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Different Kinds of Cowboys

This autumn has been filled with cowboys and cowgirls of different sorts. Going from the overpowering noise of a NASCAR road course to a small town rodeo has tied these events in my mind. There are subtle similarities between the world of professional racing and that of rodeoing. Both of these nomadic traditions are, in a way, dying, but that isn't the only thing that connects them. Drawn to the transitory traditions of the South, I was lucky to document these eccentric sports back to back.

Though I call myself a fan of NASCAR, I have to clarify what it is that draws me to the sport. I have never sat in the stands for a race, but instead have traversed the secret and dangerous canals through the speedway in the manner of photographers who cover the sport. It is everything surrounding the actual race that captivates me: the in-between times, the moments of respite, the trash-blown speedway after the race.

Walking down pit road on the way to the garages, I am confronted with a dusk-lit view of everything I love, from the men and women in strange masks and patched uniforms, the crew chiefs in their swaying towers, the fleeting glimpse of cars screaming in and out of pits. But my mind is no longer on the race. The gas men look like spacemen in their silver bibs and goggles. Ryan Blaney's pit crew is playing country music in their stall. I am looking for faces, moments, small actions that remind me this is a human sport after all.

Flurries of black rubber dust skitter over the asphalt. It feels like the end of something. The end of the world, the end of a sport, the end of a way of life. I feel like I've arrived at the wrong time, only to witness the dying breaths of a sport that once meant family, culture, a lineage, a lifestyle. I'm here to see all I can before it goes.

But there are endless mysteries to be found after the race. A thunderstorm threat sends fans home beneath a rainbow. The sky darkens over the track. Members from the winning team celebrate way out on pit road, alone. Walking through the garages, haulers are loaded up with wrecked or whole cars, backing out expertly to hit the road just moments after the race is over. This race no longer matters; their sights are already on the next one. Those who remain are left behind amidst the trash and debris. The confetti-covered winning car slides into a black tent for post-race inspections, as if swallowed and never to return.

The drivers are on the road again, on to the next race. They can be seen on the interstate in their unmarked mobile homes, trucks and golf carts hitched to the back. Away from the press, the fans, the noise. Today's race brought them to a stop in 90 degree heat while the track was swept clean and officials brought water bottles to their windows in an unprecedented sight. One driver, fed up and in next-to-last place, rode backwards up pit road and called it a day rather than pointlessly sitting in the heat. (That would be my favorite driver, Kyle Busch, or "Rowdy," known for such outlandish behavior.)

It is almost exactly like the end of a rodeo. Before the event is even over, before some of the competitors even know if they won their cash prize or not, they are on the road to the next event. In their proud uniforms of denim, leather, and Stetson hats, the cowboys put on a show at each event, only to retire in exhaustion to their trailers, many of them with entire families in tow. As in NASCAR, generations of cowboys and cowgirls follow one another.

I find myself back in the press room with the photographers, listening to their stories of past races, realizing that these stories too will be lost unless they are documented in some way. The oral history passed around the press room is both sacred and profane, boring and hilarious. Someone, too, has to document the photographers. It feels like too much to take on. But these things are slipping away.


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