I think the guy with the mustache is gonna kill you if you spit out the moonshine,” says my buddy Millman. We’re on the infield of the Coca-Cola 600 NASCAR race in Charlotte, North Carolina, and I’ve just ingested a mouthful of firewater proffered in a well-traveled Mountain Dew bottle. I contemplate covertly jettisoning some of it behind a nearby porta-potty, but suddenly find myself surrounded by a trio of sunburned fellows who’d be very upset if I wasted their choice hooch. So I knock it down with a grimace and a holler, high-five everyone and run away before they can hand me anything else.
The running is tough, both due to the moonshine and the fact that it’s 90 degrees and I’m wearing a full NASCAR race suit that I bought on eBay. It’s quite warm inside the State Fair Corn Dogs/Little Debbie/Pontiac race suit.
I came here, along with a couple of friends from the Union, to conduct anthropological research on customs among discrete tribes of southeastern natives, with a particular focus on how improvised dwellings facilitate an annual nomadic migration to a culturally significant site. To put it another way, we wanted to do shots with a bunch of crazy rednecks camped out on the Charlotte infield.
From the moment we arrive, everyone we encounter is incredibly friendly, offering moonshine and inviting us to try carny-style games like the ol’ ring-on-a-string swing. The lone bit of tension arises from our immediate neighbors, an older couple with an expensive RV who don’t seem exactly thrilled to find the likes of us in their neighborhood. I detect a hint of passive aggressiveness early on, when the lady next door calls me out for grilling with no shirt.
“Cooking with no shirt on is against health code regulations,” she says. She posits this as a joke, but I can tell that the joke is a thin veneer barely concealing the underlying truth: She doesn’t want Shirtless Grill Guy in her RV backyard. Well, too bad. There are too few chances in a man’s life to cook meat beside a recreational vehicle, beer in hand and sun upon shoulders. And as far as I can tell, the social mores of polite society get checked at the infield gate. This morning I stood in line for coffee behind a guy with a mohawk and no shirt. At a NASCAR race, a bare torso is considered business casual.
Away from the oasis of civility that is our neighbors, the scene gets amped up in a hurry. Some guy takes me for a ride in a tiny Honda that was shortened to fit in an RV’s luggage compartment. It’s emblazoned with Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s race car graphics, and he pauses every couple of hundred feet to do burnouts, much to the delight of passers-by. “This thing is a chick magnet!” he declares. “It gets pretty scary at 80 mph.” Yes, I would think so.
We make our way toward Redneck Hill, a modest slope on the south end of the infield that’s the epicenter for hillbilly shenanigans. So much so, actually, that there’s now a big fence around it. Word is that people got to racin’ wheelbarrows down the hill, and, surprisingly enough, wheelbarrows and moonshine proved a bad combo. Nearby, a large man with a pierced tongue who offers me a Jell-O shot does not seem to feel that the closure of Redneck Hill is cramping his party game. His truck bears a handwritten sign that reads, “Flash for Shots!” and soon enough a woman saunters by and takes him up on that.
I’d estimate she’s in her 60s, although it’s certainly possible she’s a hard-livin’ 45. I only hear about the flash secondhand, because at the time I’m lying in a hammock hung in the bed of a pickup truck. If a guy tells you to try out his truck hammock, you try out his truck hammock. It’s spelled out right in the terms of the surrender at Appomattox.
Later stages of our infield tour take us to Couchville, where rows of couches are situated atop scaffolding next to the track wall. Couchville is presided over by Couch Man, who gives me an autographed hat. A redheaded guy on a BMX bike—sans shirt, naturally—rides past and yells to a crowd in a pickup, “Some people have red hair! You don’t gotta hate me just ’cause I have no soul!” Later someone throws me a football, and I launch a wicked Hail Mary toward Redneck Hill, probably tearing several important things in my shoulder. But that’s a problem for tomorrow. Right now all is right with the world, and the State Fair Pontiac’s runnin’ real good.
On the walk back to the RV, I see a woman fast asleep on the roof of a Chevy Impala. And that about sums it up. The South shall rise again, but not until noon.