Dylan and I have been friends since the first grade. Our friendship began where so many do: on the school bus.

I had spent kindergarten at a Waldorf School, where I was banned from using balls during recess and spent my lunches eating fruit leather. I cried so vociferously before every school day that my parents finally explored a different route. They sent me to public school.

The first day at my new school was the beginning of a daunting transition for a six year-old. My mother walked me into my classroom. My teacher explained to both of us that I had the choice of either going out to play for recess — where children grades K-6 roamed freely, hanging upside-down on the monkey bars and stuff — or staying in the classroom and playing indoors. I choose to stay inside.

When my mom announced it was time for her to leave, I tried not to cry. She told me everything would be okay, and left me to fend for myself. When all of my classmates filed back into our new classroom (the majority of them had, of course, elected to play outdoors) I became increasingly nervous. I didn’t know anybody. They all knew each other because they had spent kindergarten — a whole year, or twenty percent of their lives — bonding. It was apparent to me this was to be a tough go.

The next thing I remember is sitting around in a circle and making classroom rules. Our faithful teacher, Mrs. Joyner-Claflin, let us propose them. She would either write our suggestions down, or slightly modify them before writing them down, compiling a list of edicts that would govern our actions throughout the course of the coming school year. I began looking around the classroom, wondering which kids I would be friends with. My eyes scanned around the circle. One unlikely candidate emerged when this weird kid with a long, brown mullet, raised his hand as though his pants were on fire and chimed in, “Stay away from poisons!”

Mrs. J-C, as we liked to call her, massaged this ridiculous exclamation into some reasonable point, maybe something like, “stay away from things you know to be dangerous.” The kid with the mullet was the worst.

When the bell finally rang later that day, bringing my first day at Thetford Elementary School to a welcome close, my mother was in the hallway waiting to drive me home. To get to the car we had to first walk past the school buses that were now idling in the school’s driveway. Having never had the excitement of riding a big, yellow school bus, I demanded that I get to do so.

“Like, today?” my mom asked.

“Today,” I confirmed, feeling unnecessarily confident that this was the right plan.

My mother — the angel that she was — walked me into the office, figured out what school bus I was to ride, and helped me find the right one. It was Bus #2, and it took a circuitous route to our house that sat exactly a mile from the school. No matter, I got on the empty bus and did what any little kid would do on their virginal school bus excursion: I walked all the way to the back and sat in the last seat, waving to my mother as she walked back to the car.

Shortly thereafter, dread set in. I was on this bus, alone. I was smart enough to know that other kids — older kids! — were bound to be getting on, which is exactly what started happening. Before I knew it I was hiding in the back seat, trying to act as though I didn’t exist. A gap-toothed older kid wearing a baseball cap peered over my seat and squawked: “What grade are you in?”

The words didn’t come. I was trembling.

“Kid, what grade are you in?”

“F-f-f-wist,” I stammered.

“The back seats are for sixth-graders only. Move.” In retrospect, he wasn’t trying to be mean. This truly was an unwritten rule, obeyed by all TES students that wished to remain alive. In five years, I would be the one enforcing this with my friends.

Sufficiently frightened, the first grade version of me sprung into action, pacing down the aisle, looking for an open seat, trying to get as much distance between myself and that gap-toothed sixth-grader as was humanly possible. I quickly began to realize I had a much bigger problem, though: every seat on this damn bus was taken. I don’t mean every seat had a kid sitting in it. I mean every seat had two kids sitting in it. And most of the kids were really big, staring at me as though they knew I was that idiot first-grader who had dared try and sit in the back row of seats. I began to panic.

I just wanted my mom.

I made it all the way through the seats and started back down the aisle, figuring my luck at finding a seat wouldn’t get any better but knowing I didn’t have a choice.

Just then, I heard a voice.

“Bus 2?” It was, of course, that weirdo with the mullet. It was, of course, Dylan. He was sitting next to a kid with a shaved head (Tate, who is now also a close friend to both of us).

I nodded as though the world would end if I stopped nodding.

“Scoot in,” he said, and we sat three wide. I’m not sure much else was said, but I do remember feeling almost immediately at ease, knowing that even this weirdo who was afraid of poisons was not afraid of sitting next to me. In fact, this random act of kindness set the tone for my life in Thetford, a place where the unlikeliest of people will stick their neck out for you, simply because you’re part of the same community.

Whether he knew it or not, this first-grader was saying something much bigger than “scoot-in.” He was saying, “Welcome to the Thetford Community. Looks like we’re both going to be here for awhile, so you might as well sit down and enjoy the ride.”

The two of us are now 26 and living where we grew up, in the Upper Valley (an area that straddles the border of Vermont and New Hampshire). A week ago Dylan proposed we go to a NASCAR race in Shit-Show, New Hampshire. We are by no means NASCAR fans, but some of his coworkers were going and he thought it would be a fun way to spend a Sunday. I could not have agreed more, thinking that the spectacle that is NASCAR fans would be worth the price of admission on its own.

And if there ever was a person with which I would want to attend my first NASCAR race, it would be that kid who opened up a seat for me on the bus all those years ago. He has been my liason into all things redneck since we graduated high school. It’s not that he himself is a redneck, but that Dylan truly has the capability to get along with all walks of life. So if I want to go to a pig roast and meet a pet pig named Dudley — and don’t worry, Dudley was not the one being roasted — Dylan’s got me. If I find myself on a town green dancing with a stranger in her mid-40s named Faye Anne, Dylan is the one who brought me there. If we need a place to park our car across from the NASCAR speedway in New Hampshire, well, apparently Dylan knows a guy who knows a guy. (All three of these things happened within 48 hours this past weekend).

So on Sunday Dylan and I parked across the road from the New Hampshire Motor Speedway, ready to feast our eyes on the Camping World RV Sales 301 (seriously, though, that’s the name of the race we attended). We walked back toward the venue, passing many a front yard that had been temporarily turned into an ostensibly lucrative parking lot. People did things not unlike what people do before other sporting events: they drank, they played drinking games, they listened to music, they grilled. We quickly recognized that we were nearly the only idiots to be wearing jeans on a 85-degree day. We also figured we were the most sober people there, having not consumed any beers because it was still eleven in the morning. In fact, we would later find out that most of the people in these parking lots had been there all weekend, camping out and tailgating: they had quite the head start in terms of being drunk.

We walked along the side of the road, separated from passing vehicles by temporary orange fencing. Policemen directed traffic in and out of expansive, permanent parking lots that were presumably owned and operated by the Speedway. Those, too, were populated by tailgaters. After reaching a gap in the fencing, we were waved across the street and into the main parking lot. Though Dylan was hoping to meet up with some coworkers inside the race, we really had no game plan for what we would do for the next two hours. We decided we should go inside the race and people-watch, so we headed toward the ticket booth. We had not purchased tickets beforehand, mostly because neither of us seemed completely convinced we would make it here, less than twelve hours after jamming some beer pong at the aforementioned pig roast (where the aforementioned Dudley did not get roasted). Should we worry that they may have sold all 95,000 tickets already? Is that a thing that happens? We really had no idea.

As we approached the short line at the ticket window, a voice from behind us asked if we needed tickets. It wasn’t in that rushed, aggressive way scalpers at many events will address you, but in a voice that reeked of Northern New England heritage: “Hey, you guys need some tickets?”

Dylan and I have both played this game before, but never at a NASCAR venue. Despite the friendly demeanor of our acquaintance, we really didn’t know which way this was going to go.

“Well, what do you got?”

“I got two grandstand tickets, I’ll give ’em to you guys for 25 each.”

“Nah, man, they are selling them at the window for that price.”

“No they aren’t, those are general admission tickets. These are worth 40 each.”

“No, man. We’ll take our chances with the window.” We knew that he knew he had to sell them cheaper than 25 each.

“Alright, give me 20 each and we’ll call it a day.”

Dylan and I exchanged glances. Though we both recognized we could probably get him to go lower, we didn’t feel like robbing him blind. Besides, giving the guy two twenties would simplify a transaction that probably shouldn’t be dragged out in front of the ticket window. Dylan pulled out his wallet. The man jammed the tickets in my hand as though we were making a high school drug deal — the kind that you think is slick and discreet but is quite the opposite. I examined the two tickets. I’d been burned by a scalper before, but that was in New York City. We were in Loudon, New Hampshire, and it was clear this guy was desperate to get rid of tickets he’d probably overpaid for. It was also abundantly clear the race track had not sold those 95,000 tickets: there was a palpable sense that the simple principle of supply-and-demand was working in our favor.

“Get a good look at em,” Dylan encouraged me, referring to the specifications on each ticket.

The scalper didn’t love this because, he pointed out, cops were hawking the parking lot for illegal ticket sales like the one we were now participating in. We gave him the cash and he thanked us. We thanked him, too. He told us he was willing to stand by the gate and see us into the venue because he wanted us to feel secure in our transaction. It was a sweet offer — the kind you’d only get here, hours away from the nearest major metropolitan area — but we waved him off and headed through security.

The security gate is where Dylan and I realized we’d blown it. The tickets were real — that wasn’t the issue. No, there’s this thing about NASCAR races that make them different than any other sporting event I know of in America: you can, if you so choose, bring a cooler into the race. Inside the cooler you are allowed to bring alcoholic beverages, which you are allowed to drink inside the venue, because this is NASCAR, and, more importantly: this is America, binge-drinking central. Dylan and I had not brought any such cooler(s).

Now, I know what you’re thinking: that seems like a really, really bad idea. No, not us not bringing coolers, but a bunch of rednecks, sitting in the sun all day, hammering a seemingly unlimited stash of alcohol, watching an event they are passionate about, the results certainly not guaranteed to go their way — that sounds like it would lead to fights, doesn’t it? That sounds like it would create an unsafe atmosphere, no? Well, I didn’t see one fight. I didn’t even see fans talk shit to each other. I saw several people that were visibly drunk — including a handful that I sincerely hoped were not driving themselves home — but for the most part it seemed like every one just wanted to go about their business and enjoy the day. The drinking situation seemed to abide by that counter-intuitive principle, that if you give folks the power to drink as much as they want they will drink responsibly, as opposed to when you are at, say, an NFL game, where people attempt to get as loaded as possible prior to entering the stadium, knowing they will be charged ten dollars a pop for 20 ounces of supremely watered-down Coors Light.

So we went through security, cooler-less, a little dismayed at our failure to game-plan according to NASCAR policy. We walked through the long line of merchandise trucks, located in the shade provided by the stadium’s bleachers. We had decided on the drive down that Kevin Harvick was our favorite driver, for no reason other than a kid in our graduating class had a burning desire to discuss his race results every Monday morning. We glanced at a couple Kevin Harvick t-shirts. There were also hats, koozies, watches, key-chains, — if you could slap a name, number and signature on it, they were selling it.

We moved on to check out the track itself. People were walking around the infield, onto the concrete, posing for pictures, soaking it up. People were being interviewed on the jumbotron, which was so small it might be better referred to as simply a “tron.” At this point we were definitely feeling out of place and wondering if we’d come to regret spending our Sunday in Loudon. We figured we would stick around for some of the race and go home, or to a bar, and watch the World Cup Final. We could not possibly imagine watching cars circle a track 301 times, and we still had over an hour until the race began.

We ate some terrible food, Dylan smoked a cigarette or two, and I took copious pictures to chronicle the spectacle that is a conglomeration of NASCAR fans. About a half an hour prior to race time we met up with one of Dylan’s coworkers and he brought us over to where they were sitting. The place was not nearly crowded enough that we couldn’t just sit in any section we wanted despite even the general admission seats having designations that corresponded with a ticket. We sat down, were offered beers by the group we were now sitting with, and watched dudes parachute from outer space and onto a designated area on the infield grass, which was rather remarkable: the wind was whipping, yet they timed their descents perfectly, and landed in the exact spot they were aiming for. It seemed an impossible feat and it was probably close to it. But three guys did it, one with a gigantic American flag attached to his person. Then some lady sang the national anthem, which was less remarkable. Then — but like, one minute too late — two jets flew over head. They were loud, but not as loud as the speedway was about to get.

Leading up to this moment we had been warned profusely how overwhelmingly cacophonous a NASCAR race is.

“Buy earplugs.”

“Don’t worry about having conversations, you can’t hear shit in there.”

“It’s so fucking loud.”

“Seriously, buy earplugs.”

We had seriously bought some ear plugs, two dollar pieces of Styrofoam that were now stuffed in our ears. We thought we were ready for the noise, but we had no idea what we were getting ourselves into. Once the race cars got up to full tilt, we could quickly confirm that people weren’t exaggerating: it was like being inside a plane during lift-off, except there were 40 other planes right beside it, funneling noise straight through our ear plugs and into our ear drums.

I generally become anxious sitting down in large crowds of people, so a dozen laps into the race I sought out a comfortable place to stand. I found my ideal spot by the Turn Three Terrace, a sparsely-populated wooden deck that sat perched in between turns 3 and 4. I was standing on some wooden stairs that led up to the terrace when I received a tap on the shoulder. I turned to find a gray-haired woman — probably in her 60s — decked out in security gear from head to toe. Was I doing something wrong? Was I in the wrong place? Was I not allowed to stand here?

She gestured toward my arm. Was my arm in the wrong place? Was it now allowed to be here? She smacked my arm. It was a shocking moment until I looked down to see a horsefly falling to the ground. The security woman winked at me. I felt like we were in a silent movie, and the reel would soon cut to a bunch of script that said something like, “You’re welcome, kid!”

In fact, there was a serenity in all the noise. You had to shut up and take it all in, be it watching the race or watching the fans. If something came up, well you could count on the nice security woman to be slapping your arm to resurrect the problem. Or if you really wanted to, I suppose you could yell into your friends ear, or text them.

During a caution flag — which I think means something has occurred on the track that would make it even more unsafe to whip around at speeds over 150-mph — the cars would slow down, and you would be afforded a small window of time during which you could have conversations at a reasonable volume.

I leaned over to the woman security guard, still flanking me to the left:

“Do you understand what’s going on?” I asked her.

“No, not at all. And I can’t watch this stuff on TV, but I like being here.”

I didn’t ask any follow up questions because I didn’t need to — I knew what she meant. NASCAR is a difficult thing for me to watch on television, and I really have given it a try. While it is easier to understand with commentators explaining what’s going on, it isn’t nearly as interesting. You have to see those cars in person to appreciate just how fast they are going, just how close they are coming to each other, and just how skilled the drivers really are.

You also have to be at a speedway on race day to appreciate the friendly atmosphere created by the fans. I was likely the most judgmental person there, as I was fascinated by NASCAR culture, and thus, couldn’t take my eyes off some of those people. Fully-grown, shirtless men with mullets paraded around next to their shirtless, oversized, pot-bellied brethren: not a care in the world, soaking in the sun, the noise, the excitement. There was none of the ugliness present at NFL games, none of the pretension of baseball stadiums. Almost nobody was glued to their phone — a rare occurrence at sporting events in 2014. Everybody cheered for crashes (for better or worse), but nobody antagonized one another. I assumed wearing a Jeff Gordon shirt to the race would inspire homophobic slights galore, but neither Dylan nor I saw that. Nobody said anything negative to each other. They respected each other, they respected the racers, they respected the sport.

Maybe it’s a country thing. Maybe I’m a country kid who felt comfortable at the races. Maybe people from the country really are more courteous, in less of a hurry, more forgiving.

Maybe it’s New Hampshire Motor Speedway in particular. Maybe it’s a small stop on tour where the fans are just happy to watch a race and don’t feel like going out of their way to chastise other fans’ taste in drivers. Maybe other race tracks are not witness to such tranquility.

Maybe I missed all the fights. Maybe they happened in different sections of the bleachers, drunk dudes throwing blows at each other for the name and number on the other’s shirt.

But I suspect it may be a NASCAR thing. I think it might be the surprisingly laid-back nature of the NASCAR community that made the race so easy to enjoy.

 

nascar Danica

Later in the race we found ourselves back in the bleachers. The leaders had completed over 250 of the 301 laps. At this point we were both wearing $25 Kevin Harvick shirts, screaming our lungs out every time our man in the Budweiser, #4 car went screaming by.

“RIDE ‘EM OUT!” I would yell, the words invariably dissipating in the jet stream of noise.

“FACKIN’ SEND IT, BROTHA!” Dylan would implore Mr. Harvick. Our New England accents had blossomed over the course of our time inside the NASCAR venue.

We had planned to be at the race for just an hour or two, but here we were, three hours later, standing in anticipation of a wild ending. We had forgotten all about the World Cup Final (for now — it was being taped at my house). We were embracing this whole NASCAR thing, and it seemed to be embracing us back.

If you are wondering how the race ended up, you are asking the wrong guy. But I can tell you this much: something happened toward the end of the race that made it slightly anti-climatic: something to do with a caution flag — and maybe a yellow or green flag too? — and only the last lap was at full speed. Brad Keselowski took home the victory in the #2 car, sponsored by Redd’s Apple Ale. Harvick may or may not have finished — I think he ran out of gas? — but I will be damned if we were going to let Harvick’s poor finish get in the way of our otherwise overwhelmingly positive experience. Most other fans must have felt the same way. After all, only one dude wins the race, and there didn’t seem to be a ton of Brad Keselowski fans.

As we poured out of the stadium with the majority of the other fans, we were already discussing attending the Sylvania 300 when NASCAR comes back to New Hampshire in September. The race had exceeded our expectations in every possible facet. It was the perfect way to have spent a Sunday, and next time we wouldn’t forget to bring a cooler full of beer.

I couldn’t help but think about the moment we had walked into the arena, weary of what we were getting ourselves into. It was as though we were pacing down the aisle of the school bus, when a bunch of NASCAR fans with mullets saw those kids who felt out of place. They only knew one way to handle this situation.

They said, “hey, you here for the NASCAR race?”

And when we shook our heads, yes, they said, “well, scoot in.”

You might as well enjoy the ride.