Sunday, October 03, 2004

In Defense of NASCAR

OK. I’m going to make an embarrassing admission. I don’t really discuss this with many people. The Divine Mrs. M knows about it, a guy at the office is suspicious, my father-in-law, but no one else.

So here it goes: I watch NASCAR. There. I said it. Judge me if you will.

I know many people follow NASCAR I see their signs, their shirts, their stickers. I hear their conversations, but I don’t participate. I’m ashamed. I don’t think I’m one of those people. Am I? OK! Admittedly, I drive a Chevy Monte Carlo (often called the coolest car in the trailer park) while all others in my profession drive BMWs and Mercedes. But I don’t wear the hats. I don’t have the numbers stuck on my car window. I wouldn’t be caught dead in a Rusty Wallace t-shirt. I don’t debate Earnhardt v. Gordon. I just watch. Every Sunday. Without fail.

Why am I embarrassed? Why do I keep it secret?

I’m not sure. I think it has to do with the fact that to many people NASCAR is identified as Southern and – logically to them – white trash. I would rather not be identified with that. I’ve read most of Shakespeare’s cannon. I’ve made it through One Hundred Years of Solitude – and liked it. I’ve not only read a book, I wrote one. What does NASCAR stand for to most of these people? North and South Carolina Auto Racin’

Another is that I just don’t want to defend myself against those who don’t like NASCAR racing. While becoming a minority, this is an active and vocal group.

What are their arguments? “It’s just a bunch of guys turning left.” Yes, except for the road races. “It’s not really a sport.” Maybe. “It’s just a bunch of guys with drawls.” Mostly. Their argument can be summed up with the NASCAR acronym: Non-Athletic Sport Created Around Rednecks.

So now that my secret is out. To remain true to myself and keep my esteem up, I’ll have to be ready to defend myself against these arguments and individuals. That’s what I intend to do here.

Let’s address the fundamental issue that NASCAR is a southern sport. Originally it was. NASCAR fans claim their lineage from moon-shiners eluding revenuers in the South. This ignores two facts: First, the country is becoming more Southern. Second, NASCAR has spread from the Northeast to the Pacific. With a father from Detroit and a mother from Charleston, SC, I noticed this in my traveling between the two while visiting the two halves of the families. In the 70s there was a difference. Country music wasn’t played at all at a certain point while traveling north. Accents also became clipped and less rounded and when you stopped at a gas station in the south, the attendant always had a short conversation with you. In the north, the attendant preferred not to have eye contact with you. Now country music dominates throughout the north. My cousin’s accent is less distinct than their parents and unrecognizable to their grandparents. Now, no gas station attendant acknowledges you north or south.

The country is migrating to the South also. I’m reminded of an old Barney Miller episode aired at the beginning of the Carter administration. A man introduces himself as from Georgia. Capt. Miller says he recognizes the accent. The man says, “I don’t have an accent now – you do!”

Like wise, NASCAR has become less Southern demographically while remaining Southern in character. Four-time champion Jeff Gordon claims Indiana as his home state (but he grew up in California) as does 2002 Champion Tony Stewart (Rushville, IN.) Last year’s champ Matt Kenseth is from Wisconsin. So just as basketball started out as a Jewish sport, then white, then black and as boxing migrated from the Irish to Italian to black athletes. NASCAR is migrating to cross-country status.

As for the white-trash factor, I have grown up in the mid-west and have traveled to other parts of the country. White-trash is not solely in the south. Click on the television and turn the channel to a network station around 4:00 in the afternoon. There they are. Think you’re nowhere near people like those Southerners, look around.

As for the “NASCAR isn’t a sport” issue I’ll remain agnostic. Not from lack of argument but from lack a having an adequate definition. Merriam Webster’s definition of “sport” is here. But as with the case with the labels “liberal” and “conservative” in politics, the dictionary definition of “sport” is incomplete and there’s no way to find agreement among sports fans. NASCAR is a diversion so it meets that dictionary qualification. There are physical activities – you try driving for a manual transmission for 500 miles in heavy traffic. It’s taxing on the entire body and well as mind. So it meets that dictionary qualification. I would also suggest that a NASCAR driver expends more energy in a race than a golfer does during a round at a major.

Many argue that NASCAR isn’t a sport because it can be simplified into it’s just “a bunch of guys turning left.” This is true in many cases. However, the objective of each sport can be simplified. Basketball can be simplified into the question “How hard is it for a 7-foot guy to put a ball into a 10-foot high basket?” It’s not hard until a 7-½ foot guard tries to keep that guy from putting that ball into the basket. Again, it’s not hard to turn left over and over. What’s hard is turning left while 42 other drivers are challenging you to getting to and remaining at the front with the added challenge – depending on the track – of driving for minimal fuel consumption and minimum tire, motor, and brake wear.

I began writing this article with a bashful admission that I’m a fan of NASCAR. The last 1,000 words or so were intended to be a defense of NASCAR. It was suppose to be like one of those rocky shoreline defenses against shoreline erosion. But in reality, NASCAR doesn’t need a defense. It’s not the shoreline. It’s the storm and it has washed over the country.

I'm off to watch the rest of the Talladega race. Go Jeremy!

Stay You.

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