Just one big, happy (racing) family
CONCORD, N.C. -- A soft breeze is blowing, humidity is low, the beer is ice-cold and there's almost an aurora borealis effect in the sky above the main grandstands at Charlotte Motor Speedway as Friday night's Truck series race is about to begin.
It's breathtaking, like a religious experience.
Then out of the darkness, barely audible over the roar of engines, comes a voice from a neighbor standing on the ladder of an adjacent RV. There's no need to interpret. The message is loud and clear as this perfect stranger stretches as far as his arm will allow to deliver three Jell-O shots to the rooftop of my temporary weekend home.
Yes, life is a party here.
Life also is good.
People you've never met treat you like family, offering everything from moonshine to mayonnaise. Some have been returning to the same spot so long they've watched the children of strangers they befriended 20 years ago grow into adults.
It's like a snapshot from an Ernest Hemingway novel, capturing the true spirit of Americana, from the ridiculous to the sublime.
It's why Morris Williamson of Lumberton, N.C., has returned to these hallowed infield grounds for more than 40 consecutive years -- for more than a decade in the same school bus with old No. 20 Tony Stewart Home Depot orange on one side and old No. 8 Dale Earnhardt Jr. Budweiser red on the other.
It's why Stan Cozart of Rockwell, N.C., has continued the more than 20-year tradition of "Big Daddy Murph" by bringing a 1959 Chevrolet bus back to the same spot since his best bud died of cancer two years ago.
It's why Jim and Sallie Hooker of Ohio, albeit outside the walls of this city within a racetrack, came for the October Chase race and never left.
They all understand what many of those sitting in the stands can't: This sport is about so much more than turning left, about more than big-money sponsors and drivers with egos.
"Why do I like it here?" Cozart says as he takes another chug of beer. "Where do I start?"
A friend tries to help.
"See the girl with cowboy boots and little short shorts?" he says with a laugh.
Rodney, Stan's brother, interrupts.
"Camaraderie and fellowship ... and controversy," he says.
The list of reasons is long, but after spending the Sprint All-Star Weekend in an RV provided by Tom Johnson Camping, after hanging with those who stay here in buses, RVs and tents, it's easy to understand their passion for this escape.
It's easy to see why they'd rather be here for Memorial Day weekend than on a sandy white beach.
This is their mecca, their oasis in a sea of blacktop and bleachers, just as it is for fans in infields throughout motorsports. Many spend a year saving wages to enjoy this moment.
These are the diehards, the ones who embraced the sport before corporate America took over, the ones who carry it from generation to generation.
"It is more expensive," Stan says of prices that have gone from $35 for a weekend parking spot to $175 since he started coming. "But, hell, it's such a good time we keep coming. I don't know what else to tell you. It's stay home or come. We come."
Cold beer and memories
Cozart has a cool one in one hand and a lifetime of memories underneath his Kannapolis Intimidators baseball cap as he sits behind the red and white bus he inherited from "Big Daddy Murph," who purchased it from the Jaycees for $100 even though they asked for only a dollar.
He embodies life in the infield. At least for the weekend, he doesn't have a care in the world beyond getting from one beer and one race to the next.
It's not hard to do.
Less than 30 minutes into my weekend adventure shared with fellow reporters David Caraviello of NASCAR.com and Nate Ryan of USA Today, I was ready to toss my laptop, notepad and pen into the briefcase and join the festivities.
Nobody wants work to get in the way of a good game of cornhole or flip-cup, or a feast of barbecue and brats.
Stan makes it tougher by offering a chair and a cool one. That's the way it is here. What's mine is yours and vice versa.
"That's the way we run," Stan says.
But these people aren't just creating good times. They are creating stories that they'll pass to other generations, kind of like Murph's bus was passed to Stan.
Joey Fleischauer, a follower on Twitter from Madison, Wis., sums it up perfectly:
"It's one of the many reasons I've always thought NASCAR is the most intimate sport in the world for fans," he writes. "In a lot of ways it harkens back to the beginning of the sport, letting fans experience an event on their own terms.
"It's the equivalent of tailgating ... but better in so many more ways because of the community aspect."
Past to present
Williamson gazes across the infield from atop his bus on a platform he made from old high school bleachers. He recalls how he spent the first 15 visits here in Turns 1 and 2 after arriving as a 17-year-old in a U-Haul with 20 or so friends.
A lot has changed since then. Many buses have been replaced by high-priced RVs. Many of the races have gone from day to night. The busloads of prostitutes, Williamson says, have been replaced by families with kids and dogs.
It's a lot more expensive, too. Williamson can't make a trip to Daytona or Talladega without spending $1,000 on gas alone.
"It used to be a poor man's sport," Williamson says. "I remember when you came in here for $10 a damn person. You're looking at $700,000, $800,000 rigs sitting right across from here. We have some up here; they don't like the buses."
Williamson suggests some with expensive RVs look down on those in buses.
"Remember what I said?" he says. "It's not a poor man's sport anymore. Normally, if you can afford one of them, you've got blinders on them. What you're seeing right here, this is real."
Not all those in RVs feel the way Williamson describes. Jim of Greensboro, N.C. (he preferred not to give his last name) and Kevin Eddington of Knoxville, Tenn., are as friendly as they come.
"Bus, RV or tent, it doesn't matter," Jim says.
There is a certain romantic quality about life here, particularly among the school bus owners. They talk about the way they've remodeled the interior the way a mother would her first baby room.
Williamson even calls his bus a baby, as in "this baby does 70 miles per hour on the road" and it would take "five grand to repaint this baby." He almost gets goose bumps talking about all the improvements.
"You're going to sh-- when you see the inside," he says.
Williamson proceeds to show off everything from the hardwood floors to the port-a-john under the front of the bed in the master bedroom suite.
"It's completely self-sufficient," Williamson says of his bus.
But if you really want to get Williamson going, ask him about the memories. Ask him about the times he slid down the high banks of the track on the lid of his cooler with other fans in the darkness after a race.
"I've seen a lot of ass rubs come out of that bad boy," Williamson says.
Ask him about the after-midnight wagon races they used to have between Turns 1 and 2 before fans got so high-tech with their Radio Flyers that the speeds became too dangerous.
"Nobody got hurt in the old wagons," Williamson says.
Ask him about the call girls who once worked this infield before it became more of a haven for kids riding bicycles and throwing footballs.
"You'd see more whores than you could count," Williamson says.
Ask him about the old Miller Lite Kurt Busch T-shirt he's wearing even though he's a Stewart fan.
"I don't wear good clothes out here," Williamson says. "You go to the dollar tent out there and buy track clothes for the infield, and you don't know where you're going to end up."
Ask him about ... you get the picture.
"I wouldn't trade nothing for this," Williamson says.
Stay a while
With the exception of a trip to Arizona, Jim and Sallie Hooker haven't moved their RV from parking spot J-5 since they came to the Bank of America 500 in October.
This is their escape from the harsh winters of Ohio. Some call them crazy, but they look at this as no different than spending time in a campground in Florida for more money.
Rent on non-race weekends, by the way, is only $25 a day.
"There's no place I can go in the country where I am within a 10-minute walk of three of the finest examples of tracks," Jim says of CMS, the zMax Dragway and The Dirt Track.
Two nights in an RV were enough for me and my scribe friends to capture the experience and understand why fans who come to the infield typically come back -- time and time again.
We played cornhole lit by blue LED strip lighting at 1 a.m., hung out at 2 a.m. with Truck series race winner Justin Lofton at an RV party -- although he probably doesn't remember us being there -- took a golf cart joy ride at 3:30 a.m. and gained a few pounds eating better than anybody in the media center.
Life is pretty good here. According to Mark Eisenhart, the marketing director for Tom Johnson Camping, it also can be cheaper than staying in a hotel -- over the long haul, 19 percent for a couple and up to 59 percent for a family of four who own an RV.
We also made a few friends, which is what this experience really is about.
And, yes, we accepted the Jell-O shots.
"We're all one, big, happy family," Williamson says. "You need it, I've got it."