to check out cricket in England got generational journalist Wright Thompson thinking about how technology was altering our synapses (and that was eight infinitely long years ago). In Test of Time, he wrote about the “quaint idea” of “a sport existing outside the tyranny of money and time.” For many Americans, I’m sure baseball provides that untimed outlet while signaling spring and tracking summer. 

But NASCAR’s stance differs slightly from baseball’s or its global cousin’s. Rather than run from money or time’s tyranny, NASCAR makes them plain. Sponsors are as important as victories for a successful driver. Dollars are everything, coming and going in maddening revolutions. And time—if I’ve said it once….—is central, as NASCAR visits the same tracks on the same weeks each year, like clockwork. Younger than any of America’s four major sports leagues, it reflects the real world’s realities rather than trying to exist outside of them. 

Meanwhile, racing has proven its appeal to be nearly universal. Just ask the Wright Thompson of Classical Rome.

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“It surprises me … that so many thousands of adult men should have such a childish passion for watching galloping horses and drivers standing in chariots, over and over again,” Pliny the Younger once wrote. “When I think how this futile, tedious, monotonous business can keep them sitting endlessly in their seats, I take pleasure in the fact that their pleasure is not mine.” But many more stuffed the stands.

Surrounded by as many as 250,000 onlookers each raceday, The Circus Maximus track was “the beating heart at the center of the empire.” On other days, the stadium played host to gladiators and naval battles but it was never as crowded as for the circling sport. During competitions, Roman emperors dispatched troops throughout the city to look out for thieves taking advantage of the desolate neighborhoods.

Can you picture them, the citizens who rose at dawn to scope out seats because it’s race day? With deeply held conviction, they root for the 12 teams of chariots split between colors: red, white, blue, or green. Every fan knows they’re in the presence of greatness.

But the god of the sky doesn’t get as much applause as the divinity on the dirt.

Rome’s racing era lasted 1,000 years, stretching from the 6th century BCE until 100 years after the empire’s fall, and countless legends were born on the track. Many victors had their portraits carved into the wall itself. Later champions like Porphyrius—known for winning a race with one team only to swap rides with his opponents and emerge victorious again—had the popularity to lead massacres and suppress revolts. 

Few racers, though, could claim the renown of Gaius Appuleius Diocles, a hero in his hometown in what is now Portugal, who was feted with statues as far away as modern day Germany and who became one of the richest men in Rome by winning 1,462 races (though it took him two years to win his first). 

Those Romans you’re picturing have watched dozens of races on this day, but they’re never as loud as they are when Diocles parades in, wearing red. He’s followed by officials carrying carved statues of deities like Jupiter. The sun and moon gods drove chariots in ancient mythology in a daily race around the world that established time itself. But the god of the sky doesn’t get as much applause as the divinity on the dirt.

Gaius Appuleius Diocles has become popular not only for his victories but for his showmanship. Rounding the track in his quadrigae, or four-horse chariot, he lets the pack sprint ahead. On laps one through six, he focuses on positioning, judging his competition. He knows this is not a sport of speed, as some believe it to be, but about getting to the right place at the right time. Seven large wooden eggs track the race’s progression as he works his magic. The chariots send sand flying into the front row of stands, marble-carved and stuffed with VIPs.

Attendees, ranging from slaves to senators, reach a fever pitch as the final lap comes around. Once again, Diocles makes a late charge. He’s world famous for taking the lead at the last possible moment, but this time, the Whites aren’t giving up much ground. The cars make the final turn in a chaotic dead heat. The thunder of the horses’ hooves gets muted only by screams of onlookers willing on their favorite driver. The opera singer hits her final note. There, then, for a frenzied moment, time stops.

Here, now, we wait restlessly for it to begin again.

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Maybe you didn’t understand?