In the past twenty years, big-time stock-car racing has become America’s fastest growing spectator sport. Winston Cup races draw larger audiences—at the tracks and on television—than any other sport, and drivers like Dale Jarrett, Jeff Gordon, and Mark Martin have become cultural icons whose endorsements command millions. What accounts for NASCAR’s surging popularity?
For years a “closeted” NASCAR fan, Professor Jim Wright took advantage of a sabbatical in 1999 to attend stock-car races at seven of the Winston Cup’s legendary venues: Daytona, Indianapolis, Darlington, Charlotte, Richmond, Atlanta, and Talladega. The “Fixin’ to Git Road Tour” resulted in this book—not just a travelogue of Wright’s year at the races, but a fan’s valentine to the spectacle, the pageantry, and the subculture of Winston Cup racing.
Wright busts the myth that NASCAR is a Southern sport and takes on critics who claim that there’s nothing to racing but “drive fast, turn left,” revealing the skill, mental acuity, and physical stamina required by drivers and their crews. Mostly, though, he captures the experience of loyal NASCAR fans like himself, describing the drama in the grandstands—and in the bars, restaurants, parking lots, juke joints, motels, and campgrounds where race fans congregate. He conveys the rich, erotic sensory overload—the sights, the sounds, the smells, the feel—of weekends at the Winston Cup race tracks.
|Publisher:||Duke University Press Books|
|Product dimensions:||6.32(w) x 9.32(h) x 1.13(d)|
About the Author
Jim Wright grew up in Indiana watching his father race on quarter-mile dirt tracks in the 1950s. After spending a couple of decades establishing himself as an academic sociologist, he began regularly attending NASCAR races in the 1990s. A sociologist who has taught at Tulane University and currently teaches at the University of Central Florida, Wright has written seventeen books. He lives in Orlando.
Read an Excerpt
FIXIN' TO GIT
One Fan's Love Affair with NASCAR's Winston Cup
By James Wright
DUKE Car Culture and the American Dream
Copyright © 2002 James Wright.
All rights reserved.
In the rarefied university circles where I have spent my adult life, cheek-to-jowl with Spiro Agnew's "effete intellectual snobs" and "nattering nabobs of negativism," confessing that you are a stockcar racing fan is on a par with suggesting that maybejust maybethe South had a point. Many of my intellectual acquaintances are reflexively hostile to athletic contests of every sort, but even people who will gladly burn off a Sunday afternoon watching the New Orleans Saints lose yet another football game are stupefied that an apparently sane man would rather spend his Sunday afternoon glued to the weekend Winston Cup event. Steve Rushin, a writer for Sports Illustrated, pretty much says it all. "Race fans fall into one of two categories: tattooed, shirtless, sewer-mouthed drunks; and their husbands." Bid-a-boom! Great gag, and anyone is certainly entitled to ask (as I am asked all the time), Just what is the thrill in watching a bunch of white guys drive around in a circle? And why write a book about it?
The thrill I will try to explain later. As for the book, Fixin' to Git is essentially a retirement fantasy brought to premature fruition by a one-term sabbatical and a near-desperate need to get my head out of the routines of academic research and teaching.I am a sociologist (at Tulane while this book was being written and at the University of Central Florida now), and this is my seventeenth book. I published my first book, on political alienation, in 1976, with the fifteen that followed covering a variety of ponderous sociological topics. Like most academic monographs, these books have typically sold a few thousand copies (okay, a few hundred copies in more cases than I'd care to admit), and over the twenty-five years I have been writing them, I have often been asked (by my mother, my wife, my children, and assorted others) why I don't write books that people want to read. Ouch! But it's a fair question. This book is my first crack at an answer.
To begin, I am a lifelong racing fan, and writing this book has provided the perfect excuse to indulge myself in what would otherwise be forbidden pleasures. Telling your dean that you intend to spend your sabbatical following the NASCAR Winston Cup Series around the country is certain to raise eyebrows, but no dean would think twice about a research monograph on stock-car racing as an emergent element in the popular culture. (Don't worry. That's only what I told her, not the book I've written.) Rebecca Adamsa sociologist at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, past president of the Southern Sociological Society, and in her spare time a confirmed Deadheadgot to listen to a lot of great music, interacted with and interviewed some strange and wonderful people, and (one infers) had a blast researching and writing her book Deadheads: Community, Spirituality, and Friendship. I figure that if the Deadheads deserve a tribal sociologist, then why not racing fans?
Some of my earliest childhood memories are of Saturday nights at the racetracks. When I was a boy growing up in Logansport, Indiana, my father and his friends raced stock cars at the little quarter-mile dirt tracks one finds, even today, throughout the small towns of north central IndianaMonticello, Winamac, Bass Lake, Warsaw, Anderson, Kokomo, to name a few. Several old black-and-white photographs in our family album are of my father and his race cars circa 1950 or 1951. I don't remember much about those early years, but I do remember going to the races: the sounds of those great old Ford flathead V-8s firing up; the smell of oil, gasoline, and exhaust fumes; the clods of dirt that would fly into the stands as twenty or thirty reckless young men in souped-up jalopies slid full throttle through the wet clay turns. I also remember that my old man was a "balls out, belly to the ground" driver (the phrase is from Stroker Ace, Stand On It, a cult classic of racing literature), always charging hard, always running up front, always in contention, if not always first to cross the finish line. I don't know that all this is true; it's just what I remember.
That's not all I remember. As a working-class hick who hailed from the ass end of nowhere, I remember thinking it was very, very cool that my old man raced stock cars at the local speedways, tuned engines by ear, and often fabricated car parts in his own shop. I remember taking a set of his micrometers (he was a lathe operator at the time) to grade school for show-and-tell, astonishing everyone with the fact that these instruments could measure the thickness of a hair. Again, very, very cool. I also remember turnip greens and ham hocks and hominy grits, the guy from the finance company coming to repossess my mother's washing machine, and the seemingly endless string of old beat-up used cars that served as our family sedans. It took several years of higher learning to realize just how déclassé all this was, and several more years of maturation after that not to care. (I say this here just in case my fondness forindeed, identification withthe white trash and rednecks is not entirely evident.)
In 1953, a few months before I turned six, Dad found himself at the bottom of a pile-up with a broken neck that put him into a coma for nearly a month. The wreck I do remember, the extended hospital stay less so. I also remember the few races Dad drove in after he had recovered from the wreck, my mother's tearful anger about them, my own fears, and the loud, bitter arguments that broke out driving home from the tracks, race car in tow. My dad was never one to do what other people thought he ought to, but for whatever reason, he drove in only three races after his wreck, then quit. He spent another year or two working as a pit guy for other drivers, but he would just as soon have not been at the track as have been there without being in the middle of the action. So, by 1954 or so, his career as a dirt-track driver was over.
Dad's career-ending wreck taught me an important lesson about automobile racing: you can die out there. Many drivers have: Fireball Roberts, Grant Adcox, Bill Vukovich, Neil Bonnett, Jimmy Clark, Tiny Lund, J. D. McDuffie, Joe Weatherly, Richie Evans, and, most recently, Adam Petty, Kenny Irwin, and Dale Earnhardt (all of whom were very much alive and racing when the first draft of this book was written). The sheer physical danger of trying to drive a hot rod as fast as it will go, fender-to-fender and bumper-to-bumper with a few dozen other testosterone-crazed wild men, even when experienced vicariously, is what makes automobile racing so addictive. And any fan who says otherwise is lying.
The three most recent Winston Cup deaths, particularly that of Dale Earnhardt at the 2001 Daytona 500, have spawned widespread concerns about driver safety and about NASCAR's role in assuring it. While no sensible fan would oppose reasonable safety measures, the furor over Earnhardt's death has, I think, obscured three essential points. First, there is no way to drive a race car 180 or 190 miles per hour on a track with forty-two other competitors and be 100 percent safephysical peril is an inherent aspect of the sport. Second, given my first point, Winston Cup racing is already remarkably safe. A nineteen- car wreck at the 2001 Daytona 500far more spectacular than the one that killed Earnhardttook out eight or nine race cars, all of them mangled nearly beyond recognition in what the Charlotte Observer described as a "savage maelstrom of sheet metal," yet everyone involved walked away with only minor injuries. A similar pileup on the interstate at a third the speed would have resulted in multiple fatalities. Third, as I have already said, the inherent hazards are what make automobile racing so appealing to so many. You could, I suppose, engineer all the dangers out of the Winston Cup, just as you could legislate all the strip joints and nudie bars off Bourbon Street, but what would you have when you were through? Who would still be interested?
I was thirteen in 1960, and in those days drag racing was all the rage. The Bunker Hill Drag Strip was about twenty-five miles from Logansport, and a lot of us hung out at the strip some Saturday nights during the racing season. (In the winters, we'd hang out at Chogas' Pool Hall instead.) The more daring of my high-school pals would "borrow" the family car to, oh, "go to the drive-in," then get to the track, pop off the hubcaps, paint a number on the left rear window with white shoe polish, and enter the car in the "run what you brung" class, where victory earned you nothing but bragging rights. A few of my buddies built serious drag-racing cars, and hanging around in the pits with them was always a gas (and not a bad way to attract the attention of females, who, then as now, made up an unexpectedly large share of the fan base). But drag racinga straight ten-second shot down a flat quarter-mile trackwas never all that appealing to me. One furious straight-line blast of acceleration seemed tame in comparison to the sustained mayhem of a thirty-lap feature race at the dirt track.
Then there was that annual Memorial Day extravaganza of speed, backyard barbecues, and galvanized tubs of iced Fall City beer that was the Indianapolis 500, known then and today as the "Greatest Spectacle in Racing." The Indy 500 was not televised in those days, so if you were not among the lucky few who went to the track (it is about 90 miles from Logansport, so a lot of people from town did go), you listened to the race on the radio. Today Indy 500 racers are in Indianapolis for only ten days, but back then they stayed for an entire month of practicing, testing, qualifying, and racing. By race day, practically every Hoosier boy could recite the thirty-three drivers and cars in the starting grideleven rows, three abreastin order of starting position. You'd know the qualifying speed of the pole sitter, the spread in qualifying times from first to thirty-third, the previous Indy records of all the drivers, and endless other dots of race trivia. In Indiana in those days, May was Indy, and that was that.
Speeds then were much, much slower than they are today. I remember heated speculation in the 1950s and 1960s about whether anyone would ever turn a 150-mph lap at the Brickyard. (The 150-mph lap was thought to be an insurmountable barrier, much like the four-minute mile.) Today's Indy racers qualify at speeds as high as 230 mph and the 500-mile race is over in a few hours, but back then it was an all-day affair, often lasting until 5:00 or 6:00 in the afternoon. I'd spend the whole day with family and friends in the backyard on Melbourne Avenue, listening to Chris Economaki and the other Motor Racing Network announcers describe the action on the track. On Memorial Day weekend in Indiana, everyone was a race fan.
The fifties and sixties were simpler times, in racing no less than in society. Local guys, mere backyard mechanics, would build Indy-style roadsters and haul them down to the track early in May, hoping to qualify them for the race. Way back, a local driver or two had even made the race, although by the 1960s Indy was strictly for professional drivers and teams. One of Dad's racing buddies, George Tichener, had tried to qualify a car at Indy three different times and had actually made the field once, only to be bumped by a faster car later in the day. Our next-door neighbor on Melbourne Avenue, a man named Hank Easley, had also driven a car at Indy in an unsuccessful qualifying effort sometime in the mid-1950s. Hank's opinions about each year's drivers, cars, engines, and such were thereafter held in high esteem. Hank had a real kick-ass street rod that he was always working on in his garage: a 1932 Ford three-window coupe with a Mercury flathead V-8, lots of chromed engine parts, and great big racing slicks for rear wheels. I have no idea what became of this hot rod; I never did see the thing out of his garage, and I couldn't say if it even ran. But Hank was always working on it, I'll give him that.
Between dirt-track racing, drag racing, and the annual Indy 500, I was a semiserious racing fan throughout high school. Like most kids at the time, I understood basic automobile mechanics, could tear down and rebuild a carburetor if the need presented itself, and did most of the work on my own cars myself. I left Logansport for Purdue in 1965 and Purdue for graduate work at Wisconsin in 1969. Those years were times of great turmoil in society at large, as well as in the mind of a working-class kid from the sticks of Indiana who was trying to craft an intellectual persona appropriate to the era. I studied philosophy, then sociology, affiliated myself with various left-wing groups and causes, hooked up with a woman who spoke seven languages and actually liked classical music, and began systematically discarding my small-town Hoosier self. I found that showing an interest in chamber music and improvisational jazz turned more of the right heads than listening to Roy Orbison or Patsy Cline, that carting around the latest issue of the Nation or the Village Voice created an impression that carrying that month's Motor Trend did not. So my enthusiasm for motorsports went into the personality trash can along with every other hicksterismof which, I must say, there were quite a numberthat I could identify in myself, including, even, how I pronounced certain words.
This period offorgive me, sweet Jesus!existential inauthenticity persisted for years. But I was a lucky young professor who managed to publish a lot and to rise quickly through the ranks, so, with some successes as a bona fide intellectual under my belt, it was possible to renew certain youthful passions. One memorable turning point was hearing Bob Dylan's album Nashville Skyline, the first cut from which was a maudlin, off-key duet withJohnny Cash!
I spent the first fifteen years of my career at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. About thirty miles south of Amherst is Riverside Park, an amusement park that featured one of the world's greatest roller coasters and a top-of-the-line half-mile paved oval racetrack where NASCAR "modifieds" compete every weekend. (I learned recently that the Riverside track no longer exists.) Although modifieds are not stock cars, they are very cool, very noisy racing machines that are lickety-split fast on a half-mile paved track. I can't remember why (or when) I went to the Riverside races for the first time, but the experience fanned a spark in me that I had thought had long before been extinguished. Going to the races at Riverside became my favorite weekend entertainment. Sadly, neither my then-wife nor my friends took much of a shine to such a "low-life" amusement as auto racing, so my visits were limited to perhaps two a year.
In 1988, with a new wife and a new-and-improved outlook on life, I left Massachusetts for Louisiana, where I stayed until my move to Orlando, Florida, in 2001. For a Southern state, Louisiana has little in the way of interesting racing venues; the nearest track of any significance is in Mobile, about two hours away, and there are a few quarter-mile dirt tracks around, but that's about it. Shortly after I moved to the South, however, my brother-in-law Ed, who lived in Florida, offered me a spare ticket to the Pepsi 400, the Fourth of July Winston Cup race at Daytona. Ed and I have been to almost every Pepsi 400 since. I call it my annual pilgrimage, to emphasize the religious nature of the experience. Being at nearly every Pepsi 400 in the last decade has allowed me to witness A. J. Foyt's next-to-last race in a stock car, Richard Petty's Daytona finale, Jimmy Spencer's and John Andretti's first NASCAR victories, and a whole bunch of nose-to-tail racing action featuring the heaviest of NASCAR's heavy hittersthe fifty or so drivers who compete in the Winston Cup.
Excerpted from FIXIN' TO GIT by James Wright. Copyright © 2002 by James Wright. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Table of Contents
Prelude: On the Road to Charlotte 1
1. Car Culture and the American Dream 17
Daytona Pilgrimage 46
2. Deconstructing NASCAR 57
Back Home Again in Indiana 87
3. Racin' Basics 98
Lost in the Land of Cotton 132
4. The NASCAR Subculture 144
Short-Track Showdown 170
5. The Yankee Invasion 180
Nantahala Interlude 204
6. Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms 217
Grand Finale in Atlanta 254
7. We Are Family 263
What People are Saying About This
You don't have to be a racing fan to appreciate great sports writing, and even folks who don't know Dale Earnhardt from Dale Evans will savor this professor's account of his unlikely enthusiasm for NASCAR. But, if you are a fan, you'll probably like this book even more. Wright dispels a number of myths and helps us to understand why stock car racing has become America's most popular sport.
John Shelton Reed, coauthor of 1001 Things Everyone Should Know about the South
This book's personal impressions don't take you behind the pit wall-they take you into the stands, where the average folks watch the race. Wright combines the interests of the academic and the common race fan for an uncommon vision of NASCAR.
Scott Huler, author of A Little Bit Sideways: One Week Inside a NASCAR Winston Cup Race Team