This past Saturday afternoon I was furiously working my way through a lengthy writing assignment, spending the entire morning and much of the afternoon eyeing the clock as I did. Why? Because at 4 p.m. the State-Carolina game was set to tip off, and I wanted to watch from the beginning.
I managed to get everything done and turned the television on just a minute before four. The game promised to be a good one, with the Heels and Wolfpack fairly evenly matched this season. Both look as though they may make the NCAA tourney this time around, although for either to make it beyond the first round or two should be a formidable task, with ACC foes Miami and Duke both looking as though they’re primed to do a little more this postseason.
I switched over to ESPN and was readying for the game when I noticed a NASCAR race finishing up. It was the awkwardly-named DRIVE4COPD 300 at the Daytona International Speedway, one of those races leading up to the Daytona 500 that kicked off a new NASCAR season on Sunday. The drivers had just begun the final lap, with the white flag being waved to indicate such. I sat forward on the couch to watch the conclusion, not even sure who was winning but mildly intrigued to see the finish.
Despite growing up in North Carolina and now living pretty much in the heart of NASCAR country, I’m no racing fan. It just never did capture my interest, not like other sports did.
I occasionally will read some of the extensive coverage of NASCAR that often takes up lots of space in our sports pages, and so I know the names of drivers and am vaguely aware of who is doing well and who is just getting by. My wife rides horses, and in fact she’s met and gotten to know a few people with racing connections over the years, including a couple of drivers’ wives. And I’ve met a few folks among the many around this part of the country who have NASCAR-industry jobs, too. (There are a lot of them.)
Whenever I think about NASCAR -- I mean really think about NASCAR -- I recall how how as a teenager I once checked out from the library a copy of Tom Wolfe’s 1965 book The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine Flake Streamline Baby, not knowing the first thing about Wolfe or what the book was about except that the title was kind of wacky and the lettering weird.
It turned out to be a fairly famous collection of nonfiction essays, examples of the so-called “New Journalism” that Wolfe, Norman Mailer, Hunter S. Thompson, and others came to represent.
I read the book cover-to-cover, but the only essay I recall today was the one about NASCAR, the one titled “The Last American Hero is Junior Johnson. Yes!” It was originally published in Esquire, and you can read it online here. Wolfe entertainingly describes his day attending a race in Wilkesboro, which is maybe a little more than an hour’s drive from here. Or a lot less if you drive like the great Junior Johnson used to.
The essay conveys Johnson’s larger-than-life status at the time as “a modern hero, all involved with car culture and car symbolism in the South,” his elevation having been caused in part by his background helping distribute bootleg liquor up and down the state’s back roads. Indeed, that was where Johnson learned to drive in the first place (the story goes), and thus NASCAR and its origins have always been linked to the mythology of moonshine. And they’ve also always been linked to the “good ol’ boys” who like Johnson became the sport’s first heroes and who in many cases continue to make up its cast of combatants.
I loved the essay. I’m fascinated by moonshine. When I was a kid, my late grandfather -- his drinking days well behind him -- showed me a jar of the stuff he must’ve been keeping for sentimental reasons. And for NASCAR to have more or less come from that... well, that always seemed kind of cool.
“Stock-car racing was something that was welling up out of the lower orders,” writes Wolfe. “From somewhere these country boys and urban proles were getting the money and starting this sport” several years before. And by the time Wolfe makes it to the North Wilkesboro Speedway in the mid-1960s, NASCAR had already started to become a national phenomenon.
Like I say, I never did become interested enough by NASCAR to want to follow the sport. And to be honest, I remain a little baffled by those who do.
But I’ve always had kind of a soft spot for NASCAR, which I sometimes think has partly to do with having read Wolfe’s essay at such a formative age. Wolfe was fascinated by Junior Johnson and the colorful collection of people gathering to watch him race his Ford around a 5/8-mile track on a Sunday, a day that had somehow transformed from “church day” to “racing day.” And pretty much all of it, this whole wild sport and subculture, emanated from the same place where I’m from, too.
That kind of fascinated me. Still does.
Now, of course, NASCAR has metamorphosed into yet another example of an American-pastime-turned-big-business, with the Daytona 500 one of several Super Bowls on its schedule. And so even preliminary races like the DRIVE4COPD 300 that ran last Saturday earn start-to-finish coverage, even if that means pre-empting whatever is coming on next.
Waiting for my basketball game to start, I watched as the lead pack roared around Turns 3 and 4 on the race’s final lap. That’s when the pile-up swiftly began.
As a white car with a blue 32 on the side began to rise up in mesmerizing fashion above the crash-filled cloud I thought for a moment of that final turn of the 2001 Daytona 500, the one in which another big multi-car crash occurred, with Tony Stewart’s car similarly flying up to spin crazily like some sort of toy above the cars racing past. One of those vehicles dodging Stewart, of course, was the black number 3 car driven by Dale Earnhardt, who’d moments later crash himself.
Stewart would survive, and in fact was leading and would win Saturday’s race, while Earnhardt would not. And still more drivers have died driving at Daytona since.
The mourning of Earnhardt’s death continues around these parts to this day, with “3” decals in rear windows still marking his heroic status much as fans did for Junior Johnson back in 1965. I’ve been to nearby Kannapolis and seen the statue of Dale, which is literally larger-than-life at nine feet tall.
You’ve no doubt read about Saturday’s crash, if not seen video. Horrifying stuff, primarily because of the way pieces of that 32 car driven by Kyle Larson found their way into the stands, including a wheel and various suspension parts. Even the engine tore through the 22-foot-high fence meant to shield spectators, landing perilously close to the bleachers. Fans many rows up were struck with debris, with 28 injured including a couple seriously. Thankfully all survived, with the drivers involved in what ended up being an 11-car pile-up all escaping safely as well.
There have been articles in the paper every day since -- not just in the sports section, but on the front page, too -- detailing the crash. In one of today’s articles, a fan who was sitting about 75 feet from the track describes getting hit in the head and knocked over by debris from Larson’s car. “I considered myself far enough away that the odds of something hitting me were tiny,” he said.
ESPN stuck with the aftermath for another half-hour, and I found myself lingering as well, not switching to the alternate network where the UNC-NSCU game was being shown. Finally I did, and amid continuing drop-in reports about injuries followed the basketball game to its conclusion, glad to see my Heels successfully defend their home floor.
I didn’t bother watching much of the race on Sunday, although did tune it at the end to see Jimmie Johnson win, Dale Earnhardt’s son take second, and Danica Patrick finish eighth. But again, I wasn’t actively rooting for anything, really. Except perhaps that no one would wreck or be hurt or die.
And when it comes down to it, that’s the main reason why I can’t make myself become too interested in NASCAR. Or, to put it another way, as intriguing as the sport and its history sometimes seems to me, I can’t let myself get too close to NASCAR.
So I keep it at a distance, considering myself far enough away.
Shamus is the author of the Hard-Boiled Poker blog.