Noise and digestion: Is there a link? It may seem an irrelevant question. But then you're probably not watching a NASCAR race on the shadeless Daytona International Speedway, as the 94 F Florida sun beats down on your pink and puny head like an intergalactic microwave. Meanwhile, 43 stock cars blast past at 195 miles an hour like a thousand chainsaws revving at once in your inner ear. The noise and the heat vibrate across your skin and hands and chest and then into your stomach and lungs and heart, before ringing out through your brain. Imagine that Jimi Hendrix used your head as an amplifier for four hours. The question is: Does that din enhance the appetite?
"We should try the food at a NASCAR race," I had said to my brother Tim one afternoon in May. It was an appealing idea: It entailed food.
But Tim looked skeptical. That wasn't a good sign. We've taken gruesome eating trips before: days of nothing but lobster, an entire afternoon of fried clams and one memorably binding weekend of artisanal cheese in Quebec. We're brothers, after all: We can talk, but we like to cook and eat and talk even more. He's a sophisticated gourmet cook and an adventuresome eater, with an optimistic view of the body's capacity for cholesterol.
In fact, hesitation over any kind of food whatsoever is most unusual in my dear younger (but older-looking) brother: I was suddenly alarmed. Maybe he had ... political objections to NASCAR?
"It'll be fascinating, at the very least," I said. "The great American redneck ritual, revealed."
"NASCAR?" he said.
"Fried baloney and turkey legs?"
So that was it. He didn't want to be bored by the food.
I was armed for that. Not any more, I replied. The races of NASCAR (the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing) are now the most popular live spectator sport in the United States. The television audience is second only to the National Football League's. The TV rights alone went for $2.8-billion (U.S.), I told him, and that was in 2001. He's a stockbroker: I figured the money angle would intrigue him.
There was more good news, too. Now that NASCAR's going global, expanding to Mexico, Canada and beyond (Canada hosts its first NASCAR race on Saturday at Circuit Gilles Villeneuve outside Montreal), NASCAR wants the world to know its fans are more than gearheads, especially in culinary matters. They'd even dreamed up a contest, NASCAR Cooks!: The best race-day recipe submitted by a fan over the course of the summer.
My plan, I explained, was to convince people to let us sample their concoctions. The prize was a tailgate party for nine at Talladega Superspeedway in Alabama.
Admittedly, Taladega is the tailgating centre of the universe. Admittedly, my brother and I were travelling to Daytona Beach, which is more famous for vomit at spring break.
But Mario Batali was going to Daytona on July 7 for the Pepsi 400. Mario Batali - founder of seven Manhattan restaurants, culinary inventor, star of the Food Network and the Iron Chef America series, subject of Bill Buford's best-selling book, Heat. Mr. Batali had even written a race food cookbook, Mario Tailgates NASCAR Style, that sold 300,000 copies. If NASCAR food was good enough for him, it was good enough for my fancy brother.
We agreed to rendezvous in Florida at the Daytona International Speedway FanZone, where for $60 on top of the $140 ticket price (plus $50 for parking), fans can buy beer, watch their favourite team's mechanics tend to the cars, and even buy a used racing tire.
"We actually bought one of Richard Petty's," a woman told me. "It's in my spare room. And it's a coffee table."
To my surprise, Tim turned up in a checked shirt and shorts, with a baseball cap and a beard - the uniform of the NASCAR redneck. "Who are you?" I said. "Zelig?"
He eyed my straw fedora. "This is NASCAR," he said, "not Indiana Jones."
He surveyed the crowd. "First thing," he said. "The poundage. I feel like I'm back in Illinois." Twenty yards away at the Budweiser Bistro, six of the hugest people I've ever seen were sitting around a bar table. Their hindquarters overflowed their chairs so much - and they were big bucket seats to start with - that each buttock pressed up against the one on either side of it, to form a perfect circle of flesh. From outer space, they must have resembled an enormous boutonniere. And they weren't alone.
NASCAR food was obviously plentiful (hence their girth); but (given their girth) would there be any left for us? And would it be any good at all?
To shore up our spirits, I stepped over to a stand called You Gotta Eat, and bought a hot dog. This was old NASCAR food. Unfortunately, the hot dog had a large yellow spot. "What's this?" Tim said. "Impetigo?" We ate it anyway.
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