full moon rose over the backstretch of Charlotte Motor Speedway the night of NASCAR’s 1992 all-star race …” is the rather melodramatic way Liz Clarke begins the first line of the first paragraph of the first chapter of One Helluva Ride: How NASCAR Swept the Nation. The good news is that this hoary lunar invocation does not deliver on the bats and werewolves it augurs. Instead, we get a good story, often well told. More than fifteen years of covering NASCAR (and other sports) for the Washington Post, USA Today, and other newspapers has given Clarke a close and personal knowledge of the drivers and other participants in NASCAR, and she has acquired a privileged perspective on the sport’s growth from a rustic diversion featuring colorful fellows named Red and Buck and Fireball to a major pop-cultural phenomenon. Clarke has written a good book about this transformationalthough, truth be told, she has written a book good enough to make me wish it were a better one.
NASCARwhich stands for the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing, but the CAR part pretty much says it allgot its start in 1947 when Bill France, the mechanic-owner of a track in Daytona, Florida, confederated with track owners in Martinsville, Virginia, North Wilkesboro, North Carolina, Darlington, South Carolina, and other small towns whose mellifluous names cannot be spoken without conjuring up the aroma of motor oil. The growth of motor sports, as Clarke points out, was part of a general postwar boom. But what manifested itself as drag racing in the big flat stretches of the Southwest became stock racing in the dry counties of the Deep South. There the indigenous moonshine-running industry fostered the careers of ambitious young men, whose ability to outrun police cruisers at high speeds over tight twisty roads found a more sporting expression at Talladega and other tracks.
From that beginning NASCAR grew into a popular niche sport, occasionally showcased on Wide World of Sports, stunted by the inferiority complex it felt before the more professional and sophisticated (read: international) practitioners of Indy-style racing, and enriched by the personalities of the drivers, especially the showmanship of the brilliant Richard Petty (who, lauding NASCAR’s spirit of teamwork in his introduction to One Helluva Ride, pricelessly avers, “There’s no I in racing”). There the sport might have stayed, lumped with the roughnecks of the National Hockey League below baseball and football and basketball but above track, boxing, competitive cliff diving, and the numerous other competitions that populate the sporting landscape, except for a blizzard that socked in the East Coast in 1979 during the running of the Daytona 500, the most prestigious race on the NASCAR calendar. The race was televised nationally, and a lot of people who would ordinarily do anything but watch racing saw a thriller, in which three of the biggest names in the sportPetty, Donnie Allison, and Cale Yarboroughvied for the lead until the last lap, when Allison and Yarborough collided and the King went from third to first as he crossed the finish line. Like the NFL’s 1958 championship game, in which the Baltimore Colts defeated the New York Giants in sudden-death overtime before a national TV audience, the contest became a dividing line in the history of the sport, the cornerstone of a new era.
NASCAR is a funny sport, in that the occasional fan sees cars, but the devotee sees drivers. “Once I came to know the driver,” says Clarke, “it was if his car suddenly took on his characteristics.” She would see the pursuit of the No. 43 car and recognize the determined professionalism of the late-career Petty, or the pinballing No. 23 Ford and identify the kinetic Jimmy Spencer, or the lurking No. 3 and see the menacing Dale Earnhardt. With engines close to standardized and technical innovations treated suspiciously, driving ability is paramount. (In one of the book’s more memorable scenes, Clarke takes a spin on a track with driver Mike Martin, and conveys her amazement at the ceaseless motion of his hands and legs as he steers, shifts, speeds up, and brakes.) Once the sport was able to adopt state-of-the-art marketing and promotion techniques and put them in the service of driversmost notably the dark, intimidating Earnhardt and the shiny, polished Jeff Gordon, of whom one driver groused to Clarke, “He shouldn’t be allowed to be that young, that talented, that experienced, and that good-looking”the sport took off. These were two very gifted athletes with two very distinct and sellable images, and Clarke is particularly good in showing that Earnhardt, always the savvy businessman, inflamed the rivalry with Gordon, contrasting his own mean, tough, up-from-the-hardscrabble image with that of the handsome, milk-drinking Gordon, while sharing business relationships that profited them both. After covering Earnhardt for many years, Clarke had developed a warm relationship with him; the chapter on his fatal accident in 2001, which skillfully manages to bridge her personal reaction, a journalistic account of the events, and an analysis of the impact, is the virtual centerpiece of the book.
By emphasizing personalities over competitionthere’s not so much here about that classic Winston 500, where Billy Joe passed Jim Bob so that Bubba could whateverthe helluva ride that Clarke takes us on is the sport’s development from its red-clay rebel roots to a megabusiness that has a fifth of the Fortune 500 advertising on its hoods, gives media training to its racers, and aims to build a global brand. Clarke is deft at pointing out the particular discontents that come from this kind of growth: the rise and fall of pretty, poised Miss Winston, for example, or the fierce falling out of Earnhardt’s widow and son. Clarke lets herself get a little maudlin when discussing the closing of the old, fairly dilapidated North Wilkesboro, North Carolina, track, the sort of rustic place where the soul of the sport first breathed life but which had become too minor league to host a modern NASCAR race. She makes up for that by noting with a gimlet eye how the image-conscious NASCAR high command eagerly and rather Milo Minderbinderishly cooperated with Will Ferrell in the making the film Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby, which ridiculed the sport and the people in it but somehow also promoted the brand. (“I found it gut-wrenchingly funny,” said NASCAR chief Brian France, and then quickly pointed out how an earlier Ferrell movie, Anchorman, had satirized journalists like Clarke herself.) In an almost surreal passage, Clarke discusses NASCAR’s partnership with the book publisher Harlequin Enterprises, which has published numerous NASCAR-themed romance novels. The Harlequin NASCAR launch was celebrated by a speed-dating event at the Daytona 500, presided over by hunky bachelor driver Carl Edwards. Does such a naked and successful cross-promotion make testosterone-rich enterprises like Major League Baseball and the NFL feel icky, or envious?
But in one respect, NASCAR has yet to begin to grow, and how the sport navigates future challenges may be the most interesting story of all. Like many sports, NASCAR wants to go global, but unlike baseball or basketball, where the simple hassles of traveling seem to be the biggest impediment, NASCAR has special problems. For a long time, Toyota wanted to get into the sport, but NASCAR’s bylaws required competing cars be American made. Once, however, Chrysler was sold to Daimler, Dodge, one of the pillars of the sport, was suddenly a German company. In a great scene, Clarke tells how NASCAR’s former president met with Toyota: “Y’all are welcome to come and compete … and you’re welcome to win,” he said. Then, with his index finger and thumb no more than a centimeter apart, he added, “But only by this much.” By 2007, with the Ford Fusion being made in Mexico and the Chevy Monte Carlo and the Dodge Charger being made in Canada, the Toyota Camry was the only car in NASCAR’s top ranks that was actually made in the United States. As in so many sectors of the economy, globalization sits more easily with the corporate elites than with the rank-and-file. A question in a poll taken for the Charlotte Observer in September 2007 asked readers how they felt about stock-car racing “going global.” Of the more than 7,000 people who responded, 17 percent checked “It’s great. Fresh talent might make for better racing”; 32 percent checked “Don’t carelet’s race”; and 54 percent checked “It’s wrong and it troubles me.” When columnist Charles Walker wrote, “Who wants to say ‘Our American hot rod got whipped by a rice rocket?'” 80 percent of the polled readers supported him.
It’s kind of interesting how NASCAR’s development was profoundly but indirectly influenced by political developments. Prohibition led to moonshine running, which created NASCAR’s first talent pool; the federal ban on tobacco advertising on TV led to a huge investment in NASCAR by Big Tobacco that boosted the sport’s profile and professional stature; the later federal limits on tobacco promotion opened the doors for NASCAR to shed its no longer politically correct association with smoking and bring in richer sponsors with bigger upsides.
One political issue Clarke does not consider at length is racism. She discusses the sad story of Wendell Scott, who was a well-respected driver who never had access to the best cars, and to date is the only African American to win a major NASCAR race. She does not, however, explore how a historically southern sport with predominantly white drivers attracted an enormous, mostly white fan base around the start of the Reagan 1980s, just when black athletes began passing through the doors that legislation and courts had opened, and were beginning to attain a majority presence on most basketball and football teams at the college and professional level. It’s probably coincidence.
It’s a sweeping story Liz Clarke has herefrom the rural roots to the challenge of globalization, full of rivalries, love, hate, colorful characters, and tragedy. There’s sufficient drama here that one wishes for a little more thunder from her prose. On the other hand, a new season of NASCAR is starting, and the engines will be thunderous enough.