I just got back from witnessing a fascinating American ritual: NASCAR, in the heart of the South, the only sport I know that lets you bring your own six-pack.
Truth be told, this was not totally foreign to me. Turns out I married a man with a split personality, as enthusiastic about thick political biographies and achieving the perfect Bolognese as he is about the smell of burning rubber, the roar of engines and the company of men shouting "Git 'r done!" on a sunny Sunday afternoon.
So, yes, I had somewhat reluctantly seen NASCAR before, at a track near Miami where the pickups are shinier and the halter-topped ladies tend to sport some serious South Florida bling.
The red clay of Georgia sure was different. We pulled our rental Kia between mud-spattered, semi-sized pickups sporting RIP #3 bumper stickers. I noticed more black fans in Atlanta, but I also saw many more Confederate flags in the parking lot, flying high above brats sizzling on tailgates and folks slapping mayo on Wonder Bread for bologna sandwiches.
Beforehand, some drivers — NASCAR royalty — came out to the vendors' trucks to see the fans.
A guy named Casey Mears (that's the Tony-the-Tiger Kellogg's No. 5 car to you) was autographing brims of baseball caps, programs, coolers, probably a burly forearm had someone stuck it in front of him. The line to see him snaked half-a-block long.
A woman stepped up to ask in an accent as sweet as Karo syrup, "Are you okay?" blinking her heavily-mascaraed eyes up at him. "Oh, yes, ma'am," he said, and assured her crashes can look much worse on TV.
Then — and I am not making this up, nor have I taken a job in NASCAR public relations — Mears saw a little boy in a wheelchair off to the side, watching. "Hey there, buddy," he called, and the kid's face lit up as the driver reached for his program. And, dang my cynical self, everyone was smiling.
For all its rednecking, NASCAR can be awfully polite, more civilized than many a professional football match I have attended, with no more spitting than your average baseball game. Folks tend to hold doors, ask where-you-froms, offer spare beers.
A big fella plopped down next to my husband in the stands, patted him on the back, said he'd been partying all night so please don't worry if he passed out. He even agreed to lean toward his buddy on the other side. Now that's considerate.
On this day, you heard no one talking about a Democratic do-over, or a politician hip-deep in scandal. If anyone mentioned a looming economic crisis, it probably meant not having enough change for a foot-long corn dog and a Mountain Dew.
In the stands, they talked about a driver who gained a few pounds and, rumor had it, would not cut his long, greasy locks until he won, making for an unfortunate resemblance to the singer Meat Loaf and a fervent prayer for his success, if only to spare everyone the continuing visual.
Older women in full driver regalia lustily debated their respective men's chances, shutting down a stranger's dissent with "Oh, go drink your beer." Folks did, happily.
Pale good ole boys who would surely regret it in the morning shed shirts to turn barbecue pink. Cars roared past and the sun shone in a cloudless sky. Cars kept going, around and around. Monday could wait.