NASCAR on radio: The mind races

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The summer I was 12, I painted our garage. The cinderblock structure, crumbling into the steep slope of our Cleveland Heights backyard, bulged dangerously inward on each side, looking liable to collapse at any moment. Perhaps it was fitting, then, that the entire time I painted, I listened for company to Joe Tait and Herb Score describing games played by the Cleveland Indians, also highly unstable in those days and in constant danger of collapse.

The Indians weren't really the point -- I wasn't much of a baseball fan. The point was the radio. Tait's ritually christening each day a beautiful day for baseball, Score sitting nearly silent for innings at a time, saying little more than, "Change, high, ball two," the constant description of brownies delivered to the press box from listeners.

The game provided a kind of backdrop for what seemed like a conversation, with Score explaining that it was a high sky today or Tait trying to put the best face on 9,000 fans spread among 80,000 seats. It achieved the kind of peace, the Zen state that good baseball reaches on the radio, and as the Indians stumbled through a couple of weeks of predictably bad ball, what emerged was rhythm.

Unlike the football I and all other Clevelanders adored, baseball was a game of rhythm, a slow, gentle progression of elements building to a determining hit, base on balls or out, and then everyone packed up and went home. It was stately, murmuring. A background game, long-term -- a game perfectly suited for radio.

All of which I describe only to defend the following: For those same reasons I now listen on the radio to stock-car racing. NASCAR stock-car racing -- broadcast over a network of more than 400 stations every week -- turns out to be the best possible radio sport, better even than baseball. In fact, in an era when baseball yearly mortgages more of its identity to become more and more like all the other sports, stock-car racing, for me at least, has completely taken over, offering what baseball once offered -- the slow, long-term buildup, the accretion of infinitesimal elements that suddenly crack, changing the outcome of a stretch, a contest, a season.

It's hard to understand -- it's counterintuitive. People who struggle to believe I attend races and barely conceal disdain at my watching races on television openly guffaw at the notion of listening to racing on the radio. But their objections always sound like the things people who didn't understand baseball used to say to me when, an insane fan of the Phillies during my years in Philadelphia, I spent every summer evening with the radio on listening to what one friend called "that breathing contest."

Nothing and everything

Racing is boring, of course -- it's the same thing over and over, just cars going around in circles until the wreck. Just so -- and baseball is a two-hour game of catch between pitcher and catcher, unless someone happens to hit a home run. Nothing is happening at all, unless you understand that an 11-pitch at-bat with a pitcher nibbling low and away to set up high and tight is not filler, it's what the game's all about.

In a race, a single pass for position can take 10 minutes. If the No. 6 car wants to get by the No. 3, it might take 15 laps -- five to reel him in, five to poke high and low and get the lay of the land, a few tries underneath, and then, finally, a pass in turn two that lasts the whole backstretch and ends up with the 6 in front. Then the whole thing starts again.

Radio is perfect for this, just as it's perfect for baseball. The race announcers will focus in on that pass, describing Mark Martin in the 6 looking underneath Dale Earnhardt in the 3, telling me that Earnhardt is making the car wide, blocking Martin; Martin looks outside, Earnhardt goes up the track with him, and finally in that turn two Martin noses high, Earnhardt goes up to block, and Martin slingshots down underneath and makes that pass. They describe it, and I can see it -- I've been there, and I know what the cars look like, how Earnhardt charges and Martin hugs the line.

Just like when I was 12, I had been there -- I knew how Rick Manning crouched in center field, how Dennis Eckersley scowled on the mound, what that vast, yawning stadium looked like. The radio broadcast was a kind of patois, a secret code among those of us who were in on the game.

Much more, though, vast stretches of a baseball game are just what unbelievers call them -- boring, lacking in development or action, and that's when the game truly shines on the radio. Announcers cast around for something, anything to share, and you hear stories about the minor leagues, about the old days, about something that happened in the locker room or during spring training or on someone's fishing boat. Racing, with the same long, and predictable, stretches of green-flag boredom, revels in it, and if you can't recite your Petty or Baker or Earnhardt family history or tell a Junior Johnson hunting story, you just haven't been listening.

Constant, comforting

Racing is the only constant sport. There's no halftime, there's no timeout. It's all green-flag or yellow-flag -- after a wreck they're going slowly, but they're still going. You have to go on about your business, because you just can't sit still for 3 1/2 hours. Like a baseball game, you listen, but you listen while you mow the lawn, while you fold the laundry, while you clean the house. It's part of the fabric of your day.

And just as with baseball, you may even listen while you take a marvelous nap -- at every race I've ever attended, as fan or journalist, I have found a moment to lie out in the middle of the infield, surrounded by the droning of the cars and beneath the high, hot midday sun, and in the womb of that buzzing taken a nap almost unearthly in its satisfaction. When at a recent literary conference poet Nikki Giovanni admitted she put NASCAR on television in hotel rooms because it put her to sleep, I thought, "You're close -- you're so close."

The comparison between racing and baseball works however far you push it. Baseball, we are forever being told, is a pastoral game, played out in a field with no time clock, and we fell in love with it at the end of a century, when Americans' rural and agricultural lives were becoming urban and industrial, and baseball represented our yearning for the past we were leaving behind.

Racing too is a game with no time clock -- they race until they're done -- and like baseball, racing makes its living in highly idiosyncratic parks, none quite like any other. More, though, we fell in love with racing at the end of this recent century because racing is what we're leaving behind and we already miss it. In a world going digital and matte black, racing is hugely mechanical, and it reminds us of what we're losing. It's loud and bright, it shines and glitters, and it smells like gas, like rubber, like metal. It's cars and engines and things we used to know the workings of and just don't understand anymore. There's a reason a NASCAR racer doesn't have a computer in it.

But above all, racing works on the radio because, like baseball once was, it's ours. That conversation between the announcers in the booths, handing the call off to one another deftly through voice inflection and caesura, sounds like a couple of guys talking racing. Just the way we all do, race fans, whenever we get the chance. Will Martin's crew make that quick pit stop that enables him to take another win? Will Gordon get back on his horse? Can that Dale Earnhardt find the one more championship that will crown him best of all time?

It's talk, the kind of calm, summertime talk that whiles away an afternoon, that lets you mow the lawn or fold the laundry or take a nap and then join right back in when you're ready. It's slow, it's long, it rewards your scrutiny and understanding over the long haul, and it fills in the crevices of a day with a kind of Zen peacefulness that lifts you without grabbing you unless you want to be grabbed.

It's like sharing an afternoon with a few of your friends, and chatting when you feel like you have something to add. And then an afternoon of two-tire pit stops and backstretch duels and blown engines and cranks of wedge adds up to an advantage, and then somebody wins, and then everybody packs up and goes home.

It's the sound of summer. It's a long-term sport. It's company on the radio when you have a project, and there's nothing else like it.

It's time to paint the garage.

NASCAR on the air

For the first time this year, NASCAR racing will have a national television presence similar to that of baseball, football and basketball, starting this weekend with qualifying races for the Daytona 500. The first half of the NASCAR season will be broadcast by the Fox and FX networks, the second half by NBC and TBS. Check local listings.

Meanwhile, several Maryland radio stations are scheduled to carry all Winston Cup races broadcast by MRN Radio, the official NASCAR network. They are: WCBC-FM 107.1, Cumberland; WICO-FM 94.3 and WXJN-FM 105.9, Salisbury; WJFK-AM 1300, Baltimore; WPTX-AM 1690 (and sister station WMDM-FM 97.7), Lexington Park.

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