This is Diana Nyad for KCRW, and this is The Score.
It's not that I've specifically ever bashed NASCAR. It's anything with a motor. Drag racing, Champ cars, Formula One, Indy Cars, even Motocross. I don't get any of it. Loud droning for four or five hours. You don't see the athletes' faces or bodies. The machines zoom by you every few minutes in a blur... and they all look exactly the same. I was chatting with ex-tennis star Chris Evert last year. She has three sons, with Olympic skier Andy Mills. I asked what sports her sons were into. Had they gravitated toward either tennis or skiing? She rolled her eyes. "What", I asked. She fished in her purse and produced a picture of all three, beaming smiles in their full-length motocross suits, next to their souped-up bikes. "No", I empathized. "But no other sports?" "Nothing but Motocross", Chris deadpanned. "Every weekend."
Well, I was in Kansas City this past Sunday and heard a big NASCAR race was happening out at the Kansas Speedway, part of the end-of-the-year championship series they call the Chase for the Nextel Cup. I had some free time and took a cab out to the track to check out what all the NASCAR hub-bub is all about. And I will say that, although I'd still rather watch track sprinters or horses run around an oval, I did finally learn some of the nuances that attract so many million fans to this sport. Of course, most of the fans are keyed into the drivers. They follow their family histories, their personalities. They know who's gutsy enough to take the tough line and who's not. But what captured my interest was the track itself. It was my ignorance, but I learned that every track is very different. There are ten races in this final series, at ten different tracks around the country. And it's evidently very much like managing different golf courses. That's something I've always appreciated. That a golfer who can finesse a fade left manages a course better when the dog-legs curve left to the pin. Well, on these tracks, the degrees of banking in the corners are different. And the corners are where a driver gains speed and usually passes. There are subtle bumps on the track that unsettle these sensitive steel horses. At the Kansas Speedway, as I was learning from the fan next to me, a guy who travels to at least a dozen NASCAR races during the year, there are a lot of what they call "marbles" at the top of Turn 3. That's a bunch of dirt and sand and peeled-off tread rubber that clusters and makes the car feel as if it's skidding across a bed of marbles. This guy next to me yells (and by the way, there is no other way of communicating at these events) "The track's on the tight side. The groove's way up there." I had already asked so many remedial questions, it wasn't out of line to inquire just what the groove is. It's kind of like a natural lane around the track where the drivers can feel the path of least resistance. It takes, they say, three to four years, on a new track for the groove to widen. Talladega Superspeedway has three grooves and that's why you'll evidently see cars racing three-abreast there. The Kansas Speedway is only four years old and is just widening from a one-groove to a two-groove track. A lot of the racing Sunday was taking place toward the top of the track, where they could get the best momentum in the groove.
The grandstands seat over 81,000 people at the Kansas Speedway and, let me tell you, this is one high-octane crowd. As a matter of fact, the sport is so popular in Kansas City that it's in the running, along with Charlotte and Daytona to become home to the NASCAR Hall of Fame.
I didn't leave Kansas City Sunday a new convert to NASCAR mania, but I am considerably more appreciative of the sport now.
By the way, I flew home through Dallas. Here's a warning for you. Don't ever, on a Sunday in the fall, ask a crowd in the Dallas airport if perhaps one of the four big-screen plasmas could be switched to the historic extra-innings Astros/Braves game. One has stepped deep into serious Cowboys territory at DFW. I followed the baseball game on the two-inch screen of my palm pilot.
This is Diana Nyad for KCRW, and that's The Score.