It’s a long haul from Thunder Road to Speedway Boulevard in Charlotte, North Carolina. You can’t measure it in miles
The old moonshine runners, who, legend has it, took their daredevil driving skills into stock car racing to make some legitimate money, would surely be astounded at the grandeur of the Charlotte Motor Speedway and the hordes of people who show up there on the first weekend in October for a 500-mile race.

The Charlotte race is one of 36 in the Winston Cup Series, the heavyweight division of NASCAR, which begins each year in February at Daytona and ends at the Atlanta Motor Speedway in November. All NASCAR races have sponsors and this year Charlotte’s is called the UAW-GM Quality 500.

But I did not go to Charlotte to see the race. I went to observe the “rhubarbs.”

“IT’S WILD, MAN.” John McDonald, a/k/a Johnny Mack, a/k/a the Deli Lama, has been a caterer on the rock concert, pro wrestling, and, now that he’s crew chief of speedway food providers The Finish Line, racing circuits.

“I was up in a box suite one day with a couple of guys on my crew,” he said. “There was a classic-car show down in the infield, this couple looking wistfully at one of those beautifully restored 1940s-era cars. The wife was a hefty bleached blond, squeezed into a pair of short shorts. The guy was drinking a beer. He had on a cap and a patch of his beer belly was peeking out from his T-shirt. He was pulling a little red wagon with a cooler of beer in it. I just shook my head, and said to the boys, ‘Man, look at those rhubarbs!’ ” And a phrase was coined.

“How would you spell that?” I asked.

“Like the vegetable,” John answered.

“I thought maybe it was ‘rue’-barbs, because they couldn’t afford a classic car,” I said. “Or it came from the root word rube.

“Not really.”

Race week at a NASCAR event has an eerie beginning. When the garbage barrels are put out on the acres of campground that ring the speedway, sometimes on a Tuesday, sometimes on Thursday, a slow trickle of pickups, campers, and RVs begins to arrive and set up camp on their rented plots. As the week progresses, the trickle becomes a flood. By the day of the Winston Cup race, the speedway has become a small city of approximately 200,000 people.

The action is in the infield. The drivers and crews live there in expensive motor homes. The garages, the pit area, pit road, the media center, the hospital and its helipad, they’re all there. And so are the hardcore fans, the rhubarbs and their wealthier kin, the “nabobs”; they’ve come together not only to cheer their favorites, but to get down with some nonstop serious partying. For three or four days. Some travel from race to race throughout the season. They are the Deadheads of NASCAR.

The track at Charlotte is a mile-and-a-half oval, and the infield area has a network of asphalt and dirt roads that divides it into neighborhoods. The ‘hood at the northwest end, by Turn 4, heading into the straightaway and the finish line, is the most upscale, where the nabobs— the folks who can afford Winnebago or Pace Arrow motor homes, or $200,000-plus American Eagle buses— stay. Over by Turn 3 is solidly middle- to upper-middle class. The Turn 1 area is middle class running to rhubarb, and Turn 2 is hardcore rhubarb. I met a gnomish rhubarb with a Zapata mustache on Friday night in Turn 2. He was very drunk, and stayed that way through Sunday. “They say that the fans here on the second turn are the most obnoxious fans of all,” he said with pride. “But I go back and forth from here over to the third turn. They’re pretty rowdy over there.” My diminutive bandolero had been part of a foursome, pitching horseshoes in the night. The other players were Glenn from Spartanburg, and Bryant and Greg from Greensboro.

“Tomorrow night, ol’ Bryant here,” volunteered Greg, the talker of the bunch, “he’s gonna dress up like Texas Pete and take him a promenade around to all the parties.” (Texas Pete is a hot sauce made in Winston-Salem, and the name of the solid-red lariat-twirling cowboy on the label.)

“Oh yeah, it’s way cool,” Greg said. “We had our picture in National Geographic!”

“Did you have clothes on?”

“Yeah, yeah. But they coulda got us nekkid if they’d wanted to!”

By Saturday afternoon, during the Busch Series All Pro Auto Parts Bumper-to-Bumper 300, Poco Zapata was incoherent but standing, and Bryant’s promenade looked dubious.

He fooled me, though. When I ambled up to his truck around eight o’clock, Bryant was getting into his Texas Pete outfit: red cowboy boots, red jeans, red Western-style shirt, red bandanna, a red 10-gallon hat he had made by jamming an inverted two-liter plastic bottle into the crown of a straw cowboy hat and molding a high dome around it with some kind of thin plastic. He donned a pair of red homemade chaps, and strapped on a red double-holstered gun belt with two red plastic shooting irons. He pulled on a pair of red gloves, and slung a lariat painted red over his shoulder. A girl applied red greasepaint to his face and ears and neck. He was, indeed, a living, breathing, inebriated Texas Pete.

Beer in hand, ol’ Pete took off down the infield road, an entourage following in his wake, one of whom pulled a red wagon with a cooler full of reloads. The night air resonated with his battle cries: “Ooooweeee! I’m hot!” “Ooooweeee! It’s gonna be a hot one tonight!” “Just say NO! to Tabasco! Say YES! to Texas Pete!”

I lost Pete at tony Turn 4, at the karaoke stage. One minute he was doing the Electric Slide, the next he was gone.

The karaoke stage— the best and biggest party of the night— was organized by Joe McKenzie and his pals. Joe is a 62-year-old real estate broker in Charlotte, and he loves to party. “My wife Pat and I have gone to as many as 22 races a year,” he boasted, “but we cut back some.”

Joe was the MC. He held court behind the microphone, wearing a billed cap with a glans penis for a crown. (“They’ll let any dickhead be an MC!”) Sporadically, he directed the crowd into a line dance or the macarena. It was wild, man.

Oh yeah. Dale Jarrett won the UAW-GM Quality 500. It took over five hours to complete the race. There were 11 caution flags, and one red-flag total stoppage that lasted almost an hour, because the sewer line out by Highway 29 backed up and overflowed onto the racetrack. There were six wrecks, one involving a dozen cars. All of them were on Turn 2.

The NAPA 500 at the Atlanta Motor Speedway, held the first weekend in November, is the final race of the Winston Cup Series. The weather was cold and rainy; even worse, the crowd didn’t hold its booze too well and turned surly. The parties were small and clannish. It was lame, man.

Except for the party thrown by Stan from Daytona and Dr. Dave from Dayton. The interior of their tent featured outdoor carpeting, ferns, easy chairs, a table and a TV in the dining area, and a camp heater that kept things toasty. They were assembling the hot tub, and invited me to join them later.

The first person I saw at the party was karaoke king Joe McKenzie, in his dickhead hat.

Dr. Dave’s partner, Nurse Vickie, had laid out quite a spread, especially chocolate mousse balls by David Glass she’d ordered from Balducci’s. Dr. Dave mixed up his traditional batch of Purple Penises in a small plastic garbage can. The “secret” concoction contained 151 proof rum, vodka, and curaçao. Everyone had to chug from Dr. Dave’s Purple Penis Dispenser till it was empty. Longtime nabob neighbors rotated in and out of the hot tub. A grand time was had by all.

As for the Napa 500, it was worse than Charlotte. The race started at 12:40 p.m. and rain stoppages delayed it for over six hours. Of the 160,000 fans present for the start, less than half were around when the abbreviated race was completed near 11 p.m. Jeff Gordon, the driver fans love to hate, placed first, his 13th win of this season, tying a modern-era record set by King Richard Petty in 1975. He had already clinched the Winston Cup Championship for the third time in five years.

The morning after the race, thousands of rhubarbs lined up in the rain for the annual free “Breakfast of Champions.” Johnny Mack and the Finish Line crew had been up all night preparing eggs, grits, sausage biscuits, regular biscuits, bacon, and links.

A lonely Keebler elf stood at the back of the overflow garage, wiggling his little fingers to no one, while Tony the Tiger was mobbed in the main garage. After Jeff Gordon made his brief, obligatory appearance, the rhubarbs filed out, toting all the freebies they could handle.

As I made my way to the main kitchen to say goodbye to me wild John boyo, the Keebler elf was still standing all alone, wiggling his little fingers.

When I told this to the Deli Lama, he looked me in the eyes and said, “Hell, man. You know them elves don’t like to be touched.”