Days Of Thunder

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Days Of Thunder

Words by Mr Geoff Hendry | Photography by Mr Blair Getz Mezibov | Styling by Mr Dan May

1 June 2016

Nascar driver Mr Ryan Blaney on the Texas Motor Speedway track

MR PORTER goes under the bonnet of Nascar, the most thrilling motorsport in the US .

It’s race day in Fort Worth, Texas. Despite the rain, more than 100,000 fans pour into the Texas Motor Speedway grandstand, while hundreds of pick-ups, campers and converted school buses with homemade observation decks jockey for space on the infield. It’s a sea of US flags, Nascar swag and corporate logos.

As the pre-race concert by Southern rock legends Lynyrd Skynyrd fades, Mr Ryan Blaney settles into the cockpit of his $150,000-plus heavily modified Ford for a two-hour whirlwind of thundering engines and screaming tyres.

Mr Blaney, on this day, is one of 40 fearless men and women set to race on the 1.5-mile Fort Worth oval at speeds of more than 180 miles per hour. While he’s been in fewer mishaps than most, he knows that accidents are not a matter of if, but when. There have been 28 driver fatalities in the sport’s history ­– though to illustrate how far Nascar has come in terms of safety, none since 2001 when Hall of Famer Mr Dale Earnhardt Sr was killed on the final lap of the Daytona 500. The most notorious pile-up occurred at the 1960 Daytona Modified Sportsman Race, where 37 cars were smashed on the course.

For Mr Blaney, the danger inherent in the sport is a way of life. As the son of former Nascar driver Mr Dave Blaney, the 22-year-old rookie spent countless childhood hours watching his own father compete while soaking up the sights, sounds and smells of race tracks across the US. But he doesn’t give the risks a second thought. “Being born into it and being there at such a a young age, it just gets you in that mindset so early, that really is the only world that you know,” he says.

Mr Tom Mayercheck, Mr Blaney’s motorhome driver

Founded in 1948, the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing (Nascar) is the motorsport’s leading organisation. Its most popular series, the Sprint Cup, features a 10-month season, with 36 races taking place on 23 different tracks in places like Sparta, Kentucky, and Talladega, Alabama, in addition to larger urban centres. Earlier this year, 13.36 million viewers tuned in to watch the biggest race of the season, the Daytona 500. Thanks to Nascar, stock-car racing, with its roots in bootlegging and beach racing, has risen from a fringe corner of the car-racing world to become the kind of sport that TV networks pay $820 million a year to broadcast. This translates into big paydays for drivers such as the top-earning Mr Dale Ernhardt Jr, who followed in his late father’s tracks and took home $23 million in salary, bonuses and endorsements last year.

Despite its success, misconceptions about Nascar and its fans are common. This drives Mr Blaney around the bend. “I can’t tell you how many times I go to a place where they know nothing about Nascar and they call us rednecks,” he complains. This stereotype wasn’t helped when Nascar CEO Mr Brian France recently endorsed controversial presidential candidate Mr Donald Trump. Curious, considering the organisation cancelled award ceremonies at a Mr Trump-owned property last year following the candidate’s racist comments and has been active in eradicating the confederate flag at all Nascar events.

Mr Len Wood, co-owner of the Wood Brothers Racing team (Mr Eddie Wood’s brother)

“There’s a new generation of fans and drivers coming in and that’s not [how] we should be labelled. That’s probably the biggest misconception,” he says. “That, and that we just go in circles. There’s a lot more to it than just turning left.”

Mr Blaney’s left-turning 21 Motorcraft/Quick Lane Ford Fusion isn’t anything like the Ford Fusion you rented at the airport last month. While on average, Nascar Sprint Cup Series cars weigh 1.6 tonnes and boast 850-horsepower engines, it’s the use of e-technology that makes today’s Nascar team a little more like The Big Bang Theory geeks than The Dukes of Hazzard cousins. “If people who aren’t racing fans knew what went into making these race cars – the engineering, the technology – it’s pretty remarkable,” says Mr Blaney. “It used to be back in the day you were measuring inches of travel on the race cars, now we’re measuring a thousandth of an inch.”

If you’re looking for Nascar’s most unsung heroes, check out the pit crew. On Mr Blaney’s team, that’s the six people (“two tyre carriers, two changers, a gas man and a jack man”) who go over the wall for an 11-second pit stop seven or eight times a race. It’s a physically demanding, high-pressure gig that requires constant training: “They work their tails off,” says Mr Blaney. “They start pit practice 6.30am every morning, every single day, then they practice for an hour, then they work out after that for an hour. They do an amazing job.”

Like other millennials on the circuit, the affable Mr Blaney’s approach to social media is nicely aligned with Nascar’s fan-centric culture. For him, it’s what sets it apart. “Nascar is the most fan-accessible sport there is,” he insists. “You can’t walk on an NFL field before a game, if you’re a fan. You can walk on the race track if you’re a fan at a Nascar race, right before we get on the track. That’s the coolest thing, man!”

While it remains popular, Nascar experienced a steep decline in popularity in the past decade. TV viewership and attendance in the grandstands began to sag leading to the reduction in seating at several massive speedways. Once the 2008 financial crisis hit, corporate sponsorship dollars – the lifeblood of Nascar – were harder to come by. After much hand-wringing and restructuring, things are once again trending upward, but it’s still a long way from it’s heyday of the late 1990s and early 2000s.

For Mr Blaney, the key to winning new fans is getting them to the track. “It’s hard to watch it on TV and be amazed by it. If you can go and see the race cars and feel the thunder and how fast we’re actually going… it just amazes you.”

Talking the Torque

Know your donuts from your dirty air? Here are a few turns of phrase you’ll hear around the Nascar track

BankingThe slope of a racetrack on a curve from the inside of the track to the outside wall. At Talladega Superspeedway, the main turns are pitched at 33 degrees.

Dirty air Air disturbance around a car that plays havoc with its aerodynamic performance. It can occur when driving too close to the wall.

DonutsDark, circular dents found on the sides of stock cars after one vehicle rubs up against another. The stock car version of a hickey.

Fire suitThe protective, fire-retardant onesie worn by Nascar drivers. They are aggressively emblazoned with corporate logos. The outfit least likely to be worn by Ms Naomi Klein.

MarblesThe tyre rubber, dirt, and gravel found on the upper corners of a track. It is sometimes referred to as “loose stuff” and can lead to wrecks.

Restrictor plateWhat Frank the Tank removed from The Red Dragon in Old School to give it a little more juice. In Nascar, it’s a metal plate with four holes that restricts airflow from the carburettor into the engine. Mandatory at Daytona International Speedway and Talladega Superspeedway.