Sunday, May 25, 2014

Memorial Day and NASCAR

This column appeared in a local paper years ago.  I thought when it came out that readers would be annoyed, but that wasn’t the case.  Surprisingly, it was a column on hockey that enraged people and earned me the most vitriolic emails I’ve every received.

Memorial Day weekend always makes me nostalgic.  The unofficial start of summer, it is also when the Indy 500 is run.  Growing up in Indiana, I was more familiar with the names Foyt and Andretti than Nixon and Carter.  It seemed every radio and television broadcast the race.  Even people who didn’t care tuned in as a type of patriotic duty.
            As a kid, I played with matchbox cars then graduated to hotwheels then slots.  I read all the books about racing in the school library (learning, for example, about Junior Johnson, the stock car legend that essayist Tom Wolfe called “The Last American Hero”).  I loved The Dukes of Hazzard and Burt Reynolds movies, and even now I hum the Smokey and the Bandit theme song occasionally.  I learned to drive at thirteen, got my license at fifteen, and had a car at sixteen.  By eighteen, I had earned a couple speeding tickets and smashed my mother’s Toyota into a telephone pole on a moonlit dirt road. 
            In short, I would seem to fit solidly within NASCAR’s target audience, but although I’ve tried, I just can’t get enthused about the sport.
            When I moved South, I discovered the newspaper was filled with racing articles.  I knew almost nothing about contemporary NASCAR, but I was willing to learn.  Soon, I could identify the jump-suited men shilling products from 7-Up to HMOs on the television.  I also could explain to my wife why people flew flags with numbers from their houses.
            A few times, I turned on a race.  I quickly realized, however, that the broadcasts jack up the sound effects to distract you from the fact that there is not much actual racing.  Tracks are so cramped, and cars are so fast that except for a few brief moments there can be little jockeying for position.  Drivers rely on pit stops and mechanical failures to advance their positions.  They don’t race as much as try to wait each other out.
            Often what they seem to be waiting for is a wreck, and, if you strap dozens of people into the equivalent of land-based rockets and send them hurtling together in circles, you’re pretty much guaranteed one.  I’m not sure why these are called “accidents” instead of “inevitables.”  The only surprising thing is that people are surprised when they occur. Yet, after each one, people vilify some mysterious entity called “NASCAR” as if the rules have been responsible.
            Why the bewilderment that drivers get hurt and die?  When I wrecked my mother’s car at roughly forty miles an hour, I walked away.  If I had been going 180, I would not have.  It’s physics.  If you really want to guarantee driver safety, take them out of the cars.  Give each one a remote control and put them in the stands.  They will still need superior reflexes.  They can still cover themselves in advertising.  They still will be putting their livelihoods on the line, but not, however, their lives.
            The irony of modern NASCAR is that the founders were outlaws, those moonshiners who needed souped-up cars to get away from the law, and now the sport endlessly focuses on regulations about restrictor plates, air flow, and technical measurements.  The bad boys have been replaced by rule sticklers and whiners. Perhaps it’s inevitable because of the money involved, but NASCAR doesn’t seem to be a sport as much as a marketing machine paid for by multinational corporations and selling a sanitized “rebel” image.  To be true to the heritage, let them race whatever they want.
            I read the articles in the paper because it’s like following soap opera storylines.  I also like being able to identity the cardboard figures in the beer aisle.  As for watching races, however, I’ll pass until someone tells me that Junior Johnson and Burt Reynolds are out on some old U.S. highway.

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