Last Call

My NASCAR Buddy

A weekend at the races with Christopher Hitchens.

By From the March 2012 issue

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Christopher Hitchens. No matter how one felt about him it's impossible to forget him. Everyone remembers his eloquent yet venomous writings on subjects ranging from Mother Teresa to Bill Clinton to the anti-Iraq War left to God himself. Then there was his personality, which really was larger than life. "Did anyone who writes in Britain or America not drink with Hitchens (—or worse)?" David Zincavage asked in his blog "Never Yet Melted."

Count me among those who did. But I am also fortunate to have a memory of Hitchens that virtually no one else has. In 2005, he was my companion for an unforgettable weekend at the NASCAR races.

I'd first met him at a book party in 2000. Shunned by his friends on the left for telling the truth about Clinton flack Sidney Blumenthal's smear campaign against Monica Lewinsky, he was welcomed with open arms by many on the right. So he began to attend conservative events, particularly ones with open bars (as do most of us scribes, of all persuasions).

As a young journalist who had always admired his literary gifts, I was nervous but forced myself to make conversation with him. Trying to say something he hadn't heard before, I suggested, "If you really want to see a piece of Americana, you have to go to a NASCAR race." He laughed it off but was very gracious. As Victor Davis Hanson put it, "For a supposedly mean person, he could be awfully kind."

After that, whenever I saw him, I would say, "When are we going to go to that NASCAR race?" It was a standing joke until five years later, when Hitchens replied, "Make the arrangements and we'll go."

Vanity Fair had assigned him to do a series on "red state" America, and NASCAR would certainly fit the bill. So we could go there for the weekend, on VF's tab. Having written a few stories on NASCAR, I called its media office, got credentials, and we were off.

On a Friday, I picked Hitchens up at his book-lined apartment near the Washington Hilton. He showed me around and introduced me to his lovely wife, Carol. Then we were off in my 2004 Kia Amanti, barreling down I-95 to the Richmond International Raceway.

Over the weekend, I absorbed many facets of his personality. He was mostly kind, sometimes exasperating, but always stimulating. The most interesting anecdotes concern his legendary smoking habit.

As we were driving, I said, "You can smoke if you want." He said courteously, "Oh, is that okay?" I said, "Sure, get it out of your system now, because you can't have a cigarette when we're anywhere near the track tonight." I explained further that the infield media center was smack inside the circular race track, within inches of "Pit Road," where drivers refuel. There are open containers of gasoline, which spill on the ground. Hitchens nodded in seeming understanding of this safety issue.

When we went to the race that night, Hitchens had what I later learned was his trademark whiskey flask around his neck. There were rules against bringing in alcohol, but no one questioned him, maybe because they thought it was water. A local sportswriter named Jerry Reid recognized him instantly and showed us around, introducing us to the drivers. Things seemed to be going great.

Then I noticed Hitchens leaning up against the fence that separated us from the track. I wondered if he was taking a closer look at the cars whizzing by. But no, that's not what he was doing. He was sneaking a cigarette! I wanted to scream at him. But then I thought, better not. It could startle him into dropping the cigarette, and the whole raceway would go up in flames.

The raceway survived. The next day we saw some historical sites, then retired to the bar at the ornate Jefferson Hotel, where he seemed most at ease. We discussed everything from Iraq to Thomas Jefferson to Charles Dickens to country music (some of which he was a fan of). I don't remember who won the races, but I'll always remember my weekend with this remarkable man.

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About the Author
John Berlau is Senior Fellow for Finance and Access to Capital at the Competitive Enterprise Institute and blogs at OpenMarket.org.