The Daytona 500 is on Sunday. It is the biggest race of NASCAR's retro-climax season, and the one where Dale Earnhardt hit the wall in turn three on February 18th, 2001 and died one of the most public sporting deaths ever, just a year shy of his 50th birthday. My attorney's barber shop has a bumper from one of Earnhardt's cars. It sits in its own little shrine next to pictures of a ruddy man with a bushy mustache and a large pink nose wearing black jumpsuits and looking like the world's smallest and indisputable badass.
At the time, and for a few years afterward, you saw public tributes everywhere around the Southeast. Highway trips were particularly good for Dale-spotting: a little "3" sticker was the demure way of showing your tribute, or maybe something bigger like a larger silhouette of the Intimidator himself, visored sunglasses and mustache staring towards the horizon without an ounce of fear on his face. Our favorite remains the winged Earnhardt, though a quick search of "Dale Earnhardt Tattoo" retrieves some truly incredible results.
You would find these mostly out of the city. I lived in Atlanta proper, and hung out with hipsters. These were people who looked like any other residents of a gentrifying, aspiringly pretentious quarter of a city. They wore thick-framed glasses, and would point out a member of The Rapture as they came into a dance club while yelling "Their last album sucked" just loud enough so they could hear. They drove Vespas and said "pescatarian" unironically. Saying pescatarian was the least ironic thing they were capable of doing.
Just because you do something ironically does not mean it isn't genuine, though. For a while, you would duck into some filthy bathroom at a bar, and you'd see a "3" sticker on a wall where it shouldn't have been. During slow songs at concerts, someone would throw up Earnhardt's number like it was a Zippo lighter, and rarely do it for long without someone else joining them. If a band did "Free Bird," you would see a lot of them.
I assumed for a long time it was pure hipster irony, but not every place is every place. Most people who come to cities do so for very good reasons: economic opportunity, a sense they don't belong anywhere else, sheer boredom with living in small places. In the South, you come to Atlanta from somewhere else, even if that somewhere else is 30 miles outside of town in some place with ample parking that still gets excited over a new chain restaurant opening up in town.
(Don't lie: this is exciting anywhere, really. You just call it news in small town, and in cities file it under the "Trends" section.)
I do not assume irony now, or at least not total irony. Everyone important in 1985 in the South had mustaches: Dale Earnhardt, Magnum P.I., Jimmy Buffett, Bob Horner, Gerald McRaney, Super Mario, Carl Weathers, John Oates, Burt Reynolds, your uncle whose car had a horn that played "Elvira." My uncle had one of these: it played "Runnin' With The Devil," too, or at least it did until I broke it playing "Runnin' With the Devil" too many times in his driveway. His mustache was a white-trash classic, wispy, black, and could have been ripped straight off the face of a Hong Kong boat captain. (My uncle never had the cash to visit Hong Kong, since he spent his dollars on car horns, sports cars, and Night Ranger tapes. He is innocent.)
Almost every NASCAR driver had one. They simply appeared when your testosterone crossed a certain crucial threshold in your blood. This probably happened three seconds into someone's NASCAR career, and probably still does because for all the changes in NASCAR, and the safety precautions and the corporate pandering, this is still a sport putting 40 men very much in harm's way at obscene speeds. Some trace of desperate bootleggers outgunning the police remains in the formula. As long as the very real risk of death and injury is there, this is still racing.
NASCAR is also still redneck as hell. This is meant as a compliment. It is redneck because drivers still curse on air, and punch each other on live TV, and have window-rattling arguments in trailers with cameras rolling outside. The people who show up for NASCAR races could not care less about your suggestion that they keep their shirt on, or that you might want to put some sunscreen on because that large spot on your back is not only alarming in shape, but also just ordered another 12 pack of Busch Light from the go-cart selling them in the infield. They're too busy listening to their driver's in-car audio, and cursing that son-of-a-bitch Kyle Busch for whatever he just did. (And he did do something.)
Even if you are from some outlying constellation of its kingdom and don't like NASCAR -- and I do, unabashedly -- you probably at least feel Earnhardt, and racing, and everything that surrounds it. Even if you have not seen the terrible TV movie ESPN made about his life, Earnhardt is in memory so many things you might already know: poverty, the crate full of unresolved daddy issues, the mustache and sunglasses of a mean bastard authority figure hellbent with his foot to the floor in pursuit of what he wanted, the dude in your office who would rather be hunting right now.
Earnhardt was not the evil universal nightmare redneck, but the one you knew, and in retrospect liked pretty well despite disagreeing with them. He was your coach, or a relative, or your hardass of a father. He would not put down that beer, officer, because it ain't drunk driving if you ain't drunk, and last he checked this was America. He had some woman problems. He was a son of a bitch who would not let you pass upon pain of injury, and he was also the guy who wrote checks to neighboring farmers wiped out by floods in his native North Carolina. Two shits could not be found given in his name about what you thought of any of this.
But this is not about him, not anymore, not any more than a kid too young to remember Tupac wearing his t-shirt is about Shakur himself. I watch NASCAR because some vein of backwoods asskick runs sidelong with the engineering and the sponsorships and NASCAR's desperate attempts to sanitize the sport. I watch it because some small part of me is from that, even if that little bit of me has been thoroughly urbanized and domesticated, and may have been all along.
The part of me where men with mustaches reign supreme and toss beer cans out the window loves NASCAR. It throws up a "3" in genuine tribute this weekend, without irony. The rest of me goes along with it happily -- but not without some envy and an inexplicable sense of loss for where I will never be from again, and for what was never really home at all.