They have fried bologna sandwiches, one still-soaked piece of meat slapped onto two pieces of soft, white bread, splattered by grease that makes the dough stick to the roof of your mouth like the sweat sticks to your skin on such a hot Southern night at the races.

That’s right, at the races: No more than 10 miles south of the BB&T tower, the apex of Raleigh’s skyline, a few hundred people gather along five stands of bleachers straddling a quarter-mile of asphalt heated by humidity and tires every Friday night of the summer. They gather, that is, unless there’s rain, seemingly the only extrinsic factor capable of stopping either the drivers or their fans from convoking here to do and see what they love, out here where fame is something that happens only on Sunday inside a television set.

Here–at Wake County Speedway, one of several similar small-time, big-fun tracks spread throughout the state where stock-car racing began–winning comes with pride, a few hundred bucks and a spree of high fives, not a corporate sponsorship or an 18-wheeler encrusted with one’s signature.

In fact, it’s not about winning at all. Several of the drivers expect to finish dead last every week. Sure, they’re elated if they don’t, but helmets don’t get thrown when they do. It’s clockwork: They’re here next week whether first or last this week, running hands alongside a battered or beautiful car’s curves like it’s the embodiment of a childhood dream, swapping friendly, mostly fraternal jokes with fellow drivers at the pre-race drivers’ meeting.

Fraternal is an apt adjective, too: These drivers treat one another like brothers, joking and helping each other before brief, 20-lap bouts of competition take hold. Sometimes tempers flare, sometimes cars get spun out with imprecations rightfully attached. But, at the end of the night, these metal dogs chasing one another under the moonlight are nothing more than machines driven by men with families watching from the infields and homes a few miles away.

Everyone leaves happy. Then, they come back.

Wanna play?

Racetracks in and around the Triangle:

Wake County Speedway
2109 Simpkins Road, Raleigh, 779-2171

Orange County Speedway
9740 N.C. 57, Rougemont, (336) 364-1222

Dunn-Benson Drag Strip
Benson, (919) 894-1662