A Different Kind of Racing Book

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Motorsports and American Culture: From Demolition Derbies to NASCAR, Edited Mark D. Howell and John D. Miller (Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield)

I’d never heard of this book until a copy of it was given me by my friend John Edwin Mason, who, in addition to teaching African history and the history of photography at the University of Virginia, wrote a chapter of it. John’s Renaissance manliness extends all the way from Nelson Mandela to Shirley Muldowney, and he wrote one of the blurbs accompanying my second novel, The Intangibles.

This is a book about motorsports written by academics, which, as a practical matter, is to say that it has footnotes and the like. Sixteen writers, all of whom are qualified to teach at colleges and most of whom actually do, combined to produce it.

I didn’t like all of it. One chapter I found rather condescending and a bit offensive. I’m glad I read it because, even after two decades of writing mostly about auto racing, it told a few stories I did not know. The reason I don’t read racing books much anymore is that most of them deal with stories I already know. I don’t write them anymore because I have cultivated an overriding interest in fiction.

You’re on this website. You already know about me.

Monte Dutton
Monte Dutton

What I liked most were the trips back in time. I had no idea that the Iowa State Fair once ran steam locomotives head-on into each other in the late 19th Century or that Eddie Rickenbacker, in a car, and Lincoln Beachey, in a biplane, raced each other there in 1914. I rather enjoyed learning the nuances of the demolition derby, one of which was held in this very county up until it stopped having a fair a few years ago. I enjoyed the chapter dedicated to Louise Smith, who raced the boys of NASCAR decades before Janet Guthrie and Danica Patrick. Before her death in 2006, Louise wrote me a long and kind letter about my NASCAR coverage, so, in a sense, though I was born too late to have been a fan of hers, late in her life, I think it’s accurate to say she was a fan of mine.

I was sufficiently interested that I marked up the book with a highlighter, sometimes for remembrance and other times to note factual errors, such as the claim that a bootlegger won NASCAR’S first race. That man’s name was Glenn Dunaway, not Dunnaway, though it has seldom been spelled correctly because NASCAR has always listed it wrong. I know it was Dunaway because I once interviewed his son. Dunaway took the checkered flag but was disqualified in favor of a Kansan named Jim Roper, who never won another NASCAR race and only competed in two. Brian France is listed once as the president of NASCAR, when, in fact, he is the chairman and chief executive officer. The words that make up the acronym NASCAR are listed incorrectly in one instance.

I was a bit offended by the condescending tone of a chapter entitled “Way Tight or Wicked Loose: Reading NASCAR’s Masculinities,” which relentlessly painted the sport’s fans as bumpkins and played rather fast and loose with the facts in several places. In reference to the “NASCAR Dad” term that was briefly popular, Patricia Lee Yongue wrote, “… Dad knows less about the sport he watches than the average football, baseball, and basketball fan knows about their sport.” That’s untrue. While NASCAR fans may be uneducated about many areas, their favorite sport isn’t one of them. In fact, it has always seemed to me that they know more about racing than football fans know about football. Baseball fans rival them. They may not understand the Affordable Care Act, but they’re generally knowledgeable of the points system, how one makes “the Chase,” and where “plates” are in use.

Dating back to my own modest academic pursuits, I’ve had a quibble over the willingness of academics to look up statistics without vouching for their accuracy, and this was a frequent irritation while reading the various analyses. For instance, if NASCAR really has 75 million fans, which it has claimed since about the turn of this century, then why do less than half that many attend, watch, and listen to its biggest race, the Daytona 500? It seems unlikely that 40 million people have dentist’s appointments or are stranded in airports on that or any other Sunday.

But … I loved my friend John’s examination of local drag racing and was fascinated by the history of land speed records and the casting of Rickenbacker as America’s first multimedia superstar.

My greatest source of amusement was the dry, clinical adaptation of the term “enchantment” by Jaime Noble Gassmann. The language of business, where almost everything seems to be fully integrated, multifaceted, at least “where the rubber meets the road” for “the whole nine yards,” overwhelms me with clichéd ignorance, and I hope NASCAR officials don’t latch on to this use of “enchanted,” “enchanting,” and “enchantment,” which Dr. Gassmann uses with annoying frequency.

Example: “… to activate consumer’s identification with the enchanted product, sponsors typically maximize the return on their investments by spending twice or three times the sponsoring fee on leveraging activities.”

Ye gods.

I’ve little doubt that the authors of this book would have similar quibbles with my books, most of which are available here: http://www.amazon.com/Monte-Dutton/e/B005H3B144/ref=sr_ntt_srch_lnk_1?qid=1416767492&sr=8-1

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