It is spring at Talladega and Charlotte, headed toward late summer at Darlington. You know who we are, especially at these tracks. You've seen our motorhomes, pickups, old buses and tents through early morning smoke rising so slowly over the infield that for a second you think of a battlefield, flags flying.
You have heard about our all-night parties, our lowlife hillbilly ways, and you've laughed at our music and sometimes at the way we dress. Finally, you have come to the conclusion that we are people who are proud to be Americans but who hate to pay taxes, love stock car racing, girls in jeans, and beer, but sometimes have trouble making car payments.
We are the infield crowd, the native sons of automobile racing, however endangered we are becoming. Like the cowboy, every spring we bump against new fences that take away acres we once roamed. We're being hustled off like Indians and buffalo onto less and less space. The reservation gets smaller by the year. We have no treaty, so all we do is grumble among ourselves and maybe kick a little mud.
The powers that be, those in ivory towers above the track's surface, chop our space with every sway of the wand. They eventually want all of us in their grandstands, eating their hot dogs and drinking their $5 beer and buying expensive tickets.
We used to be somebody they enjoyed telling stories about, sometimes the subject of newspaper articles. Sometimes writers characterized us as knuckle-busting good old boys here for the good times, not very flexible or very ambitious.
At the first Southern 500 in 1950, they opened the gates to the infield because they didn't have enough grandstand seats. They were afraid our people would tear up the grandstands if they tried to turn us away. We are the descendants of this good-time party group who didn't seem to mind if their clothes rotted off so long as they could spend weekends in the racetrack infield.
Some never minded the hardships, such as total absence of soap and sometimes sleeping on the ground, as long as it meant a person was free to do whatever he pleased, which sometimes translated into getting knee-walking, commode-hugging drunk the night before the green.
We were a generation who made love in drive-in theaters, cut our shirt sleeves off at the shoulders, pegged our pants and wore shoes called white bucks. There was nothing quite so satisfying as loud mufflers, screaming tires, and Buddy Holly and Elvis. Late on Saturday nights, we raced our parents' streetcars over public highways.
Then came a time when we discovered, as we grew older, how embittered rather than confused our minds functioned. It began to sink in through our thick skulls that high-speed back-road racing did not impress anyone. It was better to go watch sanctioned races than to continue our ways and become roadkill. So we stopped speeding, spitting, and scratching in public.
Rough edges softened, but a weekend in the infield at a racetrack takes us back to fundamental behavior.
Local string bands played their hearts out in the back of flatbed trucks. Loretta's voice rang loud and clear from a camper two rows toward the second turn. From a tent down the way, the new Hank was telling all listeners "A Country Boy Can Survive."
There was always the crap game under dim lights and on a blanket, and a couple of guys the size of Hulk Hogan watched for a hustler who might want to slip his loaded dice into the game. Heaven forbid!
There was always the smell of steaks cooking over wood, and the fat guys standing in a circle around each fire drinking beer, the banners of their favorite drivers blowing in the wind below and above the stars and bars of the Confederate flag. Bubba will make sure this one will fly until he decides to take it down. The child stirs within the man.
The God-given sun rises and humans begin to stir, some feeling like they have been hit in the head with a shovel and pumped full of snake venom. Either that or sucker punched in their sleep.
When engines roar and the cars line up to race, all seats on homemade scaffolds fill, and bus and camper tops become a rooting section. Don't ever believe a race fan in an infield environment doesn't see everything that happens. On the morning after, he can tell you exactly what happened and when.
Hopefully, the infield fan is here to stay, unlike so many treasures of stock car racing that have disappeared. Please Mr. Speedway owners, don't take all our room away with your fences. Leave us space. After all, we are the native sons that did an awful lot toward bringing your sport to this point-and it wasn't easy.
Benny Phillips lives in High Point, North Carolina, and has covered stock car racing for nearly 40 years.