“What’s the worst thing that could happen?” is a question I both love and hate to hear when I’m sitting next to a NASCAR driver in a car. It suggests that the ride I’m about to have will be great. It also suggests that it could turn disastrous.
That query came up as I strapped in next to Chase Elliott in his No. 9 Camaro before an event called Burnouts on Broadway as part of the NASCAR championship banquet festivities in Nashville in December. He was trying to decide what to do with his burnout. It was an important question, given that the banquet is the biggest event of the NASCAR offseason.
Granted, Elliott could drive five miles per hour in a straight line and fans would go bananas. Such is life for the man who has won the last two Most Popular Driver awards and is expected to keep winning them for the foreseeable future.
But he wanted his burnout to be worthy of adulation. Maybe, Elliott thought, he should drive straight up to one of the concrete barriers that demarcated the burnout zone, put the nose of his Chevy up against it, mash the throttle and fill the dark night sky with white smoke that would billow out of the back tires. It was while contemplating this that the “What’s the worst thing that could happen?” question came up. Maybe, in a million years, the barrier would move. Maybe, in another million years, it would move enough to hit a fan behind it.
Probably not, though.
I once rode in a dune buggy with Greg Biffle; we sped down a massive hill in a California desert, hit a natural ramp at the bottom and landed softly 85 feet later. My butt flew off the seat when Carl Edwards jumped a rental car 45 feet coming out of the tunnel that leads into Daytona International Speedway. I got a ride-around at Indianapolis Motor Speedway with Denny Hamlin, and 13 years later, the other two passengers and I still joke about how terrified we were as he drifted ever closer to the wall and pushed his foot ever harder on the throttle, until we were screaming along at 100-plus mph in a street car with just inches between us and a concrete barrier.
Point being: NASCAR drivers are not the best people to ask, “What’s the worst thing that could happen?” They like to be given specific instructions and guidelines to follow so that they can go right up to those instructions and guidelines — and then keep going for another step or two or maybe 10. And so it was that Sam Spitz, a senior manager in NASCAR’s events group, reminded drivers during a pre-burnout meeting that this was NASCAR’s first banquet in Nashville, and they wanted to leave a good impression on their new hosts, and that crashing during burnouts would not do that.
“We want to put on a good show,” she said, “but we also want to put on a safe show.”
A NASCAR driver’s definition of safe and a normal person’s definition of safe are quite different, and Nashville officials were understandably nervous about the hell the drivers were about to unleash on one of the most prominent and heavily trafficked streets in the state. The drivers didn’t do much beforehand to assuage their concerns. “Let’s close the bar down for the safety meeting real quick,” driver Clint Bowyer cracked before Spitz spoke.
The drivers were only part of the problem. The passengers who rode shotgun (five country music performers, a rock star, a WWE wrestler, a pro hockey player and, um, me) applied no small amount of peer pressure by egging the drivers on beforehand.
Cassadee Pope, a singer who won NBC’s “The Voice” in 2012 and co-hosted the banquet honoring Kyle Busch’s championship the next night, told her driver, William Byron, not to hold back. Country music star Brantley Gilbert wanted Busch to give him a full-throttle ride. And I told Elliott that I would be disappointed if he didn’t freak me out at least a little.
* * *
The NASCAR banquet is nothing if not great for people watching.
Before the burnout safety meeting, I stood at the corner of Broadway and 3rd Avenue and watched the world go by. And listened. Live music poured out of every open honky tonk, and all of them were open, even though it was 3 p.m. on a Wednesday.
The streets were packed with people, as they typically are throughout the day in this popular section of Nashville. Some carried instruments, on the way to or from a show. Many wore racing gear, representing every driver I’ve ever heard of and some I haven’t (seriously, who are Andy and Bryan Monday?).
A shirtless deliveryman zipped by on a Razor scooter. He held on with both hands, which left none for the food he was delivering, which he balanced on his head. Signs held up by homeless people were bizarrely creative. One offered to kidnap my boss, another my ex, if I handed over money.
As I pondered whether those signs worked, Jeff Gordon appeared as if out of the ether. He crossed a busy street unrecognized and ducked into a bar called Ole Red, where NASCAR hosted an industry awards presentation.
I’ve attended NASCAR banquets in all three locations — New York City (2005, with Tony Stewart as the champion), Las Vegas (2016, Jimmie Johnson) and now Nashville. New York and Las Vegas are both great places to have a banquet, just about any banquet, but not necessarily a NASCAR banquet. Nashville is a great place to have a banquet, just about any banquet, and particularly a NASCAR banquet.
Nashville has everything New York and Las Vegas have in terms of facilities (though not the volume, of course). I feel safe in guessing that more passionate NASCAR fans live within driving distance of Nashville than live within driving distance of those other two places — by percentage for sure, if not raw numbers.
I enjoyed the banquets in New York City and Las Vegas, but Nashville was different. It is far more of a NASCAR town than Las Vegas and New York, a sentiment that drivers echoed time and again during banquet week. “They’re our people,” Kevin Harvick said.
Maybe it was the comfort of that, maybe it was liquid courage, but I’ve never seen so many drivers as loose as they were at the burnout safety meeting, joking with and about each other like old friends. The combination of live music, open bars and no morning responsibilities turned each day into one big, long party. “I don’t know whose idea it was to have a bunch of maniac racecar drivers to meet with a bunch of maniac country music singers,” Bowyer said, “but it has been an epic time.”
So epic, in fact, that Dale Earnhardt Jr. joked on Thursday during the banquet that he was glad it was almost over. He had spent two nights partying with Bowyer and wasn’t sure he could handle a third.
* * *
The NASCAR banquet always draws a seemingly random mix of celebrities — athletes, musicians, actors, famous and not-so-much. You never know who you’re going to sit next to, which I learned after the burnout safety meeting. The drivers were shuttled off to be introduced to the crowd or interviewed by NBC, and their passengers jumped on golf carts for a ride to the cars, which were parked on Broadway.
The woman sitting next to me in the golf cart was named C.J. Perry, and she would soon ride shotgun in Hamlin’s car. She has had a career possible only in the modern age. She became famous as one of the Florida State Cowgirls, who drew attention in the 2000s for wearing revealing outfits to football games.
Broadcaster Brent Musburger famously remarked during a broadcast, after a live shot of the Cowgirls, that “1,500 red-blooded Americans just decided to apply to Florida State.” Perry parlayed the attention from that into a career in singing and acting, and now she is a professional wrestler who performs as “Lana.”
When she was announced as Hamlin’s passenger, Bowyer, whose passenger was country music star Blake Shelton, yelled out, “That’s bull---t, I want to trade.”
Hamlin refused to even consider the offer.
* * *
The cars were lined up two by two, like Broadway was a starting grid at a racetrack. Fans lined the street two or three deep. Another handful of fans perched themselves atop buildings three stories up.
As I waited to climb into Elliott’s car, I noticed a sign on the bar across the street. It offered both axe throwing and $6 pitchers of beer, which made me think that NASCAR drivers acting like maniacs while doing burnouts was the least of Nashville’s safety concerns.
Elliott arrived a few minutes later, and we climbed in. We made small talk as we waited our turn. He said he was planning to go to the SEC Championship Game a few days later to watch his beloved Georgia Bulldogs play the LSU Tigers. He’s also a huge Atlanta Braves fan, as his baseball hat that night showed.
We also talked about what burnout he would do. I was firmly in #teambarrier, but if he had decided what to do, he kept that a secret as we rolled slowly forward.
The last time I sat shotgun in a NASCAR car was in Belgium, of all places. I rode along with Alon Day during a parade to the racetrack before the final race of the NASCAR Whelen Euro Series. That car didn’t have a seat or a seatbelt, so I smushed myself against the roll cage. Thankfully, Elliott’s car had a seat — and a seatbelt, which I needed.
I lurched forward, like an awkward teen being pushed onto the dance floor. When we got to the burnout zone, we spun violently around to my right (thus fulfilling my wish to be at least a little freaked out), then left, then right. The car filled with smoke. Rubber flecks leapt off the tires, flew through the window and hit me in the face.
And still we kept spinning. I couldn’t see the walls. I couldn’t see anything, except smoke.
Neither could Elliott. He told me later all he could see was the dim green lights on the walls, and he did his best to keep the car between them. Even while essentially blind, he kept his foot stiff on the gas, easing off the throttle only so he could turn the wheel and send us in the other direction.
Anyway — what’s the worst thing that could happen?