CONCORD, N.C. -- The red and white bus is a 1959 Chevrolet, and for much of its life it carried Jaycees around the piedmont of central North Carolina. These days, though, it is much more than a means of conveyance. It also tells a story.
There are reminders of friends, those living and those passed, of places traveled, of visitors who have scrawled their names on the ceiling in black ink. There are reminders of race tracks, of seafood joints, of points on the coastline, of radio stations, and of NASCAR drivers from both the present and eras gone by. But more than anything else, this converted old bus bought for $100 is a rolling reminder of good times, of sitting in camp chairs and cracking cold ones and conversing with people you've known for so long, you've seen their children grow up -- all within the confines of the Charlotte Motor Speedway infield.
"Yes, sir," said the owner of the bus, Stan Cozart, of Rockwell, N.C. "We've camped beside people for so long, we've watched their kids grow up. We have. That's factual."
In the infield -- of this track, or any other -- that's just the way it is. These are race fans, first and foremost, that much evidenced by the bumper stickers and the flags and the cornhole boards that bear the numbers or signatures of their favorite drivers. It's NASCAR that brings them here for this Sprint All-Star Race weekend, when the Charlotte infield becomes a jigsaw puzzle of campers, recreational vehicles, cab-overs, tents, fifth-wheels and converted school buses. But it's something else that keeps bringing them back, again and again, in some cases for decades.
"Once you come inside here," said Morris Williamson, of Lumberton, N.C., who has been traveling to Charlotte races for 42 years, "everybody's family."
That much became evident when a few reporters were invited to bunk down in the Charlotte infield during All-Star weekend, in an RV supplied by Tom Johnson Camping Center. It could have been any neighborhood in America -- except that sometimes, it was encircled by vehicles traveling at 150 mph. People walked dogs, kids rode bicycles down the street, folks sat outside and talked. Some stayed up late and got a little rowdy, some rolled down the shades early and turned in. Smoke from grills wafted into the air. There was regular trash pickup, and local fire and police personnel occasionally cruised by, albeit in buggies rather than cars.
In the evening, there was a ritual. People moved camp chairs and coolers to the tops of their buses or RVs, grabbed a blanket or a sweatshirt to ward off the unseasonably cool nighttime temperatures, and settled in to watch the race -- which Friday night meant the appropriately named Camping World Truck Series event. Some campers crowned their rigs with elaborate viewing stands, complete with railings or drink holders or televisions mounted on poles, and in one case comfortable swivel seats. Those perched atop vehicles parked deep in Turn 4 could almost look down on the trucks screaming by. With the scoring tower located so far away, the track's big screen was indispensable for keeping up with the race.
Of course, full attention wasn't always necessary -- shortly after 9 p.m., a fan atop an adjacent RV reached over the railing to offer small plastic cups filled with a red gelatin. Jell-O shots. Thanks, neighbor.
"We're all family," Williamson said. "If I've got it, you've got it."
That kind of hospitality isn't the exception -- it's the rule. Need another beer? Want to watch the race from up top? Want to hear the story behind this bus? The level of welcoming was extraordinary, even among total strangers. Parked in such close confines, with a lot of time to talk and mingle, no one stays a stranger for very long. That's why Williamson, who used to live in nearby Monroe, keeps coming back race after race, year after year, for more than four decades now. He came to his first Charlotte race when he was 17, one of about 20 people piled into the back of a U-Haul truck. He remembers when campers used to sneak onto the track late at night to slide down the banking on cooler lids, and the infamous wagon races that were shut down after the wagons became too souped-up.
He remembers when infield spectators used to bake in 100-degree Memorial Day weekend heat, and how thankful campers were when the lights went up at Charlotte and races were held in the cooler evenings. The infield life is tough to shake -- Williamson said his grandson once won suite tickets in a contest put on by a television network, and after about 45 minutes he was calling begging to come back down.
"We've got six kids with us," he said. "Their dream is to be able to come here and play in that street. They have friends they don't see but twice a year. They don't play year-round with them -- they play twice a year, and they play right there in that street."
In the infield, the accommodations run the gamut. Some people park a car and put up a tent. Others stay in relative luxury in motorcoaches that can be worth several hundred thousand dollars, and have most of the comforts of home. Then there are the buses, which sometimes can resemble modern art projects. The exterior of the old Chevy occupied by Cozart and his brother Rodney is covered by dozens of stickers, representing everything from Ernie Irvan and Derrike Cope, to a Baltimore seafood restaurant called Bertha's, to the pier at Kure Beach, N.C. The ceiling inside is covered with signatures and messages from visitors. Above the rear door is a sign remembering "Big Daddy Murph," friend James Murphy Ledbetter Jr., who died of cancer two years ago.
When they bought the bus, the asking price from the Faith Jaycees was $1. Being upstanding members of the organization, the Cozarts paid $100. Stan has been coming to every Charlotte race for 20 years, and during that time he's sipped a little moonshine, run off a few fools, and seen the price of camping go up. But he can't stay away.
"It is more expensive, but hell -- it's such a good time, we just keep coming," he said. "I don't know what to tell you. It used to be what, $35 for the weekend? Now it's $75. But I mean, what are you going to do? Stay at home or come? We're going to come."
Williamson, whose bus once served the school district of Virginia Beach, Va., surely can relate. He paid $2,000 for the vehicle, and has spent about five times that renovating the inside. The first thing he did was rip out the seats and replace the transmission. Now, the bus features wood floors and paneling and cabinetry, with a master bedroom that even includes a toilet. On board there's a refrigerator/freezer, a kitchen and two air conditioners, not to mention tents and sleeping bags to accommodate about 20 more people.
Up top, his expansive viewing platform is made of what were once aluminum bleachers. It's not cheap to operate -- going to Daytona or Talladega costs $1,000 in fuel alone, Williamson said -- but it's faster than it looks. "This baby will run 70 mph down the highway," he said, as tunes from Lynyrd Skynyrd and Boston played in the background.
But the most striking feature of the bus is the exterior. The original group that traveled to races in Williamson's bus had divided driver loyalties, so the paint job is a grand compromise. The front end is in Matt Kenseth's old purple and black, Crown Royal colors. The rear is yellow for Elliott Sadler's former M&M'S team. One side is red, a leftover from Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s days in the Budweiser car. And the other side is orange, an homage to Tony Stewart from his stint in The Home Depot colors. The outside is due for an update, Williamson knows, given that all four of those drivers now race for different sponsors.
"You're looking at about five grand to paint this baby," he said. "It would cost you a fortune to change every time the drivers do, so you kind of wait it out a little bit. I will do it soon. But no hurry."
Williamson is a Stewart fan, which doesn't exactly explain why he's wearing a Kurt Busch T-shirt -- and an outdated No. 2 Penske one at that. "I don't wear good clothes out here," he said with a grin. "You go to the dollar bin up there and you buy track clothes for the infield. Because you don't know where you're going to end up."
Although the reputation of Charlotte's infield isn't as wild as some others -- like, say, that of a certain Alabama track that will not be named -- it's seen its crazy days, and campers claim the upcoming Coca-Cola 600 weekend is typically more crowded, more lively, and has more parties that go on late into the night. Last weekend, the biggest bash was the party celebrating Justin Lofton's victory in the Truck Series event, which didn't break up until the wee hours of Saturday morning. Charlotte tries to maintain a family friendly infield, and the track's list of camping rules and regulations emphasize zero tolerance for public drunkenness or lewd behavior.
By 3 a.m., a spin around the campgrounds in a golf cart reveals them to be mostly quiet, with fans resting up for the long race day ahead. Soon enough, though, the sun is up and someone is playing Def Leppard and bags can be heard plopping onto cornhole boards. Early in the afternoon, grills are sizzling and spreads are being set up on folding tables. Then it's time for the race to start, and everyone climbs back up to the roof or the viewing platform to take it all in. This weekend, with the Coca-Cola 600 and the Memorial Day holiday on deck, they'll do it all again -- just as many in this infield community of longtime race fans will do every Charlotte weekend. Because they couldn't imagine being anywhere else.
The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.