Notes from the Daytona 500, or The Celebrity Press is Decadent and Depraved

I leave my house in Gainesville, Florida at six a.m. with a pot cookie and a bar of Klonopin and drive toward the coast to cover the Daytona 500 for a trashy celebrity rag. Since the magazine doesn’t care about the actual race as much as what kind of jeans the celebrities in attendance have on, I must arrive early before the action starts. As I drive, the sleepily rising sun burns off the fog that hangs thick in the trees and drinks up the dew shimmering in the grass, and two hours later I hit Richard Petty Road, which leads me to the race grounds and the press parking lot. I meet a man there who will show me around for the rest of the day. He is very nice and very helpful. I have already eaten the cookie.

The nice and helpful man whisks me to a special tent that I’m not technically allowed inside, but he drops the name of my magazine to the doorwoman, and they have a whispered conversation where I hear the name Juan Pablo repeated several times, and they let me in. I surreptitiously Google Juan Pablo and learn that he is the current star of The Bachelor, a television show where a hunk of meat is paraded before a group of desperate women and told to fall in love. As we enter, the nice and helpful man tells me that the tent is reserved for celebrities like Juan Pablo, and also for a buzzing crowd of Fortune 500 CEOs,because corporate money drives NASCAR. Since they get to advertise directly on both the car and the driver, corporate bigwigs really seem to care about attending the races, and the Daytona 500 offers them this tent with fake grass on the floor, and cute white picnic tables, and immaculately-clad servers walking around with trays of single waffle sticks resting in little cups of syrup. A sound system pumps Cee-Lo’s “Fuck You,” and a dance remix of “Call Me Maybe,” and “Girl” by Beck. The whole thing seems so not NASCAR. It’s just a bunch of rich, old white men milling around with gorgeous young paramours who flash hard eyes, and it’s clear that these people belong to an elite echelon, and they know they do, and they are not interested in anyone who is not in that echelon. Judging by how they look at me, they can instantly smell one of their own — and, more to the point, they can sniff out someone who doesn’t belong.

The very nice and helpful man steers me across the floor to the Bachelor’s handler. She asks if I’d like to meet him, and I tell her a lie and sit across from him with my pen and pad ready. In the nicest possible way he refuses to talk to me. He produces a cellphone from his pocket and shows me a picture of a celebrity rag headline that says something like, “The Bachelor’s Ex Tells All,” and then he shows me another picture of him sitting next to his ex-girlfriend who is holding the same headline up to the camera, both of them looking sarcastic and disgusted. “Do you see?” he asks me, and I do see. The Bachelor apologizes, and he is very nice, and he is very polite, and I don’t know how to explain to him that I also think it’s terrible the way they treat him, and that I would love to talk to him about what it’s like being a normal guy suddenly thrust into this vicious scene and about why he’d agree to appear on a show that has the entertainment value of pus, but as far as treating him like an actual celebrity whose opinions have value, well, I would need stronger drugs.

A similar thing happens with Nina Dobrev. Google tells me she was in Vampire Diaries, which I’ve heard of vaguely but don’t know if it’s a movie or a TV show, and I don’t care since it has two of my least favorite words in the title right there next to each other. Her handler tells me she isn’t entertaining the press today. I have no problem with that.

I’ve struck out twice, but at least I got close enough to both of them to see what kind of clothes they had on, and that’s all I really need to satisfy the celebrity rag. The very nice and helpful man tells me I’ll have other opportunities — 50 Cent will show up later, for example — and he begins introducing me around very politely to people he recognizes, corporate types mostly. These people are all very nice and charming in a disarmingly genuine way, since they all clearly want something. They all say the same thing to me, “I love your magazine! I read it all the time!” and despite the fact that I know everyone here is working an angle, I truly believe they are being sincere. It’s nice of them to say, honestly, and I don’t tell them what I think because the magazine pays pretty well in an industry where good paychecks are like dinosaurs after the meteor — they still exist, but barely. I watch these expert hucksters work the room for a while, and I begin to understand the power of schmoozing in a very deep way. I also realize that when the schmoozers ask where you’re from, don’t say Gainesville, Florida because their faces will drop, their eyes will become cloudy, and they will check out of the conversation. You aren’t anywhere important. You can’t help them. Or maybe that’s just what I think is happening. I start to tell them that I spend part of the year in New York, which is a lie, but I really do plan on doing that next year, so it’s kind of true. But, the thing is that these people remain very nice even after I think they’ve checked out of the conversation, and I don’t know why I am lying to them, and it makes me feel worse that some innate insecurity makes me need to lie so I can seem important to people who have only been nice to me, and who I need no favors from anyway. I am very confused morally, and the weed is taking hold.

After the introductions are over, I settle into a plush leather chair, swallow the Klonopin, and survey the room. The CEOs seem normal, and because no one recognizes them by face, they can hang out unmolested. The celebrities, on the other hand, exist inside bubbles and seem like terrified, caged animals. These bubbles are made of handlers, and bodyguards, and hangers on, and I get the sense that they are mirrored on the inside so the celebrities can remain singularly devoted to themselves, their brands, their careers, without having to truly come to terms with the outside world and how ultimately insignificant their stardom is. And in their defense, the bubbles offer them protection, and they need protection because the pressroom swarms with a horde of leeches watching their every move, desperate to turn the slightest triviality into a scandal. And that horde never stops clamoring and clawing for the latest scoop on something inane and pointless that can be turned into some bullshit piece of nothing that will sell magazines. How could you not hide in a bubble? I’d make the same choice. You would too.

The sad thing, though, is how the bubbles turn them into little dictators. This is not to suggest a moral equivalence between celebrities and dictators, but rather to say that their bubbles seem to be constructed in very similar ways. When you’re in a room full of celebrities, you can literally watch the bubbling happen in real time as the feedback loop takes them further and further from reality like a rip-current washing a man out to sea. And surely the fault is ours and not theirs because we continue this ridiculous pageant of slobbering and drooling over every miniscule detail of their lives.

After a few minutes on the leather chair, the very nice and helpful man steers me to a press conference where Chris Evans, Aloe Blacc, Luke Bryan, and Gary Sinise come into the room one by one. I know who they are because I Google all of them, except Sinise. I might not be a smart man, but I know who Lieutenant Dan is, Jenny. They each take a turn sitting alone on a stage facing a crowd of flabby Beta males who shout pointless questions at them, and maybe these reporters, these flabby Betas, are just normal people trying to pay mortgages and support their families, but the way they fawn and grovel like deformed gremlins kneeling before some sort of mighty conquistador is very upsetting. And I grovel too, but I think it’s for a different reason. Mostly, I am too polite to tell these people what I really think of them, so I pretend to grovel, and that might make me more of an asshole as I gag while the press keeps lobbing mindless questions like slow-pitch softballs. Once the questions are over, photographers gather like lampreys to a shark, their shapeless bodies jostling for position while their snapping lenses search for a piece of flesh to capture. It is a gruesome scene, and you can’t help but feel that if the Earth opened up and swallowed us all right there, no one’s life would be any worse for it.

Despite the inanity and triviality of it all, however, these celebrity rags wield enormous power. For instance, even though the magazine I’m freelancing for has never provided a single piece of information that anyone needed to know, I’ve never been treated this well as a reporter. That could be because NASCAR is about as cool as the Republican Party, and it is desperate for Hollywood endorsement in the hopes that some cool might rub off. (That’s a shame too, because it really is a badass sport once you get down there near the track and watch the cars scream by like a goddamn fleet of bloodthirsty Tyrannosaurs). But it might also be because the sport still stinks of the Confederacy in a nation that is increasingly non-white, and NASCAR is understandably frantic to shed that good-ole-boy stench. Whatever the reason, I am treated like a king here. As a reporter, I’m used to situations where I have to bother someone until I get what I want. I’m used to people trying to keep me out of important places while I try to find a way in. I am not used to the way the very nice and helpful man walks me right up to the celebrities, pushes me to the front of every line, and lets me stand on chairs to get a better view.

And to be honest, there is a sort of twisted thrill that comes from having the power of the celebrity rag behind me. I have a lanyard that lets me walk straight past the fenced-in commoners waiting like cattle, red-faced and sweating. I waltz right by the Port-O-Let where a mob of smelly people waits to defecate into a plastic pit that festers in the sun all day, and by the shitty food tents where an interminable line waits for Bojangles chicken. With the very nice and helpful man at my side and the lanyard around my neck, I go to the V.I.P. tent, piss in a clean bathroom, and eat slow-cooked beef ribs glazed twice with a cherry-habanera barbecue sauce, and corn-on-the-cob that’s been grilled, brushed with a mixture of mayonnaise, yogurt, and lime juice, and rolled in fancy Mexican cheese, cumin, and other exotic spices. Then I go to a bar and select from half a dozen flavors of fancy fruit juices served in tiny cups, and I take whatever I want without paying a cent. If it was actual journalism, every bit of this would be unethical, but celebrity press plays by different rules. All I have to do here is provide a report on what the celebrities are doing, saying, eating, and wearing. Swag from NASCAR cannot possibly sway my work.

There’s a thrill that comes with the swag, too, and maybe all these thrills are what celebrity is about. It’s a false sense of importance, a belief that because you are given these things, you deserve them. And how could the celebrities not feel that way? We treat them like demigods. We give them presents they don’t need. We ask them stupid, leading questions so they can talk about how great they are in that annoying humble-brag way. And why do we do this? Because they’re good at singing? Because they were okay in a few movies? Because they’re on a TV show that will be forgotten by the time this sentence is over? It must do something unhealthy to their psyches and to ours as well, but it bears repeating that there’s no reason to blame them. For a cynical guy who believes it’s all bullshit, as I do, there’s really no reason to blame the celebrities. They’re just people who worked hard and got lucky; we are the ones treating them like descendants of Caesar.

The race starts almost as an afterthought, and the rain comes immediately. The whole thing gets delayed for six hours, and I leave because I’ve got what I need for my story, even though none of it is worth a damn. I am exhausted, and I can’t shake the feeling while driving home through the Florida storm that we are sick, all of us. The way we treat the rich and famous must surely come from a deep well of mental illness, lousy priorities, and base instincts, and I have helped this hideous machine churn on. When I get home and begin to write, my limbic system reels, not because I think I’m a great writer and this is below me, but because I know that it profoundly does not matter. It does not matter which celebrity got there when and whom they were with and what they wore and how close they stood to who and how many selfies they took. No one needs this information ever. Ever.

And what’s truly sad is the Daytona 500 is a freakout beyond belief — imagine the Super Bowl, a country jamboree, and Woodstock put together. You don’t realize on TV how loud those cars are, how fast they go, how massive the track is. You don’t realize that the turns are pitched at such an angle that you can barely walk up them, and if you’re wearing flat-soled shoes you will slip and almost kill yourself, and the very nice and helpful man will have to hold onto your elbow like you’re a little old lady. You don’t realize that they just let the fans walk around the track before the race — thousands of them sitting on the infield, signing their names on the starting line, taking pictures of the cars parked in pit road — and that while the fans walk around, so do the world-famous drivers, just like that, elbowing their way past fat guys with cameras and pasty women with sunburns. What other sport allows that kind of access? Television doesn’t show the carnival-like pageantry, either — the concerts on little stages dotting the outskirts of the track, the food tents billowing out aromatic, oily smoke, the rows of RVs and buses with campers grilling in groups and getting drunk in the sun. There is a truly great story at this race. Hell, there are hundreds of them. And the celebrity press will miss them all.

I learn later that Dale Earnhardt Jr. won the race on the same track where his father died in a grisly wreck thirteen years ago. Not only that, he did it on the night when another driver handled the legendary #3 car for the first time in competition since Earnhardt’s death. I know that my celebrity rag won’t publish that even if I write it. A man vanquishing the race that killed his father, and doing it next to the ghost of his father’s car? That isn’t a story to them.

But maybe, just maybe, Juan Pablo will find true love.

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