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Sarah Jane: NASCAR is here, baby!

<p>Spectators are injured at the Daytona International Speedway. (AP Photo/David Graham)</p>

Spectators are injured at the Daytona International Speedway. (AP Photo/David Graham)

Here in the barren desert, we have no changing foliage to mark the seasons. Instead, we know them by the tourists — bikini babes mean summer, cowboys mean winter. And hordes of sunburned, beer-swilling Anglo-Saxons covered in corporate logos mean spring: That’s right, NASCAR is here, baby!

Las Vegas is host to one of the biggest Sprint Cup races of the year. Something like 100,000 fans descend on Vegas this time every year for a weekend of motorized mayhem, pumping millions into our local economy. It’s gooooood times.

I’ve always been fascinated by NASCAR. As a liberal elitist, my interest is mostly anthropological — it’s first-class people-watching. I’ve worked the races several times as a promotional model, but that’s no fun. You can’t drink, you can’t cuss and you can’t punch any beefy Bubbas when they try to grab your ass. Attending the races as a spectator is much better — so that’s what I’ve been doing lately.

Wandering around the “Fan Zone,” essentially a huge, open-air marketplace set up in the sunbaked moonscape of the Speedway parking lot, is a fabulous experience: muffin-topped teen moms toting sticky-faced Honey Boo-Boos from trailer to trailer, collecting free samples of everything from shaving gel to soda pop from buxom B-list models. Toothless grannies swilling Coors Light, wizened war vets cheering as the Thunderbirds blow out their All-American eardrums … all pervaded by the smells of body odor, gasoline and deep-fried everything. Yes, there’s lots to see at a NASCAR race. But what everyone really comes to see is a good, old-fashioned wreck.

Race fans may deny it, but everyone secretly loves a crash. This was especially evident the other week at the Daytona 500, where I witnessed one of the most amazing crashes in NASCAR history. On the last lap of the Nationwide Series race the day before the 500, a car careened into the wall separating the track from the stands, smashing through the fence and sending debris flying into the crowd. Truly horrifying.

The collective gasp that arose from the crowd, however, was distinctly orgasmic. Fans leapt to their feet, cell phones aloft to capture the smoldering wreckage, mouths agape in expressions of barely concealed glee. “I just hope no one was hurt,” was the oft-repeated claim, uttered in a tone of breathless expectation that seemingly belied the sentiment.

Of course, I jumped up and joined in the action, ogling the mangled engine as it lay smoking on the bleachers, marveling at how utterly destroyed the car was. The entire front end was ripped off — a reminder of just how extreme this sport is. Ever the cynic, I made the mistake of speaking candidly to the rubbernecker beside me: “Well, this is what we all come to see, right?!”

He turned and looked at me like I was the spawn of Jane Fonda and Barack Hussein Obama, bristling with righteous indignation that anyone would be so honest. “I just hope no one was hurt,” I added hastily, backing away to join the rest of the salivating looky-loos. That’ll learn me to be candid with strangers!

Thankfully, no one was killed. But the fact is, NASCAR can be dangerous — if the alcohol poisoning and adult-onset diabetes don’t get you, a flying tire might. That’s a risk race fans are willing to take; the next day, all the seats in the crash zone were filled.

Just as all the seats at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway will undoubtedly be filled on March 10. Will there be a crash this time? No one can say … but the fans will be watching, with bated breath. Blood, sweat and beers: It’s the American way!

As long as no one gets hurt, of course.

SARAH JANE WOODALL will get your motor running at her blog,