Cleetus & Cars burns rubber in Bristol

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Cameron Neveu

“Anybody can do a burnout in the Walmart parking lot,” says Cleetus McFarland. “It’s avoiding obstacles … that’s the real challenge.”

Last week, the traveling circus known as Cleetus & Cars rolled into Bristol Motor Speedway, America’s most beloved short-track, for a weekend of tire-frying, stunt-jumping, sedan-crashing debauchery. Its ringleader—and founder—Cleetus McFarland is a modern-day P.T Barnum, welcoming a roster of fellow YouTube sensations and automotive influencers to perform for thousands of fans under his tent.

Prior to adopting the goofy moniker, McFarland was Garrett Mitchell. Through countless blog-style YouTube posts of wacky rebuilds and wild stunts, the Nebraska-born gearhead and grassroots drag racer became an internet sensation, one that wore Pit Vipers, wrapped everything in Old Glory, and punctuated each video title with an exclamation point.

In 2020, at 25 years old, McFarland purchased the abandoned Desoto Speedway in Bradenton, Florida, and renamed the 3/8-mile oval the Freedom Factory. The paved oval that once hosted stock car racing’s rising stars soon became a de facto studio for the young personality’s YouTube channel. Among the shenanigans, arguably the most viral was Freedom 500; a pay-per-view event in 2020 featuring wheel-to-wheel racing at Desoto with nitrous-boosted retired Crown Vic cop cars.

Since the first race, the list of niche celebrities has grown longer—and more prestigious. To be part of the action, word on the street says you must have a six-figure minimum follower count on one social media account or a blue check next to your name on Instagram.

This summer, McFarland decided that one Freedom Factory was not enough. He took his show on the road. The two-day festivals are more fun than a barrel full of donut-ripping monkeys, and Freedom Factory fans—which skew towards teens and twenty-somethings—have the opportunity to meet their heroes. (We saw multiple admirers carrying turbos for McFarland to sign.) Though the 100-lap Crown Vic races—which still feature nitrous-boosted, retired Panthers—is Sunday’s headliner, the Saturday night burnout contest brings out its fair share of hoots, hollers, and “hell yeahs” from the packed aluminum grandstands.

Cameron Neveu

The event at Bristol was particularly raucous. The Tennessee track’s title as The Last Great Coliseum set expectations high. Thousands of ticket-holders trooped to the nation’s third-largest outdoor stadium for a nose-burning festival of organized automotive chaos that left noses burning, eyes stinging, and adrenaline high.

In Thunder Valley’s infield, where NASCAR teams would park their transporters, Cleetus and crew built a temporary burnout pit from Jersey barriers and metal fencing. The clover-shaped pit featured a long shoot and several coves for drivers to put their Gymkhana skills to the test while melting their meats.

The competition is serious stuff—or, at least, as serious as it can be. The field of nearly 100 vehicles was divided into three run groups—Rivals, Pro, and Open—whose contestants vied for a combined purse of $15,000. The first class featured famous YouTube builds and celebrity drivers, the second purpose-built burners. Open, arguably the most hilarious, was a sign-up basis participatory class. Anything from four-wheel-drive trucks to two-wheel-drive airplanes ignited its tires in the pit. A panel of judges graded each performance, based on tip-in (the NHRA burnout-style entry into the course), wheel speed, and coverage of the course.

Cameron Neveu

To kick off the event, McFarland wed a couple who proposed to one another at a Cleetus & Cars in Florida last year. “Do you Colt Mantooth take Sarah to be your freedom-loving wife?” the ringleader asked the couple, who were each dressed in all-white wedding attire.

Mantooth: “Hell yeah, brother.”

Then, the groom, in his tuxedo, hopped in his 2005 Mustang and lit a smoky, “freedom-loving” burnout in the pit.

One nation, under Cleetus.

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