Notes from this So-Called Sin City, Part 4

It was a not so typical day in Las Vegas for me. My typical day in Las Vegas includes maybe a trip to the supermarket, library, and post office, then biking off to my mildly tolerable job. Once work is done, I will usually bike home and goof around on the internet or take in a foreign film DVD before crawling onto my air mattress to fall asleep. Then there are my two days off each week. One day is usually slotted for some desert biking outside town, my favorite activity here. The other day off usually gets filled with some sort of oddball activity or event. This being Las Vegas, the oddball activities are a dime a dozen, and sometimes almost as cheap!

Well, like I said, it was a not so typical day in Las Vegas for me. This last Sunday I was up early and made a large sustaining breakfast to help me through the day ahead. Soon I was on the city bus heading to the far north part of town. There I caught a second bus to the far eastern part of town, to my Polish friend Nikusza’s home. We had arranged a most interesting itinerary for the day. It didn’t take long before we were on the road headed to the nearby Las Vegas Motor Speedway. We were both about to attend our first ever NASCAR event. Believe me, I never ever would’ve guessed this day would come, EVER. I have a less than miniscule interest in auto racing, but how could I possibly pass up free tickets to a NASCAR race on a sunny 70 degree day in Las Vegas?

We took great care in picking out our outfits for such an event. With my limited winter wardrobe at hand, I decided on my Ed Gein t-shirt and my BASS fishing cap. It wasn’t very NASCAR, but it would have to do. Nikusza wore a Menard’s “Race to Savings” shirt and a Harley-Davidson cap. She looked a little more the part. While walking to her car, one of her neighbors noticed our outfits and figured we were headed to the race. She asked us, “So who’s your driver?” I thought it an odd question, and almost pointed to Nikusza for she was driving. Then we figured out she was asking which driver we were rooting for! Wow, were we really ready for this?

Once driving towards the raceway, Nikusza’s little car became engulfed in a rising sea of monster gas-guzzling pickup trucks and SUVs, all flying the flags and numbers of “their drivers.” We were at a near standstill surrounded by truckloads of beer-gutted men all enjoying more cold beer in the hot sun, getting psyched for the big race. Just then, “Round and Round” by Ratt came on the radio. I cranked the volume on the small factory-installed radio and let those around us know we were for real. We were ready for NASCAR. We were ready to rock.

After a small eternity, we found a parking spot miles out in the desert, and started the mile long hike to the raceway. Around us were more groups of race fans, all slamming more beers before they got inside, into the “gouge” zone. I could hear the distant rumble of engines from the raceway and saw a few helicopters hovering around the grounds. We were arriving just before the race was to start. Just before we entered the raceway, five fighter jets suddenly screamed through the sky above us. A flyover for an auto race? I was a little stunned. Was this really a much bigger event than I anticipated? Well, Nellis air force base is right here, and they don’t have an NFL team here to embrace, so it sort of made sense.

Once inside the grounds we found our section and walked out into the grandstand. IT WAS HUGE. Suddenly we were there among millions and millions of race fans. It seemed odd to be in a grandstand facing a racetrack and not in a stadium around a sports field. Despite my attempt at a suitable wardrobe choice for such an event, I suddenly felt horribly out of place. I wanted my cheesehead. The drivers were all lined up facing the grandstand with their cars, ready and at attention. I started taking photos of the beautiful mountain range across the track.

The drivers all climbed into their colorful cars and started humming around the track. Those around us started cheering and waving their arms. I just stood there and soaked up the truly bizarre event surrounding me. I felt like I had been teleported to a far away culture in a distant land with a protocol completely foreign to me. I felt like a foreigner in my own country, but I started to enjoy my observations. I wanted new experiences in my little winter getaway to Las Vegas, and this was certainly new to me.

Then the little man down near the track waved a green flag and it was like the Earth was ripped wide open! The little four-wheeled rockets suddenly SCREAMED down the track at near impossible speeds! The powerful roar of their engines filled the air, and I started to understand why some folks were wearing those hearing protection headsets. When you are there in-person with more depth perception than a TV can offer, the race suddenly seems much more impressive. Yes, I was impressed.

After all that anticipation and build-up, the race finally begun! The drivers all screamed around the track on their first lap, and then there was trouble already. Somebody had some type of failure and they all had to slow down again. A few laps later the green flag was waved and they all screamed back into action again, for maybe three laps until a cloud of smoke signaled another malfunction of some sort and they slowed again. After another green flag and another screaming back to breakneck speed, I could see it would be like this for…how many more laps? Oh, only 450+ laps to go!

I started to note the similarities between this NASCAR race and a space shuttle launching. Both exhibit incredible marvels of human achievement. Both create a deafening thunder with fossil fuels and display incredible feats in physics and engineering. Both draw massive patriotic crowds to witness such incredible feats. Then they start to differ somewhat. When a space shuttle malfunctions and crashes, a nation mourns. When a racecar malfunctions or crashes, everyone is eagerly on their feet and some (I kid you not) are cheering.

After a few hours, we soon realized there was not going to be any “halftime” or no “7th inning stretch.” We decided to beat the rush and slipped out to the car, for NASCAR was only one of our plans for this non-typical day. One of Nikusza’s coworkers had invited us to GAY BINGO at the Free Zone (a gay bar across town). It was some sort of fund-raiser event, and we really couldn’t pass up such an opportunity, to follow up our first NASCAR race with our first GAY BINGO night! There were men dressed up as black leather nuns with whips, ball gags, and paddles. Anyone who called out a false bingo received a “paddling.” Here we were, in our NASCAR “outfits” at a gay bar while hairy men dressed as nuns in black leather pulled little balls out of a cage and announced, “B-11…B-11.” It was a perfect day.

I was rather surprised to see that the TV at the Free Zone was tuned into the NASCAR race we had just left. While sitting at GAY BINGO we were able to watch the end of the race. The M&Ms car won. I had been rooting for the Cheerios car, and Nikusza was backing the Menard’s car, of course, but M&Ms won the race. After learning that the M&Ms driver was Kyle Bush, a Vegas local, I decided the whole affair was rigged worse than professional wrestling. Somehow, GAY BINGO felt so much more normal than NASCAR to us. We really didn’t fit in at either event, but enjoyed each one in a special way. The next time I’m sitting at the AC Tap on a Sunday afternoon and NASCAR is on the TV, I will enjoy a new understanding of such things. I will acknowledge what I appreciate in this cultural event, but I will also remember a large, hairy man in black leather calling out “G-47…G-47.”

Just three days after the NASCAR/GAY BINGO experience, I found myself in the lawn seating at downtown Vegas’ Cashman field. We were attending a Chicago Cubs vs. White Sox preseason exhibition game, right here in Las Vegas…in early March. I kept yelling out “Go Brewers!” and “Go Packers!” It was a most enjoyable and most American event.

Oh, and the next time I’m at the Tap and NASCAR is on TV, I know I will be yelling “Go Cheerios!”