Apr/May 2010

Sunday Driving

NASCAR outgrew its rebel roots but kept its southern charm

Clay Risen


NASCAR, the nation's premier stock-car racing circuit, draws an average of seventy-five million TV viewers a year, a third of the US adult population and second among sports only to professional football. Though its roots lie in the Piedmont South, today it draws fans from across the country, and its demographics match up closely with the population at large—middle-class, educated, and surprisingly racially diverse. NASCAR the corporation, owned and operated by the heirs of its founder, William "Big Bill" France, is a slick and efficient multinational operation, generating billions of dollars a year in merchandising, ticket sales, and TV contracts, while its top drivers garner eight-figure salaries from winnings and endorsements.

This hasn't always been the case. Pioneered by bootleggers and shade-tree mechanics, stock-car racing was long a sport exclusive to the rural, southern working class. Races took place on red-clay tracks, and the cars were often the same ones drivers had used to haul moonshine the night before, with few modifications save for wider intake valves. Early drivers were famous womanizers and drinkers; one, Buddy Shuman, told a reporter, "Ma'am, I just take 'er down the straightaway. 'Lord Calvert' takes her through the turns." The closest they came to a uniform was boat shoes, Bermuda shorts, and, on occasion, a shirt. Nor was safety much of a concern—1950s champion Tim Flock drove with a pet monkey named Jocko Flocko riding shotgun. Drivers made hardly enough to cover their expenses, let alone provide for a family. NASCAR was a sport, but it was hardly professional.

By the 1970s, however, the outlaw image was rapidly giving way to that of a hyper-corporate, high-budget enterprise. NASCAR burst into the mainstream with the first-ever live telecast of the Daytona 500 in February 1979, which drew a nationwide viewership of ten million people—an astounding debut chronicled in Mark Bechtel's He Crashed Me so I Crashed Him Back. That number resulted from a bit of luck: Many of those ten million were housebound by one of the worst snowstorms in American history. Nevertheless, hundreds of thousands of new fans were hooked; within a few years, NASCAR was a staple of weekend sports programming, and race attendance outside the South skyrocketed.

But NASCAR didn't emerge on the national scene simply because of its fast cars and fiery crashes. It was just as much a result of what historians alternately call "the Southernization of America" and "the Americanization of the South"—in either case, the period, beginning in the early '70s, when the booming southern economy brought the region's political and cultural values into close contact with those of the rest of the country. To understand NASCAR, in other words, you have to understand the meteoric rise of the American South itself over the past half century.

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The feverish early years of NASCAR were dominated by the ambition of one man, Big Bill France. An itinerant mechanic who landed in Florida in the 1930s, France fell in with the burgeoning sand-track racing scene along Daytona Beach. In the early days, France was a racer and owner, as Daniel Pierce explains in his fascinating history of the era, Real NASCAR, but France soon realized the big money was in promotion and consolidation. Like Shuman, Flock, and hundreds of other drivers, he loved the thrill of the hairpin turn, but unlike them, he had a dream: to transform stock-car racing into a big-budget national sport. France's first step involved the creation, in 1948, of the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing, a for-profit company that would oversee racing series, sanction tracks and drivers, and promote the sport nationwide. Drivers were free to race elsewhere, but France made it clear that staying in his good graces meant staying loyal to the brand—and since France had the best brand around, that meant an informal monopoly.

By the 1960s France had expanded his empire of asphalt ovals—some of which he owned in part or in whole—across the South, and he persistently courted sponsorship from Detroit. (Managers at the Big Three were impressed by his successful routing of two efforts to unionize drivers.) Though the sponsorship commitments from automakers ebbed and flowed, the Big Three understood the brand loyalty that NASCAR fandom engendered; not for nothing did the sales crews at affiliated dealerships adopt the mantra "Win on Sunday, sell on Monday." The carmakers weren't the only big business getting into NASCAR—corporate ownership of racing teams transformed the sport in the '60s and '70s, giving drivers the money to buy better and better equipment, while shutting out the independent (i.e., self-funded) drivers who relied more on guts and skill than on pricy technology to win races.

France struggled to wash the sport of bootlegging and hell-raising. He encouraged a new generation of drivers: telegenic, well-spoken, and above all sober (at least on the speedway)—men like Richard Petty, Glenn "Fireball" Roberts, and Ned Jarrett. "Now that the sport has grown into the South's top year-around spectator attraction a heavy foot is not the only requisite for stardom," wrote a racing journalist in 1963. "It takes money to keep a race car going and the men who sponsor the machines are looking for skilled leaders mechanically and clean men competitively and personally."

"Personally clean" meant more than just sober driving. Pierce explains how France was reaching out to a broader swath of southerners, first and foremost religious conservatives. Preachers had long frowned on the sport's rebellious ways (and not only because most events took place on Sunday), occasionally forming antiracing associations and pressuring local tracks to ban stock-car competitions. By the mid-'60s, though, NASCAR was taking on a holier hue, with Jarrett and other drivers publicly crediting prayer and God for their wins. Everett "Cotton" Owens gave 10 percent of his winnings to his church. Melding Sunday worship with Sunday fun, France soon had pastors offering invocations before each race.

France wasn't a puritan, though. He understood that the fan base loved NASCAR precisely because of its amateur roots. He would sometimes make a show of disciplining a rowdy driver with a hefty fine, then quietly work out a deal to give most of the money back. "France knew he had to do something to counter the impression that he was running an anarchic sport," Bechtel writes, "without completely discouraging future acts of lawlessness that might land his drivers' faces on the front page of a sports section or two."

France's next move was to leverage his company's budding economic and cultural power to build a string of customized stock-car superspeedways across the South, venues that could stand beside the grandest of football stadiums and baseball fields in comfort, capacity, and amenities. His decision to lay down a massive track on an abandoned airfield in the tiny town of Talladega, Alabama, in 1965 was a businessman's masterpiece. France had a way with geography, and he quickly realized that while few people lived in Talladega, fifteen million lived within a three-hundred-mile radius, which encompassed Atlanta; Birmingham, Alabama; and Chattanooga, Tennessee.

France made fast friends with Governor George Wallace, with the implicit promise that state assistance with the track would buy France's—and NASCAR's—endorsement in Wallace's 1968 presidential run. The track opened in 1969, with finely calibrated turns allowing two-hundred-mile-per-hour speeds. Surprisingly, independent driver Richard Brickhouse won the first race, though many of the top drivers were boycotting over another labor dispute (France won that one, too).

NASCAR's great '70s growth spurt is the pivotal moment for Bechtel, a veteran racing journalist and editor for Sports Illustrated. Bechtel writes with the racing addict in mind, to a fault—he often fails to explain key concepts, and he washes his prose with a thick fanboy lather. Oddly, Real NASCAR, written by an academic historian and published by an academic press, is a much more engaging read, at least for anyone not yet enthralled with the sport. Nevertheless, the two books make a nice pair, since Pierce's ends in the early '70s, right before Bechtel's begins.

Both writers emphasize the lucky coincidence that NASCAR reached maturity just as the South, thanks to its exploding economy and rapidly growing population, was moving toward the center of American culture. Cowboy hats and boots were in. Slickly produced country music from the likes of Ronnie Milsap and Dolly Parton was gaining adherents from Los Angeles to Maine, while shows like The Dukes of Hazzard and Dallas brought competing images of the South—bucolic versus big business—to national audiences. In 1976, the country elected president a peanut farmer–turned–Georgia governor; a few years later, Jimmy Carter invited leading drivers to a White House reception. By 1979, writes Bechtel, "the world was finally ready for NASCAR."

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NASCAR has come a long way in a bit more than sixty years. Drivers race on tracks from Staten Island to Sonoma, California, and they hail from Italy to Colombia. The chef Mario Batali has a special line of NASCAR-branded sauces. The days when a good driver and a talented mechanic could turn a car fresh off the lot into a racing machine are long gone; today, a car costs about $125,000 to build. And whatever role bootlegging played in the sport's early years—and both Bechtel and Pierce argue that the driving skills of moonshine runners were a critical part of NASCAR's development—is almost forgotten.

What had been a largely white working-class fan base now closely tracks national demographics: About 60 percent of NASCAR fans have some college education, about 74 percent own their own homes, about 40 percent earn household incomes above $50,000 a year, and about 25 percent are minorities. "Much of the history of Piedmont stock car racing and NASCAR itself, like the history of the modern South, has been about joining the mainstream, transcending roots, and gaining both respectability and national recognition," writes Pierce.

Yet NASCAR's image remains undeniably red, both in political hue and in skin tone around the neck. At least since Big Bill France sided with Wallace in the 1968 election, it has been closely tied to conservative politics and culture. In his conclusion, Pierce recounts going to a recent race: "The crowd rose and a pastor delivered an invocation. After the invocation, Lee Greenwood sang 'God Bless the U.S.A.'—I cannot count the number of races I have been to where Greenwood sang this song—and the national anthem, and the fans roared their approval of an earsplitting flyover of air force jets in tight formation." A peace rally this was not.

NASCAR's split personality reflects the duality of the modern South. As University of Georgia historian James Cobb has documented, the region is one of the world's most economically vibrant—its $2.5 trillion GDP ranks it first in the Bureau of Economic Analysis's breakdown of eight American regions and would, if it were an independent country, make it the seventh-largest economy in the world. The region is dominated by foreign-owned high-tech factories and has a rapidly growing, diverse foreign-born population—not for nothing did Nissan move its North American headquarters from Gardena, California, to the suburbs of Nashville.

Pierce's claim notwithstanding, and despite its economic importance, the South is moving politically and culturally further from the American mainstream. Outside of a few border states and urban districts, conservative Republicans rule the roost, competing among themselves to promise the lowest taxes and weakest gun laws and to sling the bloodiest antiterrorist rhetoric and holiest attacks on the separation of church and state. A mid-2009 survey found that 53 percent of southerners were not sure Obama was born in the United States, while polls show that both Sarah Palin and the Tea Party movement draw their base support from the region. The South has always been a bit backward in its worldview, but one would expect change in the economy to effect change in political and social views as well.

Platoons of political scientists have spent decades trying to solve this paradox, but NASCAR provides insight into one possible answer. The South is perhaps the world's first vibrant postindustrial economy, built on service industries and rigidly open-shop corporations that promote the illusion of class fluidity (and thus the appeal of low taxes on the rich) and fuel dizzyingly rapid social change. Money flows, but job security is weak, forcing families to move frequently in search of work. For many, the easy answer is to reach back to tradition and faith, to the idea of a simpler time in which families stayed together and were rooted in place and status.

The American South is hardly unique in its scale of displacement. But the rapidity of its growth, combined with its lack of an intervening period of industrialization, combined with the strength of its historical memory, makes for a particularly compelling—and at times reactionary—brand of nostalgia that seeps into politics, culture, and, most of all, recreation. As Pierce and Bechtel show, the same is true of NASCAR. It has come far from its mud-flecked roots, but its fans, having come just as far, are loath to wash off all the dirt—it gives them a comforting reminder of down home, regardless of whether that's where they actually came from.

Clay Risen is an editor of the op-ed page of the New York Times.

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