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  • Mary Vickery, Staff Writer

400 decadence is fear in Las Vegas, Pennzoil

Updated: Apr 8

One journalist’s manic and magical quest to reach the Pennzoil 400. Art by Skeet Starr

PDX’s Tillamook Market was a mere siren’s call. It was 10:30 in the morning. A woman thumped the keys of a piano behind our table at the airport restaurant, playing whatever music she had memorized including the Charlie Brown theme song. 

I was annoyed, and so was Jasper; we had to get out of there. Dragging ourselves toward our supposed gate was difficult. Jasper gravitated toward The Oregonian news outlet, where he picked up some toothpaste, a Powerade and a bottle of Excedrin. As tempted as I was to cure my hangover, the warning on the Excedrin bottle about liver damage scared me.

We sat silently on a bench for a while as Jasper sipped his drink, just out of reach of the piano chords that still littered the air. The Pennzoil 400 sat before me, and I was going to make it mine. 

The trip was spurred a few weeks earlier by a viewing of Will Ferrell’s “Talladega Knights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby.” As Hemmingway once said, “There are only three sports: bullfighting, motor racing and mountaineering; all the rest are merely games.” A NASCAR race — the power, the shriek, the metal and the speed — was a sports journalist’s dream. We had to go to one of these things. The Pennzoil 400 in Las Vegas was the closest and loomed just around the corner. 

Finally at the terminal gate, a man interrupted Jasper’s and my conversation. He turned to me, his teeth sitting unusually straight. I laughed as he asked for gum I’d just put away and even more when he asserted that Jasper and I made a good couple. “Thank you, but we’re just friends,” I replied.

Disappointment or even embarrassment laced his voice: “Oh. That's nice too. I’ve never been very good at making friends, especially as a kid.” I felt awkward, and I think he did too.

Halfway through boarding, a woman on the PA informed us that all flights in and out of Vegas were grounded due to high winds. I asked Jasper if he wanted to get a beer. That was that. 

By the time we crawled back to the gate, we were each six drinks deep. A man who wore a fluorescent vest slumped by with leathered skin. His hair stood up in a strip across the middle of his head, thinned by time at the top. 

“Lizard Man,” I said to Jasper. He laughed.

We boarded our Spirit flight six hours after our arrival at the airport. Anticipation left my body as the plane ascended, and I fell asleep. 

I woke to the sound of the seatbelt light turning on. My stomach fell as the floor was pulled out from under my feet, then put back. The seats around me creaked, their bolts straining to keep them stable. On the other side of me, the windows glowed with city lights. Jasper rocked forward and back, his eyes sealed tight. 

The seats groaned louder as we approached the ground; the panels lining the plane vibrated as the wheels slammed into the tarmac. We braked. The panels shook violently, and our bodies pressed against our seatbelts. A sigh of relief was heard throughout the plane. I turned to Jasper. 

“I am going to clap.” He looked at me with humor in his eyes: “Do it.”

I clapped once and was immediately joined by at least half the aircraft. This trip was already a joke and I was excited to see just how funny things would get. 

Jasper and I Ubered from the airport — an overwhelming nightmare with its constant jingling of slot machines, the smell of cigarette smoke and flashing lights. We arrived at our hotel, a Howard Johnson just a block off the strip. 

My mom had gotten in my head about staying at a “Ho Jo,” saying I “wasn’t allowed to get murdered … or shot.” In an attempt to soothe her mind, I assured her I’d be with a man, to which she responded: “Yeah ... but he's British.” 

The beds were clean. It didn’t matter that the floor was littered with stains or that mold clung to the bottom of the shower curtain. 

Jasper left to get drinks, and I slumped on my bed. When he returned with a twelve-pack of Twisted Teas, we finished the case, then hit the strip. Our green flag was up, hours before it would raise at tomorrow’s Pennzoil exhibition. 

I was reignited with excitement previously dulled by travel. Godless light blinked at me in every direction, and I was elated by the unnatural feeling of it all. The skyline loomed over us and cars whizzed by carelessly. The world from top to ground was branded, and the Aria Mall called our names. 

The mall was eerie — no one was there. I expected Jasper to be waiting for me outside the bathroom after, but he was nowhere to be found. I waited. Jasper soon emerged from the men's restroom with his shoulders slanted and square after throwing up. We kept walking. 

A mediocre Bellagio fountain show spewed to a popular classical music tune, and we stood watching, falsely enamored. A man behind us was selling hotdogs. We peeled ourselves up the walkway into the entrance of the Bellagio. Light pressed through the colored Dale Chihuly glass lining the ceiling like a mangled bird of paradise. The labyrinth of slot machines pinged to the right, begging for our entrance.

We wandered through the maze of machines, gazing at a plethora of people. A large man received a massage from a small woman who had “Massage” written across her back. Old women sat hunched towards the screens, and couples sat side by side, lifting cigarettes back and forth between their mouths.

We wandered Caesars Palace in crowds of small women in tight dresses and tourists looking for magic in machines, which I found easily. ‘Just a feeling’ tugged at my skin and eventually the feeling yielded ‘credits’ which cashed out and put Jasper $30 in the green. I am magic. Men ambling around me made my stomach rage with their smug faces full of unknowing and cockiness. They were dogs, and I was going to bark at them. We drank more. 

Planet Hollywood seemed dingier than the casinos we were in before. It was darker, and the machines glowed more red. I went to take a photo of Jasper. My phone was gone. The woman at the Bellagio (?) bar looked relieved to see me when I ventured back. “It’s you,” she said, as if she’d been waiting for me all her life, then handed me my phone. 

Women in black bedazzled outfits that covered just the important parts danced on the tables. I was tired; I wanted to lie down. Cold tile pressed against my back. This had to be gross, but it looked so clean and there was practically no one here. I wanted to leave this place. 

Raising Cane’s was a delicacy from home that I often missed at school. Its blinking sign was equivalent to an angel being sent before me, instructing me to “be not afraid.” The fast-food haunt was full of reddened Australian men in rugby jerseys, babbling on about what to get. Most of them clutched collectible Las Vegas Kings cups tight to their stomachs. 

Jasper and I annihilated our chicken. I needed to go to bed. 

I woke up Sunday morning, and God had it out for me. So many horrible things happened that it took every ounce of my remaining strength to even type them, but after all that work it was slashed with a mutter about "bio-capitalism." All was a swirl of bathtubs and wrath, but it was the perfect day to spend some time outdoors at the track. The tickets were burning a hole in my pocket, and it was race day — the goddamn Pennzoil 400 in Sin City, USA.

We sat high in the stands with a view of the whole arena. RVs sat parked in the center, waiting for the speed. USAF Thunderbirds soared above, and Jasper began shaking in fear. Each car flew around the track. The sound ripped by, rumbling the seats beneath us. My skin cracked in the wind and desert sun. People hollered and the man sitting behind me roared: “I’m not here for the racing; I’m here for the crashing.” 

Flags flew. The smell of burnt rubber and oil soaked the air. Despite all the anticipation and excitement for this day, the tumble and crash to reach this moment, I felt nothing but a headache. Around and around the cars bolted monotonously. Behind the track, the skyline of the strip was clouded in dust, contrasting the mountains sitting steadfast and immovable against the scene below. Tepid in my seat, the Pennzoil 400 darted by.  

I was ready to leave Las Vegas.

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1 Comment

Apr 08

Well written and experienced. Too bad Las Vegas only taught you to drink!! It's a fun city to visit, but watch how much you drink since it hits you hard, as Jasper learned, you pray to the porcelain God!!!

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