Forget about the Soccer Mom, object of obsessive interest to political strategists in the last two presidential elections. Two election cycles is as much concentrated attention as a voter bloc can expect to get in these fast-changing times. The candidates of 2004 have fixed their sights on a new quarry: the NASCAR Dad. So, at any rate, we are told by Democratic pollster Celinda Lake, who coined the term. A NASCAR Dad is a rural or small-town voter, most likely white and living in the South. Once upon a time he was a reliable Democrat, but he has been voting steadily Republican in recent elections for "cultural" reasons — reasons having to do with guns, religion, patriotism, and lifestyle. What, exactly, is his connection with NASCAR — the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing? In the hope of finding out, I recently attended a major NASCAR event at the Talladega track in Alabama. Before I report on what I found, here is some background on the sport NASCAR represents.
The term "stock car" refers to a street automobile from a dealer's stock, the kind you and I drive, as opposed to the custom-built pod-and-strut mutants you see in Formula One racing. When ordinary citizens began to purchase automobiles in large numbers in the 1930s and 1940s, some of them were taken with the urge to race against other drivers on unpaved local dirt tracks. Spectators assembled to watch. Drivers tinkered with their engines to give them more speed. This was happening all over the country by the late 1940s, when NASCAR was founded, but it was happening much more in the South than elsewhere. Wherever it happened, though, it was from the beginning mainly a working-class interest, taken up by young men who liked fiddling with automobiles and exhibiting physical courage among their peers.
A notable early attempt to bring stock-car racing to wider attention was Tom Wolfe's long article "The Last American Hero" in the March 1965 issue of Esquire. Wolfe's subject was Junior Johnson, who raced from 1953 to 1966, and was thereafter involved in the sport as an owner until 1995. One of stock-car racing's early superstars, Johnson had perfected his skills by working as a driver for his father's moonshine business in the Appalachian foothills, racing along remote country roads by night to outwit the "revenuers" — agents of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. Johnson Senior was one of the biggest operators of illegal whiskey stills in the South.
Tom Wolfe had no difficulty getting some color out of Junior Johnson and his neighbors in Wilkes County, N.C. While insisting that "very few grits, Iron Boy overalls, clodhoppers or hats with ventilation holes up near the crown enter into this story," Wolfe nonetheless managed to leave his readers with the impression that stock-car racing was a sport favored pretty exclusively by white Southern rustics — the kind of people who keep coon dogs and, in common with the late Hank Williams, believe that "hill" rhymes with "real." Junior Johnson's own take on the episode was of course from the other side of the cultural divide: "That Wolfe guy was something else. He showed up down here in Wilkes County talkin' funny with a New York accent [Wolfe is from Virginia], and wearin' fancy clothes."
Officials of NASCAR nowadays wince at this Southern-rustic image. Stock-car racing is, they insist, a sport for everyone, an inclusive sport, a family sport. For 30 years they have been trying to shake off those connotations of liquor-running good ol' boys and big-haired women. They have had some success in spreading interest around the country, but they have not yet persuaded America's cognitive elites to take stock-car racing seriously. This was apparent in February 2001, when NASCAR superstar Dale Earnhardt was killed in a crash at the Daytona 500. Earnhardt was mourned extravagantly by millions of racing fans. Meanwhile, from executive suites and faculty common rooms, from the wood-paneled corridors of prestigious law firms, from the bustling, "diversity"-obsessed editorial offices of broadsheet newspapers and network-TV newsrooms, rose the plaintive cry: "Dale who?"
Yet if you look at the numbers, this is not a minor sport. NASCAR's Winston Cup, the biggest of the three "major league" series in the stock-car-racing calendar, drew 6.7 million ticketed spectators for 36 events last year, an average of 186,000 per event. By way of comparison, paid attendance for the NFL in 2002 averaged 66,000 per event, for major league baseball 28,000, for NBA basketball 17,000. TV viewership for a NASCAR race runs around 15 to 20 million, the same as for many major-league baseball playoff games.
What is it that all these people are watching? What's the appeal? There must be some deep desire in the human psyche to watch human beings race vehicles round a circuit. Chariot races were, after all, an obsession of both the Romans and the Byzantines. I went to Alabama seeking enlightenment.
Your first impression of Talladega speedway is of sheer size. The track is an approximate oval, with grandstands at both the long sides. Seen from one grandstand, the opposite one seems to shimmer in the misty distance. It is in fact only three-fifths of a mile away, but appears farther because of the haze generated by huge quantities of traffic all around, and by barbecue grills on the infield. Oh, the infield — I had better explain about the Talladega infield.
The infield — 212 acres at Talladega — is the interior of the oval. You get to it by driving through one of three tunnels under the track. Much of the infield is taken up with maintenance areas, garages, administrative buildings, and access roads, but the remainder — around 120 acres — is available to fans. And here they are, the hard core of stock-car-racing fandom. And here are their vehicles: Your second impression of the speedway is that you have never in your life seen so many RVs (that is, recreational vehicles, campers) all in one place. The infield fan areas are filled with folk who arrive typically a day or two before the big race and just camp out there in the infield. Some of the RVs are improvised. One popular model consists of an old school bus painted some improbable color, with metal railings welded around the roof so the occupants can stand up there to watch the race.
NASCAR's attempts to Disneyfy their sport have made little headway in the Talladega infield. The crowd is noisy and beery. They wear denim shorts and T-shirts, baseball caps or bandannas. I see a lot of tattoos and a lot of Confederate flags, though far more Old Glories (always flown above the Stars'n'Bars when both are on display). The track's security people inspect the interior of each vehicle before allowing it to park, and I was told it has been "some years" since there was a shooting on the infield, but things still get rowdy, particularly the night before a big race. (Among the track's other administrative facilities is a small jail.) Rowdy, and raunchy too: The Mardi Gras custom of beads for skin (you give the lady a string of beads, she briefly exposes her chest) has come up to Talladega, and it is common to see girls with several strings of beads round their necks — although, as one of my NASCAR minders noted wistfully, "The girls you'd like to see doing it aren't the ones doing it."
I watched the first few minutes of the race from the infield, near the starting line. The 43 competing vehicles circle the track slowly, two by two, behind a pace car. Each car's position in line has been determined by pre-race qualifying laps. As they come to the starting line, the pace car pulls off the track, a green flag is waved, and the drivers throttle up to full power. Everyone had told me that this is the most thrilling moment of a race, and they did not lie. That mighty surge of engines, the even mightier roar of the crowd, the smell of gasoline and rubber, all combine into an extraordinary sensory experience. What follows is necessarily something of an anticlimax, especially as it goes on for three hours or more. The lead cars tend to form a large "pack," so you get a small reprise of that starting thrill each time the pack passes your viewing point, but after half an hour or so, as the faster cars lapped the slower ones, I lost track of who was leading.
I wandered down to the pit area. Cars need to be refueled at several points in a 500-mile race, and wheels need to be changed. A driver loses position when he makes a pit stop, of course, and part of the strategy of racing — there is a great deal of strategy in this sport — is judging the best time to make your stops. The pit work is done with terrific dispatch, by teams who practice endlessly at shaving tenths of a second off their turnaround time. The team I watched — it was driver Bill Elliott's — changed four wheels and refueled the car all in less than 15 seconds. They have a trick of pre-fixing the lugs in place on the replacement wheels with an elastic cement. Then, when the old wheel is off, on goes the new one, bang!, and the power wrench secures the lugs, DZ!-DZ!-DZ!-DZ!-DZ! "Slicker 'n snot on a doorknob," pronounced the team leader with satisfaction as Elliott vroomed away.
Up close the cars look surprisingly small and flimsy. Their "stock" nature is, at this point in the evolution of the sport, highly theoretical. Eligible models in the Winston Cup series are the Chevy Monte Carlo, Pontiac Grand Prix, Ford Taurus, and Dodge Intrepid, but none of the cars I saw bore much resemblance to the street models of those marques. None of their side bodywork panels paused to include a door, for instance; the driver climbs in and out through his side window (which has no glass). An owner I spoke with, who had a Monte Carlo entered in the race, described to me in loving detail how his mechanics hand-tool all the car parts in his 75,000-square-foot machine shop. I interrupted him to ask: "You hand-make everything? So where, exactly, does Chevrolet come in?" He looked a little flustered. "Oh, you know, they supply some parts … the chassis design …"
It is commonly said that car-racing fans go to the track in the hope of seeing a grisly crash. From my own encounters with fans on the infield and in the stands, I don't believe this. Aside from the sensory thrills of speed and noise, and the rude social pleasures of the infield, the main appeal of the sport, for most fans, lies in rooting for their favorite drivers. Each one has some points of character, personal history, or driving style that endear him to, or repel, some section of the fan base. A few are wildly popular with practically everyone: Dale Earnhardt Sr. was, and his son, Dale Jr., now is. ("On account of his daddy," a lady fan in the stands said fondly when I asked why.) A few are widely disliked. Kurt Busch, a fast-rising young star known for … unorthodox driving tactics, is a villain to traditionalists, and to the kind of Southerner who believes in maintaining the exquisite manners of the region even when you are trying to kill someone. When the drivers were individually announced during the pre-race proceedings at Talladega, his name was greeted with a great outbreak of booing from the fans.
What then of those stereotypes the NASCAR suits so strenuously try to distance themselves from? The Southern bias, for example? Since Talladega, smack plumb in the heart of the Heart of Dixie, is the only track I have ever been to, my personal experience of the sport has not been well balanced, and I shall dutifully report that you can attend a stock-car race in any part of the country. There are major tracks in California, Kansas, and New Hampshire. The mathematician in me wants to check the numbers, though, and the numbers suggest the following broad truth: Half of this sport belongs to the South, while the other half is spread out among all the rest of us.
Take the location of tracks, for example. Defining the South to be the old Confederacy plus Kentucky, of the 21 major tracks (not counting road courses) in the U.S., 11 are in the South. These Southern tracks have 15.4 of the available 32 miles of roadway and 1.31 million of the total 2.46 million grandstand seats. Over a half, nearly a half, and over a half. It is the same with the 43 drivers at Talladega: I tallied 21 drivers from the South; the next biggest regional group was from the Midwest, with 11 drivers.
Every one of these 43 drivers, by the way, was a white male. None had a Hispanic surname, though Christian Fittipaldi is from São Paulo, Brazil. The median age of the drivers was over 39 — older than I would have expected. Every one older than 34 was married, with a median 3.5 children.
The Southernness, whiteness, maleness, and (though I am going out on a limb here) heterosexuality of the sport offer obvious openings to PC inquisitors. Last June, for example, a board member of Jesse Jackson's Rainbow/PUSH operation told reporters that stock-car racing is "the last bastion of white supremacy." This was a counterstrike in a campaign by Jackson's critics to get NASCAR to stop contributing to Rainbow/PUSH, on the grounds that the funds end up mostly in the pockets of Jackson, his relatives, and his mistresses. The campaign was eventually successful and NASCAR stopped their contributions. In the conversations I had at Talladega, fan approval was unanimous.
There was nothing racist about that approval, though. Among the celebrities introduced onstage during the pre-game show at Talladega were the current Miss America and football great Reggie White, both black. They were cheered as loudly as anyone — Reggie White especially so, for having taken a strong anti-Jackson line in the summer's controversy. It is true that NASCAR fans are overwhelmingly white, but they have nothing against black people. It is only that, like much of the rest of the country, they are sick of the racial-guilt industry, and most particularly of Jesse Jackson and his self-enriching shakedown schemes. And although NASCAR has cut the tie with Jackson, it maintains a busy program of "diversity internships" for minority college students.
The reason for the paucity of black drivers and owners — there are a handful — is captured by Adam Bellow in his book In Praise of Nepotism: "In auto racing, an equipment-intensive sport with a high financial barrier to entry, it pays to have family connections." In fact, the NASCAR personnel database reads like the First Book of Chronicles, with drivers begetting drivers and owners in apparently endless succession.
The social appeal of stock-car racing is wider than it used to be, and getting still wider, with college logos now featuring among the ads that festoon race-car bodywork. A sport built around such a strong network of family connections is, however, going to grow away from its roots only very gradually. This remains a conservative sport. That does not mean, of course, that its fan base can be guaranteed to vote for conservatives. The folk I mingled with at Talladega the other day were still largely working- and lower-middle-class. If they were to lose their jobs in a major recession, they would not stop to ask whether the president in charge at the time called himself a conservative or a liberal. Likewise, while they will cheer on their commander in chief if he pursues a determined war against our nation's enemies, they will not long tolerate U.S. fatalities in a drawn-out politicized conflict where vigorous action is restrained by deference to the opinions of foreigner hecklers or self-anointed domestic elites.
I am going to leave it to professional analysts to decide whether NASCAR Dads will be decisive in the 2004 elections, and just register the following impression that I brought away from Talladega with me: Whoever comes into stock-car racing, whether as driver, or owner, or fan, or political pollster, or just inquisitive outsider, will find a sport in which physical courage is admired, family bonds are treasured, the nation's flag is honored, and the proper point of balance between courteous restraint and necessary aggression is constantly debated. I greatly enjoyed my day at the races. If NASCAR fans really do form a voting bloc, I would much rather they were on my side than on the other. I am glad to have made the acquaintance of a thrilling, noisy, colorful, commercial, very American sport.