3. What's the Matter with Nascar?
"People do not necessarily vote in their self-interest. They vote their identity. They vote their values." --George Lakoff in Don't Think of an Elephant
I was an accidental gearhead. In 2000, Neil Amdur, the Times's sports editor, had cool-spotted stock car racing as the next major-league entertainment. Just at that moment, I was looking to let some fresh air into my weekly column. As we planned it, I would drop into Nascar from time to time, a dilettante anthropologist. Then Earnhardt crashed and I was suddenly the department's leading expert on the new century's hot sport.
Most of the people I spent time with over the next few years were white Christian men with rural roots. Once I got a few rules of the road under my belt--drink beer, not wine; never underestimate their intelligence or sensitivity to slight; and be totally honest about my own lack of car sense--it was the best time I had as a sportswriter. They were eager to help me understand their sport. This included not only hilarious nights of eating catfish with sides of raffish tales, but a window onto an America I had not known and, most memorably, a chance to drive a stock car at about 135 miles per hour. Those sixteen laps around Lowe's Motor Speedway in Charlotte (cleared of all other cars for obvious reasons) were the only time in my life I did not have a single extraneous thought. When it was over, I brimmed with admiration for Nascar drivers who drove fifty miles per hour faster, while being rubbed and bumped by forty other cars.
I also appreciated the passion of their fans who clearly understood the realness of this sport, its danger, its demands for concentration and skill, and--compared to the insecure faux macho of so many "stick-and-ballers"--its...manliness.
It's part of the Nascar deal for drivers to attend sponsors' and car manufacturers' breakfasts, trade shows, and customer parties, even on race days, and those who do it well can extend a mediocre career. So they interact with their fans far more than any other athletes and are always saying how "grateful" they are to them.
They should be. Nascar fans shop against their best interests so they can remain loyal to the sponsor of a driver they root for. They understand, they'll say, that the main sponsor's annual infusion of $15 million or so is what makes their favorite car go.
One fan actually told me: "My husband buys Tide even when it's more expensive than Wisk because he likes the driver Ricky Craven. We have friends who don't like Bud but drink it because of Dale, Jr. When my Sprint contract is up, I'll probably switch to Nextel." (This was before the merger.)
It gets worse. Pfizer, which sponsored the Viagra car, used to set up a tent at racetracks offering blood and urine exams by local doctors for diabetes and other disorders. I sat in one day and was amazed at the number of overweight men and women with dangerously high glucose and blood pressure levels. For many of them, this was their only medical exam of the year. Some said they had made a choice between their medicine and their grandstand tickets. "Why live if you can't go racin'?" was the way they'd put it.
Some of the Pfizer docs thought that they were making an understandable--if regrettable--"quality of life" decision.
Those grateful drivers don't have to make quite the same decisions. Unlike most other athletes, they sound like their fans, they even look like their fans, who use words like "modest" and "humble" to describe them. But after the race is over, while fans wait hours in monster traffic jams to leave the track, the drivers typically chopper to the airport where they fly their own jets home to backyard airplane hangars in gated communities. Their neighbors tend to be corporate executives.
4. Nascarizing Politics, Politicizing Nascar
"In an unsettled economy such as this one there will be even more of a disparity between the richer teams, which typically dominate victory lane, and all the others."--Geoff Smith, president of Roush Racing
Like the GOP, Nascar could crack wide open, and knows it. Both are ripe for breakaways. This is the main reason why the France family recently capped at three the number of cars a racing team could run in its premier series, the Nextel Cup. Too powerful a team, besides destabilizing Nascar's idea of competitive balance, could also make demands, using as leverage the threat of starting a competing racing league.
A Brand New Party to rival the Grand Old Party? The threat may be more real for Nascar, which owns twelve of the twenty-two tracks on which it holds races. Most of the others are owned by rival Speedway Motorsports, Inc., parent company of Texas Speedway, which was behind a recent lawsuit aimed at forcing Nascar to let it stage not just one but two of the 36 annual Nextel Cup races.
Nascar finessed the problem, but in so doing looked--to many traditionalists--pragmatic to the point of hypocrisy. Nascar sold one of its most storied raceways, Rockingham in North Carolina, to Texas Speedway for $100 million. Texas had little interest in the real estate, but could now take over Rockingham's Nextel Cup date and have its two races.
Like any good autocracy, the France family has often subordinated the best interests of individuals to its own control and for the sake of "growing" the sport.
Take a fine Republican issue like safety regulations--or the lack of.
Driver safety didn't become a discussable issue until after Earnhardt's death. Drivers, long in denial, suddenly realized that if Old Ironhead could buy it, so could they. Until that time, few wore the head-and-neck supports that are now standard. And, believe it or not, wearing helmets was not mandatory then (although all did).
Now, Nascar is finally developing "soft" walls and making a greater effort to supervise recovery from concussions and other injuries that drivers once tended to disregard.
At the bigger speedways, where it's possible to race at more than 200 miles per hour, the specter of cars flying off the track and into the grandstand led to the invention of the "restrictor plate," a piece of aluminum with small holes that limits the fuel-air mixture entering the carburetor. In effect, it slows down the car. It also means closer, more competitive racing because a fast car can't run away from the pack. So now they race in tight bunches which leads to frequent (though rarely deadly) wrecks, which fans love. Drivers hate it.
Take another Republican issue, the "right to work." In the early days, Big Bill intimidated drivers (sometimes with his pistol, it was said) who tried to unionize. These days, the France family uses more sophisticated corporate tactics, including what seems like favoritism to certain manufacturers and race teams--and a rule book so fluid everyone is always off-balance.
The joke goes that the Nascar rule book is written in pencil and no one has ever seen it. There actually are some rules, but the codicil to all of them--"except in rare instances"--gives officials the latitude to change technical specifications and racing regulations, thus keeping races exciting and competitive. Last week's rule about gas-tank size, say, or post-accident procedures can be modified this week for reasons only conspiracy theorists claim to understand. Enforcement has often seemed arbitrary, not to say political. (It's all a plan to let Dale, Jr. win, they whisper.)
I've always thought that Nascar's wink-wink attitude toward such bad behavior as unnecessary bumping during a race and fist-fights afterward, as well as outright cheating, was another form of Republican-esque control.
Cheating has never been considered immoral or unethical in the sport. In fact, trying to bend the rules is expected as long as no one offers a direct challenge to the supreme authority of the France family. Tiny changes in the size of a gas tank, a shock absorber, or a restrictor-plate hole can win a race. There are constant technical inspections. Seized tampered parts are displayed in the garage area, where it's fun to watch crew chiefs checking out the contraband for new ideas. Nascar rarely imposes real punishment, almost never on its stars.
And then there's the media.
By tightly controlling access, Nascar has kept a lively, questioning motor-sports media at bay, White House style.