Smoking ordinance, my eye. Why, these guys just blew it off the face of the world.
They put their bones and their blood in the lap of the gods this Saturday afternoon – nothing between them and some serious contusion-age but a helmet and a roll cage – and off they whirled. Around and around the inside of the Expo Hall at Memorial Coliseum, filling the air with toxic fumes and a chainsaw snarl. Around and around, sending stinking blue smoke up to play among the lights.
Pretty soon there’s this gauzy little haze up there, and it makes you laugh to think about all those grizzled wrench jockeys you passed on the way inside, pulling hard on cigarettes because (yeah, right) there’s no smoking allowed in the building. And not long after that you breathe deep and realize the stink has gone away, that you’ve gotten used to it and breathing it has become as natural as, well, breathing.
Just like climbing in these mean little machines and whirling around a slippery concrete floor is as natural as breathing. Just like that.
And suddenly you know why a big-deal guy like Tony Stewart calls this his “vacation,” comes up here for this Rumble in Fort Wayne in the middle of his meager kickback time before the endless NASCAR grind begins.
Suddenly you know why he’s climbed out of his little “Munchkin,” the black No. 2, and tugged a working-class hero Schlitz cap over his working-class hero quasi-mullet, and slipped into the darkness beneath the stands. He sits down in a camp chair. Plants one ankle over the other knee. Watches the world go by like some shy creature of the forest.
“So, what’d he say?” you ask a man who steps into the gloom momentarily to shake hands with Stewart.
“Aw, he said he’d sign autographs after he’s done for the night,” the man replies. “Pretty much what he does everywhere.”
He grins. The name’s Dave Baker, he tells you, and he’s from Atlanta, down in Tipton County. He’s 37 years old, he says, and he’s a racer, too. Been doing it for 14 years.
All this smoke and stink and snarl, why, it’s like breathing to him, too. Same as for Stewart. Same as for all those knee-high-to-an-Andretti kids over in the next room, walking around with their driving suits peeled to the waist just like the big boys.
After which some of them are spotted in the hallway, throwing a foam football at each other. And there goes that illusion.
Somehow it only makes all of this even more appealing. Take it from this guy over here.
His name is Brandon Knupp, and he doesn’t look a day over 16, so it’s a little startling when middle-aged men come to him with Sharpies in hand, looking for autographs. Yet he’s a veteran in all this; at 21, he moved on long ago from the go-karts and even the midgets. Sixth in the ARCA points in 2005, he ran three Craftsman Truck Series races last year, and his eye is firmly fixed on the NASCAR prize.
He thinks it’s great Stewart’s here (“It doesn’t let you take anything for granted”). He also thinks it’s great the kids are here, because they remind him, remind all of them, why they started doing this to begin with.
“I get down on myself sometimes, because this business is so tough,” Knupp observes. “And it takes so much money and it gets worse every year in terms of money. So to get all that out of my head and come in here and watch little kids that don’t know any better do it. … That’s what’s fun for me.”
No smoke there.