The 2006 election season ended on November 7 with the crowning of a new Congressional champion, the Democratic Party. Today, less than two weeks later, the NASCAR season ends with the Ford 400 at the Homestead-Miami Speedway in Florida and the crowning of a new Nextel Cup champion. In the piece that follows, Robert Lipsyte, former New York Times sports columnist (who covered Nascar for years) and author most recently of the striking Young Adult novel, Raiders Night, explains just how curiously linked the two events are.
When I was a youth, I worked for a while in a small, tinker-toy industrial strip in Hayward, California, with skilled young printers who were also fervent racing car enthusiasts. They could offer brilliant interpretations of how our world worked without ever leaving the universe of cars. Lipsyte, one of the best sports writers we’ve had, has the same skill. Back in September in “Shooting Up on Jock Culture” he explored for Tomdispatch readers the deeper meaning of the steroid scandals. He is now officially this website’s sports columnist. Expect a new column every second month. The Super Bowl is, to mix sports metaphors, on deck. Tom
By Robert Lipsyte
1. It’s the Car, Stupid
“I hate that term, NASCAR Dads, it’s narrow and patronizing, but it’s about time Democrats showed some sensitivity to the stock car culture.” — David (Mudcat) Saunders, political consultant.
The Democrats won the Senate and the House because the Republicans lost the garage.
Four years ago, mad political scientists created Nascar Dad to combat Soccer Mom. The result was as epic as Beowulf versus Grendel’s Mother. We know how both those battles came out. And now we also know that Nascar Dad, like the great Scandinavian mercenary, began to wonder if he was protecting the right mead hall.
Like Beowulf, Nascar Dad may be a fiction. Nascar itself denies having any stereotypical fan, while encouraging the idea that it is a political player. Larry J. Sabato, director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, described Nascar Dads as “middle-to-lower-middle-class males who are family men, live in rural areas, used to vote heavily Democratic but now usually vote Republican.” Most political experts more or less agree with that description, although political consultant Mudcat Saunders adds that Nascar Dads are often suburbanites who are “rural-thinking” about religion, patriotism, hunting, and fishing.
One of the sharpest thinkers in Nascar Nation, H.A. (Humpy) Wheeler, president of the leading North Carolina track, told me back in 2003, “They liked the President’s Top Gun performance, but they’re not so gung ho anymore on Iraq because this is the crowd that joined the National Guard.”
That turned out to be a distant early warning.
Nascar Dad still voted for Bush and Republicans in 2004. Among other reasons, as many Nascar Dads told me then, they thought that Bush was more “manly” than Kerry, whom they despised as the patronizing snot who had been putting them down since grade school.
Republican attitudes toward evangelical Christianity, unashamed commercialism, guns, the environment (racing cars still use leaded gasoline), and diversity (the Nascar garage is overwhelmingly male and white) seemed a perfect fit with Nascar values. Nascar supported Bush financially and courted his attention through its ruling family, the Frances. They have owned and operated the sport since 1947 when promoter Big Bill France whipped a brawl of hot-headed former moonshiners into a confederacy called the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing. His son, Bill, Jr., and now his grandson Brian, extended his vision brilliantly, signing record TV deals. They did it with racers that sort of looked like everyday street cars, but weren’t, and they held onto their southern hardcore while reaching out to markets in California and the Midwest.
I remember thinking — in the years I actively covered Nascar — that one of the most telling differences between my subjects and me was that they knew more people on active military duty than people in same-sex relationships.
That was still true this month, and that’s why the Democrats won.
2. Dale Died for Our Sins
“You might be a redneck if you think the last four words of the national anthem are ‘Gentlemen, start your engines.'” — Jeff Foxworthy
On the final turn of the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500, the first and most celebrated race of the Nascar season, Dale Earnhardt, Sr. slammed into the wall near where I was sitting. I can still hear the frantic voice of Earnhardt’s crew chief calling to him through my radio scanner: “You okay, Dale? Talk to us, talk to us.”
Minutes later, a blue tarp was thrown over that famous black #3 Goodwrench Chevrolet. It was my first race and I didn’t understand the full meaning of the blue tarp until I heard the air whoosh out of 200,000 chests and people around me in the press box begin to cry.
The clash of reactions to Earnhardt’s death — Oh, God vs. So What? — was a signifier of America’s cultural divide. There were millions of Americans who barely knew what Nascar was, who thought of it as numbing Sunday afternoons of gas guzzlers mindlessly snarling around a track while rednecks got hammered. But there were also millions of Americans who built their family vacations around those races and their buying patterns around the products advertised on their favorite cars. Nascar claims some 75 million fans and, by some measures of regular season TV viewership, it is second only to pro football as a national sports pastime.
Beyond the three top levels of Nascar — Nextel Cup, Busch, and Craftsman Truck — lies a competitive racing culture that starts with an estimated 4,000 American youngsters between 5 and 13 driving quarter-midgets, little fiberglass cars with 2.5 to 4 horsepower engines that can reach speeds of almost 40 miles per hour. They graduate into dozens of classes of cars at hundreds of race tracks, predominately in the South and Midwest, driven by men, women, and children in front of grandstands packed with Nascar families.
For them, Earnhardt, known as “The Intimidator,” was one of the last of the laconic, hard-charging carburetor cowboys with whom Southern workingmen could identify. They flew Confederate flags with his face superimposed. They wore hats and shirts with his number 3 and grew imitations of his push-broom moustache. And they plastered their pick-ups and rec vehicles with pictures of his main rival, California-born Jeff Gordon. There would be a red slash through Gordon’s pretty face and the words Fans Against Gordon (F.A.G.). It was the worst they could throw at Gordon, a hearty hetero who drove as hard as Earnhardt (who liked and mentored the younger man).
At 49, Dale was the cocky, daring, triumphant yet accessible hero of a wounded land, a tough guy who might tolerate the Northern corporate suits who dogged him like little boys, yet never lost touch with his rural roots. He hunted and worked his farm and tough-loved Dale, Jr. into a superstar, too.
I didn’t get it while he was still alive. I spent some time with him the month before he died. He was gruffly charming and I found what I considered his contradictions amusing. Here was a populist hero whose North Carolina office-race shop complex, the so-called Garage Mahal, contained a curated display of his hunting rifles, mounted animal heads, and pictures of his executive chef cooking up his kills. I was simply too new to the sport, maybe too New York, to appreciate his mythic place.
Thousands jammed his memorial services, lined up to leave notes and flowers on the fence near where he died, wore black, and painted a 3 on their cars and pick-ups. Think Princess Di.
His death was at least as poignant; he was in third place, blocking the field for the front-runners, his son, Dale, Jr. and his protégé, Michael Waltrip, a 37-year-old journeyman who went on to win his first Cup race.
My story of Earnhardt’s death appeared the next day on page one of the New York Times, but his name was not in the headline. The editors decided that not enough Times readers knew who he was. They were probably right, yet another indication of the red-blue divide. The headline read: “Stock Car Star Killed on Last Lap of Daytona 500.”
In her best-seller, Slander, Ann Coulter, in an attempt to portray how out of touch and elitist the Times was, claimed that it took the paper two days to get around to covering Earnhardt’s death and, when it did, the lede read “His death brought a silence to the Wal-Mart,” which she interpreted as a disdainful swipe. (That was actually in a reaction piece several days later by Southerner Rick Bragg.)
In an attempt to show how out of touch and misleading Coulter was, Al Franken reprinted that front page in his best-seller Lies and the Lying Liars who Tell Them.
The beatification of Dale Earnhardt, Sr. as a man’s man who sacrificed himself to shepherd his flock to the finish line, a hero who in death evoked both John Wayne and Jesus, presented America with its biggest joint jolt of sports and evangelical Christianity since Billy Sunday left the Philadelphia Phillies outfield more than a century ago to become a superstar preacher. But as William J. Baker, author of the forthcoming book, Playing with God: Religion and Modern Sport, told me, it shouldn’t have been a surprise.
“In many ways, evangelical Christianity and big-time sport are similar,” said Professor Baker, who was a preacher and a quarterback in his time. “Both are win-loss mentalities. In evangelical Christianity you are either saved or lost. You’ve gone to heaven or you’ve gone to hell, you win or you lose and that’s what this sport is all about.”
3. What’s the Matter with Nascar?
“People do not necessarily vote in their self-interest. They vote their identity. They vote their values.” — George Lakoff in Don’t Think of an Elephant
I was an accidental gearhead. In 2000, Neil Amdur, the Times’ sports editor, had cool-spotted stock car racing as the next major-league entertainment. Just at that moment, I was looking to let some fresh air into my weekly column. As we planned it, I would drop into Nascar from time to time, a dilettante anthropologist. Then Earnhardt crashed and I was suddenly the department’s leading expert on the new century’s hot sport.
Most of the people I spent time with over the next few years were white Christian men with rural roots. Once I got a few rules of the road under my belt — drink beer, not wine; never underestimate their intelligence or sensitivity to slight; and be totally honest about my own lack of car sense — it was the best time I had as a sportswriter. They were eager to help me understand their sport. This included not only hilarious nights of eating catfish with sides of raffish tales, but a window onto an America I had not known and, most memorably, a chance to drive a stock car at about 135 miles per hour. Those sixteen laps around Lowe’s Motor Speedway in Charlotte (cleared of all other cars for obvious reasons) were the only time in my life I did not have a single extraneous thought. When it was over, I brimmed with admiration for Nascar drivers who drove fifty miles per hour faster, while being rubbed and bumped by forty other cars.
I also appreciated the passion of their fans who clearly understood the realness of this sport, its danger, its demands for concentration and skill, and — compared to the insecure faux macho of so many “stick-and-ballers” — itsmanliness.
It’s part of the Nascar deal for drivers to attend sponsors’ and car manufacturers’ breakfasts, trade shows, and customer parties, even on race days, and those who do it well can extend a mediocre career. So they interact with their fans far more than any other athletes and are always saying how “grateful” they are to them.
They should be. Nascar fans shop against their best interests so they can remain loyal to the sponsor of a driver they root for. They understand, they’ll say, that the main sponsor’s annual infusion of $15 million or so is what makes their favorite car go.
One fan actually told me: “My husband buys Tide even when it’s more expensive than Wisk because he likes the driver Ricky Craven. We have friends who don’t like Bud but drink it because of Dale, Jr. When my Sprint contract is up, I’ll probably switch to Nextel.” (This was before the merger.)
It gets worse. Pfizer, which sponsored the Viagra car, used to set up a tent at racetracks offering blood and urine exams by local doctors for diabetes and other disorders. I sat in one day and was amazed at the number of overweight men and women with dangerously high glucose and blood pressure levels. For many of them, this was their only medical exam of the year. Some said they had made a choice between their medicine and their grandstand tickets. “Why live if you can’t go racin’?” was the way they’d put it.
Some of the Pfizer docs thought that they were making an understandable — if regrettable — “quality of life” decision.
Those grateful drivers don’t have to make quite the same decisions. Unlike most other athletes, they sound like their fans, they even look like their fans, who use words like “modest” and “humble” to describe them. But after the race is over, while fans wait hours in monster traffic jams to leave the track, the drivers typically chopper to the airport where they fly their own jets home to backyard airplane hangars in gated communities. Their neighbors tend to be corporate executives.
4. Nascarizing Politics, Politicizing Nascar
“In an unsettled economy such as this one there will be even more of a disparity between the richer teams, which typically dominate victory lane, and all the others.” — Geoff Smith, president of Roush Racing
Like the GOP, Nascar could crack wide open, and knows it. Both are ripe for breakaways. This is the main reason why the France family recently capped at three the number of cars a racing team could run in its premier series, the Nextel Cup. Too powerful a team, besides destabilizing Nascar’s idea of competitive balance, could also make demands, using as leverage the threat of starting a competing racing league.
A Brand New Party to rival the Grand Old Party? The threat may be more real for Nascar, which owns twelve of the twenty-two tracks on which it holds races. Most of the others are owned by rival Speedway Motorsports, Inc., parent company of Texas Speedway, which was behind a recent lawsuit aimed at forcing Nascar to let it stage not just one but two of the 36 annual Nextel Cup races.
Nascar finessed the problem, but in so doing looked — to many traditionalists — pragmatic to the point of hypocrisy. Nascar sold one of its most storied raceways, Rockingham in North Carolina, to Texas Speedway for $100 million. Texas had little interest in the real estate, but could now take over Rockingham’s Nextel Cup date and have its two races.
Like any good autocracy, the France family has often subordinated the best interests of individuals to its own control and for the sake of “growing” the sport.
Take a fine Republican issue like safety regulations — or the lack of.
Driver safety didn’t become a discussable issue until after Earnhardt’s death. Drivers, long in denial, suddenly realized that if Old Ironhead could buy it, so could they. Until that time, few wore the head-and-neck supports that are now standard. And, believe it or not, wearing helmets was not mandatory then (although all did).
Now, Nascar is finally developing “soft” walls and making a greater effort to supervise recovery from concussions and other injuries that drivers once tended to disregard.
At the bigger speedways, where it’s possible to race at more than 200 miles per hour, the specter of cars flying off the track and into the grandstand led to the invention of the “restrictor plate,” a piece of aluminum with small holes that limits the fuel-air mixture entering the carburetor. In effect, it slows down the car. It also means closer, more competitive racing because a fast car can’t run away from the pack. So now they race in tight bunches which leads to frequent (though rarely deadly) wrecks, which fans love. Drivers hate it.
Take another Republican issue, the “right to work.” In the early days, Big Bill intimidated drivers (sometimes with his pistol, it was said) who tried to unionize. These days, the France family uses more sophisticated corporate tactics, including what seems like favoritism to certain manufacturers and race teams — and a rule book so fluid everyone is always off-balance.
The joke goes that the Nascar rule book is written in pencil and no one has ever seen it. There actually are some rules, but the codicil to all of them — “except in rare instances” — gives officials the latitude to change technical specifications and racing regulations, thus keeping races exciting and competitive. Last week’s rule about gas-tank size, say, or post-accident procedures can be modified this week for reasons only conspiracy theorists claim to understand. Enforcement has often seemed arbitrary, not to say political. (It’s all a plan to let Dale, Jr. win, they whisper.)
I’ve always thought that Nascar’s wink-wink attitude toward such bad behavior as unnecessary bumping during a race and fist-fights afterward, as well as outright cheating, was another form of Republican-esque control.
Cheating has never been considered immoral or unethical in the sport. In fact, trying to bend the rules is expected as long as no one offers a direct challenge to the supreme authority of the France family. Tiny changes in the size of a gas tank, a shock absorber, or a restrictor-plate hole can win a race. There are constant technical inspections. Seized tampered parts are displayed in the garage area, where it’s fun to watch crew chiefs checking out the contraband for new ideas. Nascar rarely imposes real punishment, almost never on its stars.
And then there’s the media.
By tightly controlling access, Nascar has kept a lively, questioning motor-sports media at bay, White House style.
5. God and Guns
“This season has been a morale boost for our soldiers working both here and overseas and I expect we’ll have even more to cheer for in 2005.” — Lt. General Roger Schultz, Army National Guard.
At the finish, I think, it comes back to the difference that struck me at the start — my subjects knowing more people on active military duty than in same-sex relationships.
In Nascar, the gay issue is abstract and religious because there is no gay presence at the track. Evangelical Christian preachers follow Nascar like old-time circuit riders. They have their own double-wide trailers parked in the garage area, conducting prayer meetings and operating with the full cooperation and encouragement of the tracks. They minister in cases of death and injury, counsel couples, and offer drivers and crewmembers a place to talk about stress, addiction, and depression. Like cops and soldiers, Nascarites would prefer talking to the chaplain than to a shrink.
They have ethical discussions.
Jeff Gordon, whose first wife plastered psalms inside his car, once told me: “There is a fine line in our sport between trying to do the right thing and trying to do the competitive thing that puts you over the top to win. We’ve had a lot of conversations in our Bible studies about that. God wants us to do all of what we know in our abilities to win the race, but we all know in the back of our minds what wins a race in a way that you’ll feel proud and what wins a race in a way that you’re not very proud of.”
There is a starchy pride in Nascar, at least in the garage. Drive hard, finish the race, stand up like a man. Once they bought the WMDs and the need to oust Saddam, they accepted deployment. Military service ran in Nascar families.
All those brothers, sisters, cousins, and friends on active duty were making satellite calls and sending e-mails back to the garage. It was the citizens of Nascar Nation who knew first that the war on the ground was losing its wheels. And they were the first ones who raised money to buy armor for their kids’ Humvees in Iraq.
I wish I had been at Michigan Speedway two years ago when Greg Biffle won the GFS Marketplace 400 at Michigan Speedway in a car sponsored by the National Guard, which then decided to extend its Nascar enlistment for another season. Neither the Guard nor the Army, which also sponsors a car, would release figures. They say it comes out of an advertising budget of more than $500 million for all the services. The Marines and the Air Force have lesser Nascar deals. Painting your logo on just a lower rear quarter panel (behind the tire) goes for between $250,000 and one million.
How much armor would that buy?
When asked if Nascar advertising really drew recruits, Ike Shelton of Missouri, then the ranking Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, said “You will not find them at golf tournaments.”
Truth is, Nascar Dad, if he exists, also plays golf, watches the news and takes his time thinking through a problem — how you fix an engine, craft a race strategy. He came to realize, as a citizen of Nascar Nation, that pragmatism trumps ideology, if indeed there is ideology to begin with. And then he made the connection. In the same way Nascar gave us the sentimental patina of good old boy tradition, Christian morality, and all-American products while it was expanding into Mexico, courting Toyota and Jack Daniels, and selling out old Southern tracks to make room for major metro markets, the Republicans diverted us with clanging alerts about gay marriages, partial-birth abortions, and terrorists, while pumping up their profits.
The supposed lesson of this dog-eat-dog business is don’t get eaten, get better, because if you don’t it’s your own fault. None of that stick-and-ball welfare where baseball and football try to keep weak franchises afloat.
If you lose, it’s because you didn’t work hard enough.
You didn’t have enough faith.
Until this past race.
Robert Lipsyte, a former sports and city columnist of The New York Times, was a finalist for the 1992 Pulitzer Prize in commentary. He won an Emmy as host of “The Eleventh Hour,” a nightly public affairs show on WNET. He is most recently author of the Young Adult novel, Raiders Night. His website is Robertlipsyte.com.
Copyright 2006 Robert Lipsyte