10: 15 a.m. Sunday, Sept. 23
The first thing you note is just how gorgeous a day it truly is, with the sun all hot and bothered, yet it’s oh so cool in the shade of your ride’s interior. It’s the kind of Sunday morning that almost makes you want to go to church. Almost.
Being indoors would place you away from Mother Nature’s good intentions, and in much the same situation as your current one — trapped in a stuffy congregation, inching along in a 10-mile procession toward an exit ramp that in all likelihood doesn’t exist. For whatever reason, Delaware state troopers have traffic diverted clear around Dover, so rather than entering the Promised Land at Exit 104, they force you clear down to Exit 95, with each ramp in-between coned off.
Actually there is a good reason — that last 50-cent toll.
As you inch along, you marvel at just how many people are here, and hot god-damn, there simply has to be an exit ramp, or else how could all these hoards be assembling in the parking lots that dot the landscape alongside Delaware’s scenic Route 1? Blacktop, gravel, grassy knoll — every square inch of Dover seems topped with a Made-in-the-USA buffet of trucks and RVs, each adorned with grills, coolers, satellite dishes and a pieces of flair/pride, be it sticker or flag.
Speaking of which, the Confederate Army is here. Here, when the Stars and Bars shares a pole with the Stars and Stripes, the local rule of thumb seems to be that one flag takes top billing over the other. Go ahead … guess.
Welcome to NASCAR country, a nation which, this being 2K7, it’s practically 100% mobile. This past Sunday, it landed due east of the Mason-Dixon line.
If you’ve never visited, Dover is perhaps the most low-key state capital in the nation. This is, of course, the observation of someone who’s never been to Augusta, Concord or Cheyenne. With quaint tree-lined streets, a bucolic town green and a main street still populated by stores of the mom-and-pop variety, it’s like taking a half-step back in time, save for that bane of every small town in America — the neighboring strip of localized highway space cluttered with every box store known to man.
Home Depot. Check. Wal-Mart. Check. Commerce Bank. Check. Local diners on the verge of extinction. Check. Check.
On this fine Sunday, most of the businesses on North Dupont Highway were officially closed, seemingly a bad business decision considering the crowds. Although perhaps not — removing all other operating costs save the going rate on having the bus boy stand curbside with a cardboard sign substituting “Eat at Joe’s” with “Park at Joe’s” seemed to be the call of the day. Judging by the lot at the neighborhood Lone Star Steakhouse, where flatbeds rode bumpers with semis and the occasional import alike, squeezing every last ounce of space in a quest for maximum profit, Sunday was a great day.
With a seating capacity of the speedway listed at 140,000, and with the average sized vehicle in attendance falling somewhere between an RV and an F-150, the on-site lots seemed to fill up quick, so it’s also a necessity that Dover, the town — and its 35,000 inhabitants — basically shut down for the day to accommodate the overflow.
Delaware State University even got in on the car-park act — or at least its neighboring fields did. Only two out of 18 people polled knew about the recent shootings on that campus, and out of those feigning ignorance, five even answered “what campus?” I’m sure even fewer of them knew that the university was originally established back in 1891 as “The State College for Colored Students.” If so, perhaps they’d have exercise the slightest bit of decency and made the Confederate flags less obtrusive, especially those that looked to be hoisted over school property. But then again, probably not.
My last meal before entering — a chicken sandwich combo from the only eatery open, an Arby’s that marked a sightline for the Dover International Speedway, the raised seating platform for which could be seen arching up and over the top of the neighboring Home Depot. I sat marveling equally at just (a) how good Arby’s special sauce was and (b) the humanity. The closer you got, the less necessary shirts on men seemed to be, and the more pronounced the smell of car parts became. A small vendor to the left of the restaurant was organizing a display of black velvet paintings.
I was ready.