Wednesday, May 25

Speed! Death! Tortured Metaphors!

Jonathan Miles: Review of Jeff MacGregor's Sunday Money: Speed! Lust! Madness! Death! in The New York Times Book Review

Like any serious Zone 5 gardener, mid-May for me is the point of equipoise, the time when the exhaustion from the back-breaking labors of spring stares at the next five months of watering, weeding, and fertilizing across the gulf of things I haven't gotten done yet, and in a low whisper, like a cruel lover, asks me, "Just what the hell's so bad about winter, anyway? "

So I'm way behind. I started in on the Sunday Times Sunday night. By Tuesday's breakfast tea and yogurt I'd reached the Book Reviews, and...a photo from high up in the short chute between One and Two at Martinsville Speedway? Nascar Nation? Slow publishing week, or a Sign of the Times?

For a certain segment of the population, Nascar's raid on American culture...triggers the kind of fearful trembling the citizens of Gaul felt as the Huns came thundering over the hills. To these people, stock-car racing represents all that's unsavory about red-state America: fossil-fuel bingeing; lust for violence; racial segregation; run-away Republicanism...

So...Flyover Land is still a place You Don't Want to be Caught Dead In, but the tart dismissal will now be tinged with the sense that it's more caricature than reality, like it sneers at itself in some funhouse mirror and gets back a hint of smirk. In place of the old urbane New Yorker's idea of Cornball Land, we now have the urbane New Yorker's idea of how they think red staters think New Yorkers think about them. It's a third generation photocopy of condescension.

What’s beyond debate, however, is Nascar’s surging ascendancy in American sports, and thus, by extension, American culture. By Nascar's estimate, stock-car racing now counts 75 million fans--more than a quarter of the United States population...

Suppose I'd written that about Brittany Spears five years ago, or whenever it was we were infested with her. Would the laughter have died down by now, you suppose? And about NASCAR's accounting methods there...a quarter of the population are NASCAR fans. Well, many of them have a unique way of displaying it: they don't go to races or watch them on teevee. The 2005 Daytona 500--the biggest race of the NASCAR season, and one which runs on a Sunday in the coldest month of the year, with no important sporting event being played anywhere else--drew 18.7 million viewers this year, close to the record of 18.8 in 2002. Last year's season ender--with the title up for grabs--drew 9.8 million. Sounds to me like the Huns are inflating their troop numbers a skosh.

Hey, I'm from Indianapolis. I grew up around auto racing. I like it. I'm not a big "stock-car" fan (Miles will try later to convince us that part of the appeal is that people understand NASCAR racing because they drive similar vehicles "to the 7-11 for a pack of smokes"--as opposed to New Yorkers, who are always headed to the opera or something, and use taxis. Well, it's true, assuming that your family vehicle is a racing powerplant with a high-tech chassis and a one-piece fiberglass body with decals for headlights). I'm not about to try to convince you that everyone you'd meet in the infield at some motorsports event is someone you'd like to have a serious political conversation with, assuming they regain consciousness. But there are lots of knowledgeable people who enjoy racing, don't go just to see crashes, and might actually think for themselves on occasion. It's true that NASCAR designs its competition and markets its product and its personalities in a way that appeals to the non-purist. It's also true that it permits--encourages--the sort of door-banging behavior which delights the nine-year-old in many of us but would get people killed on a weekly basis in open-wheeled racing, and gets away with it not through stringent safety regulations but by the simple fact that the driver is surrounded by a 3000 lb. car.

No other sport is so captivating to so many yet so utterly uncaptivating to so many others.

Oh? NFL football's television revenues are ten times NASCAR's, but the rest of the planet has managed to contain its enthusiasm so far. Professional soccer is small potatoes here. Baseball, hockey...can't we make this sort of claim for just about any human pastime? But those don't come with that sexy Red State/Blue State meme attached.

If the latter aren't repulsed by the deep-fried spectacle of a Nascar event, with its schizo mix of beery loutishness and Promise Keeper piety, then they're bored stiff by the racing itself.

I think this is what men of science refer to as "assuming the thing you're trying to prove." I wouldn't be at all surprised to learn there are large numbers of people who are put off by both. But I'll wager that in the former they find many examples in many areas of public life. And in the latter, I'm willing to bet that the vast majority who find NASCAR racing, or all auto racing, boring, never give it a second thought, excepting perhaps when its promotional efforts climb in their faces, or some pundit starts using it as a Metaphor for Our Times.

Most of the boredom with NASCAR I hear expressed comes from racing purists, including people who were fans of NASCAR when it was real stock-car racing.

And I know for a fact there are NASCAR fans who are no fans of public loutishness or pious hypocrisy, just as there are millions of red staters watching Desperate Housewives, people who use Windows who aren't thrilled about Microsoft's business practices, people who go to church but don't want to be lumped with James Dobson's minions. My neighbors the staunch Republicans may not go see Michael Moore's films, but they sure aren't boycotting Starbucks. Most people aren't ideologues. They either like country music, or they don't; they're not interested in the deeper implications of the choice.

Maybe I'm worrying about nothing. I like to watch Jeopardy!, as you know. I usually tune in a couple minutes before it comes on, and I sometimes catch Pat Sejak and Vanna White wrapping up that show of their's, and the other night I heard Pat say something about "bling". I assume this means that middle-aged white people will soon stop saying that. So maybe the front cover of the Times Book Review will be the death of this sorry-assed "Nascar Nation" business. In the meantime, my Blue State friends, you really have nothing to worry about. But if you want to talk politics I suggesting finding someplace quieter.


Anonymous said...

I get enough aggressive driving going to and from the supermarket, I don't need to see it on the teev. I do get more angry if the jerk cutting in front of me has a "W" sticker on her SUV.

Today's snort-out-loud gem: "assuming they regain consciousness."

Anonymous said...

I actually went to the All-Star Race this past weekend. I had a blast. And you know what, not a single person there that I saw met or talked to (or even overheard talking) mentioned politics. Maybe on occasion, some things don't have to be about politics.

Growing up in NC, I had no choice but to know about NASCAR. I didn't really get into it until last year, when I went to my first race. One of the things I've learned around here is that a large number of NASCAR fans are not just your toothless powhitetrash from the hills. There are some very smart, cultured people that like "racin'". A lot of the drivers and crew members are the same way.

And what's more, NASCAR means money. I hear there's a proposed speedway to be built in NYC. Not that NYC is particularly hurting for attracting large groups for their money, but it will bring more money in. It does in Charlotte, Martinsville, Las Vegas, Chicago, Fontana, Dover, and anywhwere else there's a race.

I don't expect everyone to like NASCAR, but don't label me because I do.

Anonymous said...

A stock car race is a great place to discuss New England journalists, though.

Anonymous said...

No one else has mentioned it, so I guess I will...

Martinsville doesn't have a short chute between one and two; it's essentially one 180-degree turn. And your point about the dissimilarities between "stock cars" and street cars is well taken, but the bodies in the 3 major NASCAR touring series are still mostly sheet metal. That said, the fact-checking portion of this comment ends here :)

I think the perception of rampant Republicanism is generally accurate, but a bit stereotypical. First, there's me. Also, Bob Graham (I believe it was) sponsored a truck during one campaign or another. My God, was it for President in 04? I think so. And coming soon, a Democrat running for governor of Virginia, I believe it is, will be involved in sponsorship on a car.

I'm from Indiana, too, which I think maybe plays a role in why I can tolerate it (well, hell, I enjoy it) like I do. And I'm pleased to be able to add that, despite the fact that many people who are spectators in racing are stupid backwards hicks with fewer teeth than Conferate flag stickers on their truck, many fans are also pretty damn articulate.

I agree with your synopsis of the willingness to look the other way about the things in the sport I don't like. Hicks, sexism, racism, and leaded fuel, for example. But I guess it's just not enough to put me off entirely.

Oh -- and don't miss It's a hoot :)

Anonymous said...

Quote: Oh? NFL football's television revenues are ten times NASCAR's, but the rest of the planet has managed to contain its enthusiasm so far.

*snicker* Ah, yes, but remember, if it's not in the US it doesn't exist. Parochialism is certainly not limited to either end of the political spectrum

Quote: ...can't we make this sort of claim for just about any human pastime?

Food? Sex? (Being celibate is still identifying yourself by means of sex, after all.) There are some things that are pretty well universal.