They ran the Daytona 500 last Sunday afternoon and the New York Times even covered it. It was not so long ago that the Times would have considered stock-car racing unworthy of its attention; but there is no denying NASCAR these days. The Daytona race–broadcast on Fox–pulled higher ratings than the NBA all-star game. What was once the pastime of moonshine-running rednecks has gone mainstream. NASCAR is even listed on the New York Stock exchange.
As they say in the south, “Son, we ain’t trash no more.”
NASCAR has every other sport beat cold when it comes to sponsorship, and the top-finishing cars on Sunday were fast-hauling billboards for, among others, Home Depot, Budweiser, and Viagra. Red Man chewing tobacco can’t play in that league. NASCAR holds its annual awards dinner at the Waldorf these days and it is a formal affair. Tuxedo time, no hitch-up overalls.
This is all the culmination of trends that started long ago, when the south began to shed its old poor, proud, violent, and resentful identity and became part of a new place called the Sun Belt. The early NASCAR drivers were moonshine haulers. One of the very best, Junior Johnson, got caught tending a still and did a stretch in the steel city. He also went on to become one of the most successful team owners in NASCAR history and richer, probably, than if his name had been Jack Daniels. The state of North Carolina recently honored Johnson by naming a piece of highway after him. Same stretch he used to haul liquor down at night, with his foot to the floor and the headlights off.
In the very early days of NASCAR some drivers raced in the family car, the same one the wife used to get the groceries. When they said “stock car” what they meant was…”stock car.” When one driver blew an engine in practice, he famously pulled the engine from his tow truck, put it in his race car, and kept on running.
Sunday’s winner, Jeff Gordon, is a long way from drivers like Curtis Turner, who drank as hard as he drove; a certain kind of fundamentalist NASCAR fan is unlikely to ever accept Gordon as authentic. Still, even that fan will have to admit that Gordon can flat drive a car. This is the third time he’s won the biggest of the NASCAR races. Still, he looks like he could be a stockbroker–and worse, he talks like it too. As much as Gordon is a killer on the track, he is a choir boy off of it. It is the image NASCAR wants these days, but it ain’t the same.
But as prosperous and polished as NASCAR has become, one thing hasn’t changed. It is a celebration of cars by people who are crazy about cars. In the NASCAR view of the world, the automobile is the ultimate in liberating, empowering, seductive technology.
This puts it decisively on one side of the great cultural divide. While new NASCAR tracks in places like California (where they are racing this weekend) are taking action away from the legendary old venues like Darlington, South Carolina, the sport is still red-state to its roots. Stock-car racing comes from a world of mechanics and boys who grew up learning how to use a timing light and fine tune a carburetor by the sound. Cars were their passion.
On the other side of the divide people are hostile to cars. They may own cars–even expensive ones–but they sure don’t love them. Their signature automobile is the Volvo, first choice of people who hate cars or consider them at best a necessarily evil. Mass transit is the mantra of these people. They want fewer cars, less powerful cars, safer cars, and cars with no trace of sex appeal.
This is the cold, Puritan side of the American character and it disdains its exuberant frontier opposite. One set of folks gets its kicks listening to Ralph Nader make humorless speeches; the other would rather watch Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Tony Stewart swap paint.
This moment in history seems to favor NASCAR over old Ralph and his dour vision of things. The television ratings for the Dayonta 500 were so robust that there is talk of moving the later laps of next year’s race into prime time. Ralph, meanwhile, will be over on CSPAN preaching gloom and austerity.
This Sunday and pretty much every weekend until around Thanksgiving, NASCAR will be running somewhere and millions of fans will be watching Gordon and Little E and the rest of them burning gas and rubber, getting into the wall and each other. There will also be a certain amount of beer drinking and howling at the moon.
You either understand or you don’t. You love it or you don’t. One suspects that Howard Dean doesn’t. And never will.
–Geoffrey Norman writes on sports for NRO and other publications.