Smithology: The Cleetus McFactor
Went to a race at Bristol last month. Run by a guy named Cleetus. Maybe you know him? YouTube. Three million subscribers. Occasionally blows stuff up.
I drank a beer. Then I drank another. I sat in the stands amid yelling, even did some myself.
America, you know, is a fun place, if you let it be fun.
Carnival barkers are a dying breed. Thankfully, we still have Florida’s Garrett Mitchell, DBA Cleetus McFarland. This gem of a human launched his YouTube channel 13 years ago. Views didn’t head for the moon until around 2015, when he began leaning into a certain worldview. Most of the nearly 1200 videos now on that channel depict, as my friend Zach Bowman lovingly put it, “goon things.”
To list those things here would be to miss the point. All you really need to know is that there are engine swaps and turbos and blown-up stuff, plus a tube-framed car-beast named Leroy. And the occasional jet boat. By 2020, the channel had grown so successful that Cleetus bought his own track: Desoto Speedway, a run-down, three-eighth-mile oval near Bradenton. He cleaned the place up, renamed it the Freedom Factory, and began hosting live events. A roadshow arose, Cleetus and Cars. In September, that show met NASCAR’s half-mile Bristol Motor Speedway, the country’s third largest stadium.
Sarasota’s ABC 7 News interviewed McFarland when he bought Desoto. “I was looking for the ideal place to do what I do,” he said. “We make YouTube videos every day with the coolest cars we can build. We needed a playground … to let the freedom flow.”
After the reporter wrapped up, Cleetus turned to camera, comically serious. “Thanks, brother,” he said. “Do it for Dale.”
I love humanity.
Bristol is two hours from my house. On the Cleetus and Cars Sunday, I strolled through the gates with Hagerty’s motorsports editor, Cam Neveu. Cam had come to town the day before, to shoot the public burnout contest.
Oh, right: There was a burnout contest. The combined purse—the competition fell into classes—was $15,000. As we drove through the gates, I took inventory. Crowds. A gutted Porsche Boxster with a visible V-8 swap. A bedless Ford Ranger. A host of other Sawzalled mutants on wheels, all of which your mom would mistake for junk. Behind everything sat the pack of transporters that had trucked in McFarland’s race-prepped Ford Crown Victorias.
Oh, right: There was a Crown Vic race. Twenty-seven cars, retired Police Interceptors and taxis, all basically stock, in a hundred-lap feature called the Bristol 1000. Each car wore a roll cage and a 50-shot of nitrous; each was driven by a YouTuber or known motorsport person. (Examples: The guy behind the largest gun channel, Zack and Rob from Hoonigan, NASCAR shoe Hailie Deegan, and so on.)
Spectator tickets were 40 bucks. A bargain. “There were probably 10,000 people here last night,” Cam said, as we walked in. “It was nuts. Kids were bringing turbochargers for him to sign.”
“Amazing,” I said, actually amazed.
“Get hype,” Cam said, with a straight face. He is the sort of person who can say things like that and make them deeply funny. In a mood to be literal, I wandered off to the snack stands to buy a plate of liquid nacho cheese the size of my head.
The event kicked off with a wedding on the front straight. Bride and groom were fans, Cleetus officiating. Under the grandstands, an army of EZ-Ups held merch tables from other YouTubers. The concessions offered beer, shots, double shots, and canned margaritas. Eight dollars would buy you a drink called The Car Crasher, which the menu described as “a shot of whiskey, vodka, or rum on the rocks.” Confusingly, that drink was four dollars cheaper than a shot without ice. As a person who lives in America, I did not ask questions.
So much happened.
Start with the opening act, a Stadium Super Trucks race. SST is a traveling spec series for Baja-type off-road trucks. It was founded by retired IndyCar and NASCAR driver Robby Gordon, one of the sport’s infamous firebrands and a talented driver who, in the words of my late friend Davey Johnson, “hates rules and dull sh*t.” Gordon’s big idea was to run his trucks on pavement, where they were not designed to work. They retain something like a dirt setup and thus flop and pitch like drunk giraffes, running out of brakes and sliding into each other, and the whole thing is an obnoxious gift.
At Bristol, the trucks raced on the oval but also across the infield, through a course marked partly by parked school buses. McFarland drove in this race, even led at one point. His livery featured the words FUN HAVER and a graphic of a bald eagle in a fighter-pilot helmet. There were tight battles and near-misses and a couple of times where the crowd went oooooooh.
At the end, several trucks lacked body parts. McFarland did not win, but he did stand on a ramp on the front straight, arms up, while people cheered. Earlier in the day, the track’s two PA announcers had taken a moment to rattle off his race-prep diet. (Notable ingredient: “chicken tendies.”)
Those announcers, Cleetus friends, were a steady babble of color. To wit:
“Let’s hear it for Demolition Matt!”
Announcer one: “You go to church?” Announcer two: “We’re at church, baby.”
“You know what? He’s just pushin’ his brand.”
To the crowd, with light disinterest: “There is another drone flying around. If you’re flying a drone and you’re not authorized, go ahead and land that thing.”
At intermission, the Jumbotron scoured the stands. Just as I was about to look away, the camera landed on a younger guy in sunglasses and a mustache. When he saw himself on-screen, he removed his shirt and twirled it in the air, shaking his hips. (Announcer: “HE LOOKS LIKE A NAKED BULL!”) The crowd cheered. The camera then moved to a larger individual. That man made me laugh, which is to say, he pulled up his shirt and used two hands to slap his stomach like a drum.
The crowd cheered again. In full stands, I drank another beer, spilled some on my shoes, drank a larger beer, spilled more. A Cleetus-channel regular named Spicy Spence walked onto pit road wearing red pants and a star-spangled jacket. Then he played the national anthem on a Jackson superstrat and full-stack Marshall amp while standing in front of an ex-Mike Skinner NASCAR race truck that recalled Dale Earnhardt’s #3. (“Damn near tears,” an announcer said. “That was absolutely biblical.”)
The crowd cheered as if ol’ Dale had come back from the dead.
I was reminded of that time some friends and I went to Austin, Texas, to shoot an IndyCar show for NBC Sports. A group of kids on a school field trip saw the cameras and got excited. From about 50 yards away, one yelled out: Were we shooting for YouTube? No, a producer said, broadcast TV.
Oh, the kids said. Shoulders slumped.
Does all this make Bristol sound like a party? It was more like thousands of people relaxing and drinking at a sunny beach. Except there was no beach, just some old Detroit sleds being humped around for 100 laps by some of this country’s finest stoke professionals.
The Crown Vic race itself was a fight with destiny, a yell against entropy, that moment in McDonald’s where you know the apple pie is too hot to eat but you scald your tongue anyway. This was a long, slow charge, a stampede of distracted cattle, a laid-back West Side Story dance-fight with squealing street tires. Eighty-six laps in, a massive wreck took out seven cars, including McFarland’s. Someone got loose, saved it, then spun up into someone else. That car, in turn, took out another and another. It all ended in a large stain of coolant and broken trim, atop a beer logo painted on the track’s apron.
Announcer: “It looks like Cleetus’s car is still alive!”
The crowd … well, you know what they did.
A cleanup, and racing continued. As tires wore down, visible chassis conditions included understeer, oversteer, and Sweet Mother of God. The last five laps were as close and thrilling as any race I have seen. A handful of cars resisted the urge to crash or break. Someone won. I got lost in the moment, clapping and yelling, forgot the result seconds later. That night, I slept happy, like a dead thing.
The world is a vast place. A certain type of stuffed shirt might find these events stupid. My considered, adult advice: That person should drink a bucket of Ex-lax.
Someone asked me recently if YouTubers like Cleetus are “saving car culture.” I do not know what that means, or if it is even so weak as to need our help. Adults, Roger Ebert once wrote, know that storybook endings are for children. All stories, he said, keep on unfolding, repeating, turning back on themselves, over and over.
Ebert, dead since 2013, was a film critic. I have been reading his books lately, to relax after long days. In The Great Movies, he wrote, “Life is like this … no matter how many theories you apply to it, it presses on indifferently toward its own inscrutable ends. The fun is in asking questions. Answers are a form of defeat.”
Bristol with Cleetus meant something. What, I have no idea. Maybe it’s all just Budweiser and circuses, distraction from heavier things. That’s fine. There is so very much these days we need break from thinking about, and so little time, relatively speaking, where we have collectively decided it is okay to take those breaks.
In other words: Get hype, as Cam said.
Brother, don’t mind if I do.