Motor Sport: Southern hell on wheels for the hill-billy heroes: The mean men and machines of the stock-car scene are a race apart from IndyCars. Jeremy Hart reports from Atlanta

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The Independent Online
IL LEONE meets The Intimidator. The British Lion versus Deep South hero. Brummie monosyllables and southern drawl. Nigel Mansell and Dale Earnhardt, moustachioed both, at loggerheads on America's walls of death could be the continuing story of Mansell's march through the ranks of racing American style.

Within weeks of Mansell signing a two-year deal with Paul Newman's IndyCar team, the hill-billy world of Nascar, the National Association of Stock Car Auto Racing, is awash with rumours that next year the British sensation will try his hand in two races for the world's fastest saloon cars.

Nascar has the finesse of a train crash and a southern following who snap up race tickets faster than fans at a Dolly Parton concert. From North Carolina to Alabama, Virginia to Wisconsin, but not across the Rockies, it is as close to religion as the Bible Belt allows.

'It is like staging wrestling in the Vatican,' described one, not surprisingly, unnamed fan. It is a sport for saloon cars, once run on moonshine, with the power of a Formula One car, propelled past 190mph on banked oval tracks, 40 at a time, running in trains of 10 or 13 cars, inches apart, with concrete walls between them and the end.

It is enough to make the Ancient Roman sports at the Coliseum look like a chess match. The go-faster gladiators of the South, with names like Randy, Kyle and Darell, are heroes. Their fans are so dedicated that they paint old school buses to look like the drivers' cars and follow them from race to race, filling the infield for days before, partying from dawn to dawn and consuming more beer than the Nascars swallow fuel.

To enter the twilight zone of the den, the hallowed ground of infield, is to imagine standing in the audience at a Grateful Dead concert and have 40 jet fighters buzz around your head for four hours. To watch is as much a test of endurance as to race. Races are often slowed to a crawl behind a pace car as a result of accidents on the crowded track.

'We brought 20 gallons of beer,' Jeff Muldraw, a bearded Georgian, said, 'but we almost ran out.' Muldraw and a handful of buddies boarded a graffiti-ridden 1951 bus to make the pilgrimage to Atlanta for last weekend's final round of the Winston Cup, the 30-round series for Nascars. Unlike most other fans, they had no idol to root for. They just did not want Bill Elliott to win, which was easy to understand, because he was the local favourite.

More numerous than for any other driver were the Budweiser-red Elliott buses and the man could do no wrong, except open his mouth. 'You just turn left and hang on,' he said, explaining the technique of a race series where the drivers never change gear or brake.

If Elliott had captured the Georgians' hearts, Nascar fans as a whole were on the edge of their collective seat to see if The Intimidator, Earnhardt, could chalk up a sixth championship title.

Earnhardt is a legend, sporting cheap, tacky sunglasses and wearing an open-face helmet when most drivers had opted for the less threatening and safer closed versions.

In the end the championship came easily, Earnhardt finishing in 10th place at Atlanta, giving him enough points to prevent his old adversary and race-winner, Rusty Wallace, from taking the title.

If Mansell swaps open wheels for closed, half a ton of high-tech titanium and carbon fibre for a ton and a half of steel and brawn, Earnhardt will be out to give him lessons in the etiquette of Nascar racing, where Yankees take years to be accepted and where a European might never.

Mansell will not be the first transplant from across the Atlantic to try stock-car racing. Jim Clark raced in the Daytona 500, Jackie Stewart tried his hand at Nascar and the Frenchman Claude Ballot- lena had a luckless and short career in the South.

Watching the Hooters 500, the 328-lap race at Atlanta Motor Speedway, was Patrick Tambay, the former Ferrari and McLaren driver. Although the Frenchman, whose more recent races have been on jet skis and snowmobiles, was in Georgia 'to observe', racing was not out of the question and the idea of competing against Mansell made him laugh.

'Mansell here? That would be good. With his ability to race on ovals, his style of reading the slots in which to jump and driving on the limit with the flow, he'd do fine,' Tambay said.

Tambay used to live and race in America, and his perception of racing Southern style was priceless. 'This is only a spectator sport. The rules keep people bunched up and every spectator has his own guy to cheer on. They sit in the stands with their coolers, their chicken and their Pepsi, and can see the whole race. It's really exciting, more interesting than Indy or Formula One.'

(Photograph omitted)