Politics & Policy

Festival of The Car

On the track in Daytona.

Forty-one drivers, their crews and cars, and about 200,000 spectators will be getting after it for 500 miles this Sunday at Daytona. The gaudily painted cars will be running three wide through the high banks and, then, with the drivers flat-footing it all the way, will come screaming down the straights in a six-car draft at close to 200 mph while the faithful in the stands and the infield, fortified with beer and bar-b-cue, roar for their heroes to pour it on.

It is the opening of the new season for NASCAR, the fastest-growing American spectator sport.

Now, it takes a certain kind of sensibility to watch a bunch of cars turning left, real fast, all afternoon. A fan once told me that the secret to enjoying a NASCAR race was to learn how to cancel out the headaches. “Your beer and warm-sun headache can be just the thing,” she said, “to get rid of a killer engine-nose and gasoline-fumes headache.”

Worked for her, anyway.

Watching Daytona (or any other race) on television is pretty solid evidence that you have wasted your life. But Fox will be there, live, for all 500 miles and no telling how many yellow flags. For the uninitiated, those would be to slow things down after one of the inevitable crashes.

You don’t have to watch Dayton, however, to be a fan and to feel a kind of defiant gratitude for it. While it is dressed up like a sports event and competition, down deep Daytona is a great American festival celebrating the car.

Some Americans love cars down to their bones and some Americans are hostile to them. Daytona is for people who love cars; who think highways and speed mean freedom. Cars, to these people, are things of beauty and power. Sexual currents no doubt flow through these complicated feelings about the automobile. For these folks, life without cars would be a bleak and joyless thing.

And then, there are the people whose idea of a better world is one where we all ride the bus. They loathe cars the way English socialists like H. G. Wells hated horses. The car, to them, represents just about every corrupt aspect of American society and culture. In the 50s they objected to tail fins as the symbol of a doomed, affluent society. Ralph Nader made his bones as a killjoy, puritan, trial lawyer, and busybody by going after a car — in this case the Chevy Corvair. This instinctive hatred of cars has morphed, lately, into the “What would Jesus drive?” foolishness and the campaign to demonize SUVs. (Interesting the way some people can work up a hatred for inanimate objects like guns and SUVs. Seems almost pagan to attribute all these evil properties to dead iron.)

When these same people did manage to reconcile themselves to cars, it was with all the ardor of a good Victorian woman indulging in sex. They bit their lips and narrowed their eyes and tried to think of anything but pleasure when they contemplated owning and driving an automobile. So they settled on safety which accounts for the popularity of the Swedish Volvo — over-engineered and about as much fun to drive as a milk wagon, but oh-so safe. Volvo’s pride was that it was near indestructible in the inevitable collision with some filthy car. It was probably no coincidence that the oleaginous voiceover in those insufferable Volvo commercials peddling safety was done by Donald Southerland whose thinking probably hasn’t progressed much since he was doing the FTA tour with Jane Fonda.

If it wasn’t safety with these people, it was fuel economy. Cars burned gasoline — horrors — and this meant we had to deal with Arabs and oil companies and greenhouse gases. The less gasoline burned, the better. What we needed were cars that no one could love. Little, no-fun cars that could go coast to coast on a liter of Perrier.

But, in the end, these people would prefer a world of no-cars. There are no cars on Sesame Street. Cars are an individual thing — private transportation. Mobility for the common man. Among the many abiding American themes is the lure of the road. Read Kerouac’s On the Road and think Huck and Jim on the raft. Most Americans like the thought of being able to fill it up and take off, without permission, any time they want to, in a vehicle that would give Ms. Claybrook the vapors.

This is the culture that NASCAR has so successfully tapped into. A culture with mythic heroes from its frontier days — Richard Petty, Joe Weatherly, Curtis Turner, Junior Johnson. The roots of racing are in the moonshine business, which is almost philosophically appropriate. Junior Johnson took a lot more chances outrunning the revenuers than he ever did swapping paint with Fireball Roberts at places like Daytona, back when they still ran part of the race in the sand, on the actual, beach. Johnson did a stretch in prison but it sure wasn’t because some guv’mnt man ever caught him on the highway. That would never happen.

NASCAR has come a long way from its outlaw roots. But, then again, maybe not. The crowd that will be celebrating the rites at Daytona is descended from that anti-Puritan, fight-for-honor, get-drunk-and-howl-at-the-moon, sin-and-redemption strain of American history and won’t be thinking much about the lectures of Cotton Huffington when the voice comes over the loudspeaker Sunday afternoon with that wonderful invocation: Gentlemen, start your engines.

— Geoffrey Norman writes on sports for NRO and other publications.

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