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You're ok, Speed Street 

Facing consumerism, peddling marsupials and more

Do you want to go to Speed Street?

I'm faced with this question at least once a year and every once in a blue moon I say, "Sure, why not." Then — as surely as the reaction to one of the rare moments when I drink a Blue Moon, I regret it almost immediately.

It's not you, Speed Street, it's me.

My hipster heart — I'll use the idiotic H word because this article will surely venture into ridiculous stereotypes of all sorts by the time I'm through — harbors a natural aversion to all things Uptown. From Speed Street to CIAA and every day in between, I'd rather stretch out on a patio in some outlying neighborhood than be crushed up against a handrail atop Epicentre during Alive After 5 while a Journey cover band plays.

Over the years, I've attended multiple Speed Street festivals, waiting for performances from Staind or Kellie Pickler while wondering how I came to be paying $9 per Bud Light in some claustrophobic lot just to watch a band I've never once listened to on purpose.

Trips to Speed Street are often similar to trips to Discovery Place as a full-grown adult: at some point the nostalgia (or your high) wears off and you're just sitting there staring at a bunch of animals.

This year, I decided to try something new. I was reading about the beginning of Speed Street festivities in Uptown and thought it could be a chance for new beginnings. I'll be turning 30 in a few months and it's time to look at this thing through a new lens: not as a drunken country music party but as a family street festival where it's not frowned upon to fry food that was already unhealthy to begin with.

I made the midday trek from our offices at the Music Factory to Third Ward to see what it would be like to live life amongst the true Speed Streeters; those who are there from the minute it opens on Thursday and stay through the heat of the afternoon.

The experience was not an overall bad one: afternoon drinks, amazingly unhealthy food and opossum hustling.

For those who don't know what Speed Street is, it's a three-day "consumer event" leading up to the Coca-Cola 600 in which Tryon Street in Uptown is shut down to traffic and turned into one huge commercial.

Before making my walk, I printed out a sheet I had seen posted on Facebook earlier in the day depicting a game of "Speed Street BINGO." The game plays into the worst stereotypes of NASCAR fans, allowing players to check off boxes on the BINGO card when they see things like a "skullet" (a bald head up top and a mullet behind) or anyone missing their front teeth.

I printed the sheet out, telling myself I'd ignore the more problematic boxes (Man or Woman?) and keep some semblance of a moral code while only pulling the card out in an emergency of boredom.

I walked into Speed Street at what I found to be its perfect starting point, the intersection of Tryon and Trade streets. Entering here allows one to start with the food. Booth after booth sells the same festival foods: turkey legs, Italian sausage, steak and cheese, fried pickles, ribbon fries smothered in nacho cheese. In other words, the good stuff.

Plates of death. (Photo by Ryan Pitkin)
  • Plates of death. (Photo by Ryan Pitkin)

I went all in, ordering a basket of fried mac-n-cheese followed by a basket of fried Oreos. I washed it all down with a Mello Yello, as that was the closest thing I could find to Sun Drop, and the old Dale Earnhardt, Sr., commercials may be the most fond childhood memory I have in regards to NASCAR.

As I walked to a bench with my baskets of fried food, my Fitbit vibrated and the app on my phone told me I had reached my daily step goals before 1 p.m. It was a sick joke. Every bite I took was negating any running I had done for days and maybe weeks prior.

"Fuck it. It's Speed Street," I told myself.

After that display of gastrointestinal gallantry, I purchased my first frozen rum runner of the day and made my way onto the next few blocks between 4th Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. These are the blocks that pay for Speed Street to happen.

Sponsors like GEICO and Coca-Cola set up large displays and vie for the attention of passersby.

I assume this is what all those people I shared the journalistic dream with in college are now doing; standing in front of corporate displays asking people to register their email addresses and guess the amount of geckos in the jar for a chance to win something.

Welp, here I am writing a first-person essay on what it's like to eat disgusting food and get day drunk at a family event. Whatever pays the bills.

These blocks of Speed Street, in the end, are what NASCAR is all about. The sport survives because cars let companies splatter their cars with the largest logos possible so fans will have something to stare at while the cars drive in circles.

Speed Street's peddler's row is not dissimilar. There are no purchases necessary, you just watch a loop of old GEICO commercials while waiting for a chance to go into the GEICO bus to sing karaoke with the GEICO gecko so they can send you a video of it, surely followed by an unending pile of GEICO emails.

The GEICO Gecko watches over all at Speed Street. (Photo by Ryan Pitkin)
  • The GEICO Gecko watches over all at Speed Street. (Photo by Ryan Pitkin)

I sound like a communist protester in making my point, but I don't really have a problem with it. I understand this is what makes the entire festival possible, all I'm saying is that I kept my distance from the folks working hard to get emails, phone numbers or whatever personal info they could get from those in the crowd. I don't need any more spam coming at my inbox than what already comes after posting one of these articles.

I participated in a game involving a less subtle form of capitalism that I'm more comfortable with: you give me money, I give you a gun with ammo (bottle corks) to shoot at cups for a prize. I won a plastic dart gun at the booth and shuffled off, feeling very Americana after winning a gun by shooting a gun.

This is right about when shit got weird, after I came across a man on a street corner peddling wildlife. I approached him after seeing a cage he had set up and thinking, "Surely he can't have an animal out in this heat."

At first, as he pitched the price of the cage, I seemed to be right, but sure enough, he then reached for a black pouch carrying two sugar gliders. He ensured me the small, nocturnal opossum was used to such weather, its ancestors being born and kept in a pouch in the Outback heat since birth, but the entire thing seemed odd to me.

click to enlarge For a cool $600 you can go home with a new pet.  (Photo by Ryan Pitkin)
  • For a cool $600 you can go home with a new pet. (Photo by Ryan Pitkin)

My thoughts on this find can be summed up best in the words of our intern Courtney upon my return to the office soon thereafter: "Who walks around Speed Street with $600 to drop on a marsupial?" One does wonder.

One nice couple approached and immediately began telling me about their five-year-old sugar glider, who apparently likes to crawl up to their cheek when they eat and try to climb in their mouth to get the food. No thanks.

They also told me and anyone who would listen about their cousin's pet monkey named Allison that "won't get no bigger than a Coke can." Even the family stories come with sponsors at Speed Street.

I sat down with another frozen cocktail to beat the heat — my third of the day and they were making them surprisingly strong — to take it all in. A middle-aged woman behind me was giving her older companion a non-expert's history on the sport of NASCAR. It was relatively accurate in its simplicity.

"Racin' started up in the mountains with the guys doin' moonshine, when you'd better run like the devil if the law came," she said after making it clear that she was not familiar with today's NASCAR. "I think of Dale Earnhardt. Now I don't know if he ever did moonshine but he just looked like a rascal."

As I eavesdropped I glanced at my BINGO card to see what I could mark off. I quickly scratched out the boxes for a chain wallet and camouflage attire.

For quite a while after that, however, as I sat there beating the heat with more frozen drinks, I couldn't see a single other square to check off. No rat tails, no barb-wire tattoos, no child over five in a stroller. Even less offensive ones like a Dale Earnhardt Jr., T-shirt proved elusive.

The whole thing made me uncomfortable, as I'd be more at home with the folks it was looking to judge than the ones making up much of the crowd I was looking at, so I began my own mental game of "Banker BINGO."

See someone shoot an abhorrent glance at a panhandler on a nearby bench? Check a box off. A group of four guys out to lunch all wearing the same outfit with the same color coordination? Check it.

click to enlarge Folks posed for pictures with these headphones only after handing over their phone number. (Photo by Ryan Pitkin)
  • Folks posed for pictures with these headphones only after handing over their phone number. (Photo by Ryan Pitkin)

This, too, became boring soon enough and I ventured off to find some real fun or call it a day. I was in luck, as I soon came across the coolest experience available along Speed Street by far: the Raceday Motorsports Mobile Racing Simulator.

The RDM simulator is a bus upfitted with 10 screens inside, each one including a seat, steering wheel and the pedals to go with it. A group can race together along the Charlotte Motor Speedway track, minus all that pesky fear of death.

While the graphics didn't necessarily match up with today's game systems, the feel of the whole thing made up for it. The car reacted to each gear shift and pull of the wheel as a real stock car would at that speed, and for a man on his fourth liquor drink and probably a bit over the legal limit, driving near 200 miles per hour made for a tricky trip around The Beast of the Southeast.

Nevertheless, I finished second in a group of seven, completing two laps despite wrecking and totaling my engine at least three times. According to my score sheet, some poor soul named Chrissy never made it around the track.

After the relative success of my race, I felt accomplished and became convinced that this trip to Speed Street — finally — was a success.

Despite my bad experiences at concerts past, if you can find a way to convince your boss next year that a Thursday afternoon on Tryon drinking frozen rum drinks will help morale, I say you bring your whole team.

As for me, I'm taking my gun and going home.

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