Dispatch from New Hampshire Motor Speedway
The track is too slick, too cold. As the preacher intones Let us drive fast and cheer hard in Jesus’ name amen, the mist is already falling over us, the drivers, the life flight helicopter at rest on its helipad over the rise. Engines fire and the air goes thick with pressure. In minutes the leaders spin into the wall’s invisible give. Unlike Daytona or Talladega, where drivers shimmy from the windows of their wrecks, walking bruises at best—this is a minor crash. Its smolder mingles with exhaust, burning rubber, spent fireworks, cigarette smoke sent into the low cloudbank by a man ten paces past the No Smoking sign. This is New Hampshire: live free or die.
Red flag, the cars shrouded by their crews. Plink of the rain against the shiny silver bleachers, against the one clear stadium bag everyone is hauling, bulging with beer cans or water bottles. Six men push a crumpled car backward, toward the infield garage. Hardly anyone left in the grandstands to notice. Unmuted, now louder than the rain: TV helicopter circling for aerial shots, blast of water in the bathroom sinks (lines for the men’s room, not the women’s), souvenir sales from semi trailers. No cell reception to check if the storm will pass, but nobody leaves. Hours of faith left in us yet.
Under crescents of threatening cloud, the trucks that dry the track are as thunderous as racecars at yellow-flag speed, they are Toyotas with Made in Texas blazoned across their windshields. (Let no one doubt these vehicles are real American.) Around they go at a walker’s pace, jets and vacuums firing over every inch of the magic mile. Helmets off, pit crews dry the stalls with leaf blowers, sweep away puddles with push brooms. Slow motion compared to the high velocity ballet that is a twelve-second stop.
Like a congregation, we rise for the re-start. Rumble-swell under our feet and up into our chests. Roar beneath the roar. The cars go right, against time, we thousands turn clockwise to watch them come. Two minutes of sun, hot as breath on the neck: four laps under green. Below the grandstands, aboveground underworld of shadow and fluorescence, a grinning man walks elbows out, blue nitrile fists over his ears.
Against sedimentary compression of sound most of us wear protection—racing scanners, neon earplugs on cobalt cord, earmuffs meant for the gun range. One man has been coming to races for two decades and doesn’t bother, but his six-year-old looks ready to wave fighter pilots onto an aircraft carrier. There’s a strange privacy to 100 decibels. The cars, yes, knife’s-edge whine of their passing blunted, but no voices, not even the announcer’s. Communion of silence with child, spouse, parent, stranger.
Even this far north the sun sets, and this track isn’t lit. Two drivers spar for the lead; impossible to tell which one has the crowd’s heart, atomized as we are. One row down, a bored toddler stumbles into the aisle. Her father jerks her back, slams her into his lap. On pit road one by one the drivers’ numbers ignite, glow suspended above each stall. For darkness the race will end early. We rise for the winner, unexpected, in thinner air we stand for the dull crackle of fireworks, all but the father with his daughter in his arms, sleeping. Pietà undone in all directions. As if she’d taste the light speeding to earth, her mouth’s oval-open. The rain is long over.
Carolyn Oliver is the author of the poetry collection Inside the Storm I Want to Touch the Tremble (University of Utah Press, forthcoming 2022), winner of the Agha Shahid Ali Prize. Her writing has appeared in The Massachusetts Review, Tin House Online, Indiana Review, Yalobusha Review, Cincinnati Review, 32 Poems, SmokeLong Quarterly, Terrain.org, Plume, Necessary Fiction, and elsewhere. Carolyn has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net in both fiction and poetry, and is the winner of the E. E. Cummings Prize from the NEPC, the Goldstein Prize from Michigan Quarterly Review, and the Writer’s Block Prize in Poetry. She lives in Massachusetts with her family. Online: carolynoliver.net