NASCAR — good clean fun, or the end of civilization as we know it?

Fancy hats are featured at Ascot & the Kentucky Derby. NASCAR race attendees typically display a bit more “imagination” (and remember: this man is someone’s son).

Reader Eliza Frye poses the question, “What is up with NASCAR, Randy?” Excellent question, Eliza, what with the NASCAR season opening this Sunday at Daytona and all.

First some basics. NASCAR stands for the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing. Founded by Bill France Sr. in 1947-1948 (either Bill made his initial move on December 31st, or he was a slow mover), today NASCAR is a family-owned and operated business venture that sanctions and governs multiple auto racing events across the USA and in a handful of other countries. Like European royalty and Massachusetts Democrats, NASCAR’s leadership has stayed firmly in the family fold — its present CEO, Brian France, is Bill Sr.’s grandson.

NASCAR’s origins are rooted in the bootlegging that took place in the Appalachian region during Prohibition. Distributors of moonshine favored small, fast, often heavily modified cars, capable of leaving the local cops in their dust as they raced through the hills and ‘hollers’ with their illicit merchandise. Dukes of Hazard was, it turns out, a PBS documentary.

Prohibition eventually ended, but the taste many Southerners had developed for souped-up cars and fast driving, with a chaser of moonshine, hadn’t. The seeds for NASCAR were sown.

Today NASCAR, according to, well, NASCAR, is the next most popular spectator sport in America, second only to NFL football (Republican primary debates would actually rank first, but apparently mumbling, lying, and engaging in petty bickering on national television is not considered a “sport” — at least not yet). According to France (that’s Brian, not the scum-suckin,’ snail-eatin,’ lilly-livered so-called country), fully 30% of Americans proudly proclaim themselves to be NASCAR fans.That’s a lot of people, most of them men.

While clearly a national and, marginally, an international phenomenon — there are NASCAR branch offices in Toronto and Mexico City) — NASCAR is a decidedly Southern deal — kind of like Kentucky Fried Chicken, or the increasing propensity of Americans from Seattle to Syracuse to say “y’all.” The company’s headquarters are located in Daytona, Florida, with major offices in Charlotte, Mooresville, Concord, and Conover. And yes, each of those cities shares two things in common: they all have NASCAR offices, and they’re all in North Carolina. In fact, all but a handful of NASCAR’s racing teams are also based in the Tar Heel State — you know, tar heel, as in that cheerful old Confederate Civil War description of troops from North Carolina — “they stuck to their ranks like they had tar on their heels.”

NASCAR over the years has become synonymous with what some refer to as “the dumbing down of America.” As the international stature of the U.S. has slid, graduation rates among American men have fallen, and numbers of men crowding into American prisons steadily increased, NASCAR has prospered, these cynics point out.

Hey, it could be worse — they could be in jail.

Hardcore NASCAR fans (and according to Mr. France there are roughly 75 million of them) may not recall their children’s birthdays, but have memorized every NASCAR driver and their car numbers. They may not be able to read The Richard Petty Story (Petty is a fabled NASCAR driver with a troubling mustache and an unfortunate taste in headgear ), but they sure do like the pictures.

And that, Eliza, hints I think at why NASCAR is so popular among so many men out there today (and, to be fair, more than a handful of women — there’s even a female NASCAR driver this year, Dana Patrick, leaving many NASCAR men torn — on the one hand, Patrick is a woman, for God’s sake; on the other, well, see for yourself)…

Dana Patrick, and a car.

The point is that, in the end, NASCAR racing is simple. Scarey, stupid-fast, but simple. You point your car, mash your foot down on the accelerator pedal, and give ‘er. Around and around in a big circle. It’s kind of like being at home — if “home” includes the smells of gasoline, burning rubber, BBQ, and lots of spilled beer — with the added attractions of (a) the very real possibility of mayhem (mayhem of the best sort, that is, mayhem visited on others, chiefly the unfortunate drivers who have been killed or maimed over the years in NASCAR events — as far as I know, no NASCAR fan has ever bitten the Big One at a race, although things can get a little chippy among the RVs in the infield after 200 laps and too many Buds), and (b) camaraderie — as in the Randy Newman line from the song Rednecks — a place where “everyone looks just like me.”And when you look like the gentleman in the photo at the top of this article, that’s extremely comforting.

I could go on, Eliza, but I think this provides you with at least the beginnings of an answer to your excellent question. I hope it heightens your enjoyment as you tuck into that bag of Doritos, pop a cool one, flip on the ol’ tube, settle down on that couch in the garage, and watch this Sunday’s Daytona 500.

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