"Nascar is like a cross between Woodstock and Lollapalooza and the Iowa State Fair," Mario Batali says from behind a pair of sunglasses. On a Saturday morning in May, Batali tends to the grill, slathering pork chops with a spicy blood-orange barbecue sauce while Michael Waltrip, a Nascar driver who will be racing this evening, watches. Batali's strawberry-blond ponytail pokes out from under a Lowe's Motor Speedway baseball hat. The author of a new cookbook, Mario Tailgates Nascar Style, Batali has come to Charlotte, North Carolina, to cook for some race-car owners and drivers. His temporary home in Charlotte is a tricked-out RV (a few vehicles down from R&B singer Usher's) in a VIP section of the speedway's infield, an undulating asphalt sea crowded with fans who have paid to park here. In the days leading up to tonight's Nextel All-Star Challenge, everyone has been tailgating, throwing an extended party that has become as essential to the sport as the races themselves.
Batali and Nascar would be a match made in Heaven, if Heaven were in the business of co-branding and cross-promotion. Nascar would like to ditch its moonshine-running, redneck reputation, and with that goal has recently made forays into luxury trackside condos and RVs with plasma TVs like the one loaned to Batali in Charlotte. At the same time, Batali, who combines New York City foodie cred (Babbo, Del Posto) with mass-market appeal (Food Network), continues to establish his own brand, and Nascar, with 75 million American fans and counting, is a surefire way to expand his reach. In the first month after its release in April, Mario Tailgates became the fastest-selling of Batali's five cookbooks, moving 75,000 copies.
Batali has also teamed up with a Mississippi company to bring out a Nascar-endorsed line of barbecue sauces. He has plenty of other food partners, too. Even his wife and two sons, who are attending a Nascar race for the first time, can't keep up with it all. "Dad, you have a sausage?" nine-year-old Benno asks plaintively, after spotting a package of Salsiccia Pugliese with his father's ponytailed mug on the label. "Why didn't you tell me?"
Batali attended his first Nascar race in 2004 and found the waving of the green starter flag as electrifying as the first guitar licks at a Led Zeppelin concert. Roaming various speedway infields for inspiration back when his tailgating cookbook was still just an idea, Batali was equally impressed with the food. "There were people making crab cakes and she-crab soup," he says. "In my mind, I'd thought it was all brats and hot dogs. Nascar represents American regional cooking at its most supreme."
One of the perks of his Nascar connections, Batali says, is meeting some of his favorite drivers. He is a big fan of Michael Waltrip's (he also follows Jamie McMurray, Jimmie Johnson and Greg Biffle), and over the platter of pork chops, driver and chef have a happy exchange. Waltrip, who has eaten at Batali's Otto and Babbo restaurants in Manhattan, expounds on the All-Star Challenge, a high-speed free-for-all that promises lots of collisions, with a purse of $1 million. Then Batali starts talking about grilling pizza. "How you gonna do that?" Waltrip asks. The key is keeping the pies small and grilling the dough on both sides until crispy before adding toppings—tomatoes, basil and mozzarella for a classic Margherita, or olives, pine nuts and Fontina cheese. After making the pizzas, Batali lays ears of corn on the grill. He holds high a bottle of La Mozza olive oil, which he and his business partners produce in Tuscany, then shakes a stream onto the fire. But flames don't jump up immediately. "You want them to," Batali says. "If you don't want something to catch fire, don't put it on the grill." Later, he'll smear the ears with a smoky-spicy chipotle butter to give them "an extra kick."
Another of Batali's new Nascar buddies, Richard Childress, wanders over to the RV and asks him about the Viking grill (Batali will be installing the same 41-inch gas model at his vacation house in Michigan). Childress, a former driver turned champion-team owner (the late, great Dale Earnhardt drove for him), is also one of a growing number of North Carolina winemakers. His Childress Vineyards makes a beginner-friendly line of $10 wines with a checkered racing flag on the label, as well as a more ambitious line of reserve bottlings. On this morning he presents Batali with a signed case of his "Racing Collector's Edition" wines, each bottle marked with the number of a member of Childress's team. Batali particularly likes Childress's port, which is made from rabbiteye blueberries, a Southern variety. "There's a lot of action in there," Batali says.
On a garage tour later that day, the superstar chef is just another fan. As crews race around as if preparing for a NASA shuttle launch, Batali goes unnoticed. He takes photos of his family (all of whom, like Batali, wear brightly colored Crocs shoes), puts his eight-year-old son, Leo, on his shoulders to watch the rigorous car inspections, and tutors his friends on the sport's intricate rules, the nuances of the track's four turns, and the average speeds (175 to 180 mph, maxing out at 200).
That night, Batali cooks up an enormous paella—shrimp, mussels, entire lobsters, arborio rice, chorizo, the remains of his half-swigged Corona. "Jeremiah Tower's favorite way to cook lobster is in a bottle and a half of Yquem," he says gleefully about one of the legendary founders of California cuisine, as the infield air thunders with the engine snarls of race cars whipping around the speedway. "Then he turns up the heat slowly. By the time the lobsters realize what's going on, they're hammered. They think they're at a luxurious spa." His wife and children and some of their friends have climbed onto the RV roof to watch the action, but they descend in time for the monster paella, which Batali spoons out of a monster pan. Steven Van Zandt, a member of Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band and an actor on The Sopranos, swings by with his entourage for a plate of food. Then Flea, the bassist for the Red Hot Chili Peppers, who will be playing at a concert in between races, strolls up wearing khakis and a polo shirt before leaving to change into a tattered paisley jumpsuit for the show. "Tell me," Batali says later of his paella, "that didn't look like a party."
Benjamin Wallace is writing a book about the most expensive bottle of wine ever sold. He lives in Philadelphia.