The Canadians have it all figured out.
They are standing on the roof of a rented recreational vehicle, shirts off, throwing a football into the crowd.
Their plan is simple. If they can get a girl to throw the ball back, they might possibly lure her into a party aboard their luxury motor coach.
Yeah, they're fishing.
These amiable but pale fellows have driven more than 1,000 miles to bid farewell to their friend's bachelorhood at the biggest party in the South. And they are having a blast, according to the half-empty half-gallon of Fireball Cinnamon Whisky they're holding.
No one has the heart to tell them that trying to pick up women on the infield at Darlington Raceway is perhaps the most ludicrous idea ever conceived.
It will be more entertaining if they learn this the hard way.
Folks who have never camped on the infield at Darlington Raceway for the Bojangles' Southern 500 probably think they have a good idea of what goes on there.
NASCAR fans are subjected to a number of stereotypes - many of them unflattering, most of them wrong.
There is only one thing for certain. Once you drive through the tunnel beneath the track at Turn 4, you are entering a different world.
The infield is so large it has named streets: 1st Avenue, 2nd Avenue, etc. There are no speed limit signs - it is a racetrack, after all - but they aren't necessary. No one here is in any hurry, save for the people whipping around the track at 28 seconds per lap, making enough noise to wake our revered Confederate dead.
Once a year, Darlington's population of 6,200 grows tenfold as people from across the country (and Canada) come to take in the spectacle that is the NASCAR circuit at one of its oldest venues. These people are without a doubt the most hospitable people on the face of the Earth. Just show up and you have thousands of new friends.
And all the beer you can drink without a liver transplant.
People camp in tents along the edge of the track, but the middle of the infield looks like a used RV lot. Most of these oversized motor coaches are rentals, distinguished only by the exterior décor, all sold separately by NASCAR teams.
One of these rides stands out in a sea of sameness. It is an old school bus painted a fierce burnt orange with "01" painted on the side and, if you couldn't guess, "General Lee" written across the top. It looks exactly like the Dukes of Hazzard's 1969 Dodge Charger, if the good ol' boys had been delivering school kids instead of moonshine.
This General Lee may not be as fast as a Charger, but it does have a beer tap mounted on its right flank. And at Darlington, beer is the sole thing that trumps speed.
This is Shawn Krause's bus, and he is Southern only at heart. He and his friends drove 14 hours from Susquehanna, Pa., for the race. They hit a different track on the circuit every year. The bus itself is famous, and has been signed by nearly every cast member from the TV show. You know what the horn is going to play before he hits it.
Krause is a mechanic, has the same '68 GMC wrecker and nickname of his famous Dukes character, Cooter. He drinks his beer from a mug with "01" on the side.
"This bus was Shawn's dream," says Chris Durso of Clarks Summit, Pa. Durso points at the RV parked beside them: "$500,000." Then at the General: "$1,500."
Krause says the infield way of life isn't as cheap as the bus, but it's probably the most reasonable way to see the race. For $325 they got a parking space and two tickets to the race. They have electric and water hookups, and no hotel bill. They invested that saved money in a grand spread of food, lined up under the awning attached to the bus.
"You can sit up in the stands and pay $7 for beer or you can be out here where you can cook steaks," he says. "In here, you don't even have to care about racing. It's just camping for the weekend."
Of course, people can carry beer into the stands, too, but no point in quibbling because Krause soon offers a beer from the General's tap. Because they are from Pennsylvania, the brand is Yuengling.
It would be rude to say no.
The Dukes are infectiously friendly. Kevin Dooley, another Krause friend, helps some neighbors park their rented RV in the tight space allotted to them. Dooley is good at this; he's a truck driver.
The parking-challenged couple shows their gratitude by delivering an entire tray of chicken wings. The Duke boys munch on these while watching their other neighbors, the Canadians, who promise to be an endless source of amusement all weekend.
The Canadians are having little luck fishing. The football is most often tossed back by bearded men in Jr. race caps. The boys from the Great White North good-naturedly keep trying.
Durso laughs, shakes his head and makes the most astute observation of the weekend: "There's no geographical line for redneck."
* * *
'Redneck" is not a pejorative word here.
It's a term of endearment, a badge of honor. Rednecks are merely people who love the simple things in life - racing, family, beer. Not necessarily in that order.
It is also a state of mind among NASCAR super fans, one that is not recognizable at first. A golden retriever is wandering between campers on 1st Avenue, and the woman trying to corral it doesn't seem too red until she calls out for the errant dog.
Danica is probably searching for the source of all the wonderful smells wafting across the track. There is, not surprisingly, no shortage of fried chicken at a race sponsored by Bojangles'. But the infield crowd eats much better.
Fifty yards down from the General Lee, David DiLeo is cooking ribs and Boston butt on his "Big Dog Hogs" grill. DiLeo, a local, has parked his oversized cooker in front of Todd Arnwine's 1970 camper, which isn't much bigger than the grill. All day they have been feeding the security staff, pit crews and, well, anyone who walks by.
Last year, Arnwine won "Tailgater of the Year" and he hopes to repeat. The odds are looking good. The North Charleston resident is without question a most gracious host. He offers beer and ribs.
Who could say no?
This is Arnwine's fifth trip to the infield. This year he has come to honor his father, who recently passed away. Several drivers have already signed a checkered flag "To Ray." It is a touching tribute.
Arnwine has spent much of the day scouting for Nationwide drivers - the minor leagues to the Sprint Cup's majors. They race Friday night, a warm-up to Saturday's main event.
"Friday is my favorite day," Arnwine says. "The Nationwide guys are more accessible."
Just then, a young blond woman in a Coors Light jumpsuit passes by. Arnwine explains that she hands out the Nationwide trophy. He runs over for a picture.
Coors Light obliges and scoots in close to Arnwine. Before the camera snaps, however, she looks down at Arnwine's Bud Light and frowns.
"Hide that," she says.
Sponsorship is serious business here.
NASCAR is not as hard core with the merchandising as the NFL, but it is particular with its image - and that, like many things, doesn't sit well with the infield. Fact is, some of them don't care too much for the organization. Their first allegiance is to their drivers, followed closely by an unflagging loyalty to Darlington.
They believe NASCAR has tried every way in the world to mess with their track.
Darlington Raceway used to host two races a year - one in the spring, another in the fall. Years ago, NASCAR moved the fall race elsewhere. And then, most people here tell you, it tried to sabotage the track's one remaining race.
For a while, the annual Darlington race was scheduled for Mother's Day. And if there is one thing Southerners love more than racing, it's their mommas. Infield folks believe the scheduling was a conspiracy to retard ticket sales so that NASCAR could rid itself of the old track forever.
But the Track Too Tough to Tame has Fans Too Loyal to Give Up. Relegated to one race a year, they flocked to the Southern 500. The race doesn't quite sell out, but attendance is more than respectable.
NASCAR has also left the infield in the dust of political correctness. The campers rarely get any TV time, probably because so many of them are flying flags - many of the Confederate variety.
As Bubba Watson was pulling off another Masters victory a couple hundred miles away, the infield was talking about how NASCAR wouldn't let the golfer drive his very own General Lee - one from the show - at a race out West. The reason: it has a Confederate flag painted on the roof, as all real General Lees do.
Talking about the flag is as political as the infield crowd gets. They insist it has nothing to do with the Civil War. Racing is as inclusive as a sport gets, and they can recite drivers who have stood up for civil rights. Here the flag stands for moonshine runners, racers. That is NASCAR's roots, after all.
There is nothing on the infield that suggests anything except inclusiveness, as J.D. Denton and Thaddeus McNeil can tell you. They are down from Raleigh, have been coming together for years. As Denton talks about the joys of infield camping, he offers canned chili off the grill, hot dogs and, well, beer.
It is getting hot out.
The biggest difference between Denton and McNeil is that Denton likes Jr. and McNeil prefers Hamlin.
McNeil insists he was welcomed warmly into the infield family. If you love racing, nothing else matters.
"I take it as a sport," he says. "I'm not here to change anything. I'm just out to see what's going on. This is for all Americans."
Denton points out it is not the infield, but the town that needs to be more inclusive.
"They need a lot of shopping around here, like in Concord," he says, referring to the Bass Pro Shop shopping center visible from space outside of Lowe's Motor Speedway. "Wal-Mart is the biggest thing happening here, bro. Bet those shelves are cleaned out by the end of the weekend."
On the infield, there is only one form of discrimination, and it is universal. Everyone has an undisguised disdain for the fans in the bleachers.
"Look at those losers in the stands," says Jake Frazier.
Those folks are suckers, to hear the infielders tell it, jammed into small seats while they get to stand around grilling, drinking and socializing.
Frazier and his buddy, Dan Meyer, offer beer while they explain that, when they were students at Coker College, someone sold them "front row" seats for $15.
"We thought we were doing great," Meyer says. "Front row!"
"Then on the first lap we got pelted with rubber," Frazier says. "Now we know where the fun is."
* * *
As the Nationwide race begins Friday night, the Canadians have joined the Duke boys atop the General Lee.
The Canadians have put on shirts, but are still carrying their half-gallon of Fireball Cinnamon Whisky, which is almost empty. It's a good thing the platform atop the General has rails.
The Canadians insist everyone try the Fireball. Resistance is futile - no one wants to look like a hoser. The drink, a favorite among frat boys, tastes suspiciously like liquified candy.
"Yeah," one of the Canadians says, "that's why we're drinking it!"
It's going to be a long night.
Although the liquor is flowing and the party is at a dull roar, nothing gets out of hand. The infield is not nearly as wild as it used to be.
Back in the day, the stories go, you would find all-out brawls, random nudity and more than a few people toking on the wildwood flower. These days it is much more laid-back. That does not mean there isn't still some harmless fun that would make the moonshine-running forefathers of NASCAR proud.
This year the ESPN mobile studio is set up overlooking 1st Avenue. Like all the other national media types, the ESPN folks dart around the infield in six-seater golf carts, a surprising number of which sport mags.
On Thursday, someone noticed an unattended ESPN golf cart with the keys in it. A couple of fans decided to take it for a little joyride . and stayed gone all day. No one noticed, or bothered to complain. Just one of those things.
Most of the craziness used to happen in the tent city around Turn 4. Back then one group even set up an Army tent with a disco ball and checkerboard floor, where they would rock and roll all night.
"It used to be butt-ass wild," says Barbara Busey of Johns Island. "If somebody acts up, we take care of them. We're family here."
Mama B, as she is known, pretty much runs Turn 4 these days. On Friday evening her friends have joined her to drink beer and talk about tomorrow's dinner - beef stroganoff and butter beans. Mama B says she will eat like she's at home. She offers cold Miller Lite.
It's hard to refuse a fellow Charlestonian.
Mama says the people who camp around her may not talk to each other for an entire year, but call to make plans about a week before the race. This is her once-a-year family: the boys from Myrtle Beach, the guys from Little River.
Mama B believes in creature comforts. She has paid $100 for her own port-a-potty - just for her and her friends. When another man attempts to use it, the trouble begins.
She explains that this particularly potty is hers, but the man notes it looks just like the dozens of others that Darlington has placed around the infield. Yes, Mama B says, but this is hers.
She will prove it by putting a padlock on the door.
The man decides Mama B is kidding and attempts to step inside the port-a-potty. But she's not pulling his leg.
Instead she hauls off and kicks it.
The man limps off to make other arrangements.
For years, Mama B told her son that no one under 21 was allowed. When he finally came of age, he spent his first day on the infield pointing out the families that were going to get in trouble. The Myrtle Beach boys finally explained that he had been duped.
"I wouldn't let anyone under 16 come here," she says.
But plenty do and it's fine. There are no long roving packs of drunks badgering women to lift their shirts. Some people don't even drink.
Arthur Hamer camps on the outskirts of tent city with his son every year. Hamer, from Bennettsville, is glad the race has been moved to April - it's cooler. He offers water.
Huston, Hamer's son, is studying to be an engineer and wants to be car chief for one of the NASCAR teams.
The Hamers pass the day playing a board game with Hot Wheel cars that is meant to simulate Darlington. They use magic markers to give their track and their cars "Darlington stripes."
NASCAR drivers earn their Darlington stripes, literally, when they brush up against the wall or other drivers on the notoriously tight track. Everyone likes to brag about the stripes.
Well, not everyone. After the Nationwide race, Darlington crews kept the floodlights on most of the night, painting over the fresh stripes on the track wall.
The raceway has to look good for TV the next day.
* * *
A few years back, one of the regular families missed the race. They'd been coming for years and, when their plot sat empty all weekend, folks got worried.
The next year the man was back, this time with a new girlfriend. He and his wife had divorced, he explained, but the final decree was held up by one point: who got custody of the infield campsite.
The judge told them to work it out. When they couldn't, he finally awarded the spot to the man.
The wife, infielders joke, got everything else.
Camp sites at Darlington are like season tickets in other sports. Some people return to the same patch of grass year after year. There are rumors that some spots have been handed down from one generation to the next. This, after all, is hallowed ground.
"You feel like you are part of the race down here," McNeil says.
He's right. Even the race crews camp on the infield, which is why Darlington tells everyone they have to quiet down at midnight. Some people are actually here to work.
Saturday morning it seems a lot of people have not gotten their requisite eight hours. They are moving slow. Maybe it's the hot sun beating down. Perhaps it is day's plodding pace - there is little scheduled until the 6:30 p.m. race.
Or maybe it's the two-day hangover.
At the General Lee, Krause is tired. He had been looking forward to the Nationwide rigs leaving Friday night so he'd have a better view of the track. But late Friday, other tractor-trailers came in and took their place - and ran their engines all night. It kept him up til nearly 5 a.m.
He eventually complained to security - "What about the after-midnight quiet time?" The security guys could only apologize.
"They're NASCAR, they do what they want."
The Dukes spend the morning watching the Canadians execute their newest scheme. They found an old blue tarp, folded it into a rectangle and are pouring water down it.
Now they are begging everyone who passes to try their "slip and slide." They get a few takers but, much to their chagrin, mostly old men.
Durso, in his Dale Jr. game shirt, finds this hilarious.
"These Canadians don't get out much," he says. "Must be cause it's so cold up there."
The slip and slide doesn't look like a bad idea. It is getting hotter on the infield and most people are looking for any relief they can find.
Jonathan Smith and his brother Jeff, from Orangeburg County, take the edge off the heat by sitting in their own blow-up swimming pool.
"Cold beer and fast cars - it doesn't get any better than this," Jonathan says.
Jonathan is the reigning champ of the Darlington Belly Flop contest, which looks like it could lead to serious injury. The pool has only a foot of water in it.
Still, most folks don't have such luxurious accommodations. They simply sit in the shade of their RV awnings, watching TV. Many of them will end up following the race on those same TVs, even though the real thing is happening barely 500 feet away.
Some of that is the hypnotic allure of TV. But, truth is, the view is fairly limited from most parts of the infield. In fact, it seems like a waste of time to park at an event you can't see. But these folks are here for the camaraderie, the party, a little fellowship at the church of NASCAR.
* * *
The amateurs show up on Saturday.
Amateur is a harsh word. They are simply hard-core in a different way. Some of these folks are willing to shell out $150 for three laps in an actual race car - all the fun you can stand for about $2 a second.
The infield crowd, for the most part, won't pay that. That's mostly for the people who hang out in the hospitality section around Turns 1 and 2. Some of these sponsors' guests are NASCAR savvy, while others tell the pit crews that the cars wouldn't need to change tires so often if they'd quit giving them bald ones.
The infield crowd prefers its brushes with fame from running into drivers who venture onto their turf. Jeremy Ragan - who is hanging out in Turn 4 with David Schaeffer and stringing Natty Light cans like caught fish - even met his namesake, David Ragan.
"He asked where I was from, but said he didn't have any family from up New York, where I'm originally from," Ragan says. "But we're probably cousins. Some people say we look alike."
"You're both just skinny is all," Schaeffer notes, before offering a Natty Light.
Arnwine has found a few other drivers to sign his flag by Saturday afternoon, but has not yet seen the committee judging the "Best Tailgater" contest. They must not be doing it this year, he decides.
Arnwine is not terribly disappointed. He gets to hold on to the title another year.
Around 6 p.m., the PA begins announcing the drivers - each one walking out to his own theme music. Jr. gets the biggest round of applause. The Duke boys have retired to the General's roof to watch along with two-dozen new friends.
Krause is the perfect host, pouring beers from the topside tap. He chats with the newcomers while keeping one eye on the race.
Durso and his wife stand alone, focused on the track.
The Canadians join the party, amazingly enough, with guests: two age-appropriate young women.
Krause explains that they finally convinced the blonde to try the slip and slide. They gave her clothes to slide in and she decided to stay and join the party. Her friend declined the slide, however.
The Canadians cannot contain their glee. Somehow they have managed to find the only two unattached women on the infield - and they agreed to hang out. The guys exchange high fives, one shouting, "We did it."
Jr. is in contention, and Durso watches in rapt attention. But he cannot completely ignore the party behind him, a ruckus nearly as loud as 40 cars running in circles at 140 mph. He glances back at the young guys chatting up the girls and distributing Fireball. Like so many things on the Darlington infield, this simply makes Durso shake his head.
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