NASCAR Culture and Sport

Dale EarnhardtI spent today at the 2013 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series at Sonoma. I have never been to a NASCAR race and I doubt I will ever go again. But it was a great opportunity to see what it was all about. As you may remember, I wrote about auto racing less than a month ago and questioned why people like watching the sport. What’s more, I mentioned the effect that Dale Earnhardt’s death had on increasing the popularity of the sport. And here I was today watching his son, Junior, race. It was an educational experience on two levels: sporting and cultural.


There were 42 drivers competing today so I figured I needed to settle on a couple of them. There was one woman driving, so I picked her: Danica Patrick. And I picked another driver that I mistakenly thought was Iranian: Boris Said. Mostly I focused on Patrick because she was in the most brightly colored car and it made it really easy to spot. As a result of this, I got a better idea of the skills that are involved in racing. It is a lot like watching chess. Basically, it is a defensive sport. The driver is trying to not make a mistake that will allow another driver to get past her. That really is the main thing. There isn’t much brilliant driving, only keen skill in taking advantage of opponents’ mistakes. And that is most of what goes on in a chess game.

It is also like a chess game in that it is highly technical. The errors made by the drivers are all quite minor. Except for the crashes, of course. But I don’t think there is all that much appreciation of what is going on. The difference between a good turn and a bad turn strikes me as very small, even though one ends with a position change and the other does not. In that way, I can see that the crashes might have an appeal that is totally unrelated to the danger and damage. It does act as a kind of shuffling of the deck. It is the one time during a race when positions change in a big way. The rest of the race is quite subtle.

Speaking of accidents… Given that what I saw was a “12 turn road race,” it did not have the potential for high speed crashes that the oval track races do. I much prefer that. But there was one crash and the audience gasped. Or at least, the women in the audience gasped. It made me feel a lot better about the people who like auto racing. From now on, I’m going to assume that they really are concerned about that aspect of the races.


Although my opinion of auto racing fans was marginally improved by the great gasp, the NASCAR culture on display was truly horrifying. A friend of mine had made a joke about Confederate flags I would see at the race. I thought it was just that: a joke. But it wasn’t. I saw many Confederate flags. I find this very offensive. First, the Confederacy was a rebellion against the United States. It was not only unpatriotic, it was treasonous. Second, it was done in the name of our greatest national shame: slavery. I have no problem with people being proud of their southern heritage. But Germans manage to show their pride without waving Nazi flags around. The Confederate flag is no less offensive.

I was surprised that the auto race started with some Eagle Scouts leading us in the Pledge of Allegiance. That annoyed me for a couple of reasons. First: Eagle Scouts. Really? Why not just have Anita Bryant lead us in a stirring rendition of “One In A Million.” Second: I hate the Cold War pandering “Under God” addition. But most of all, I don’t like pledges of that kind. It’s too general. What exactly am I pledging? I’m sure everyone has their own ideas and that’s dangerous. I think it is particularly dangerous when a lot of those people think the Confederate rebellion was some kind of act of patriotism.

After the Pledge, it got much, much worse. There was a prayer. I was stunned. But what was really interesting was that I didn’t get the idea that most of the people were particularly happy about it. There was, however, a vocal minority who were whooping it up. And that told me two things. First, it wasn’t about religion; it was about cultural signifying. They were saying that they were the real Americans: the ones who are Christians. (Of course, check out this Google image search of Danica Patrick to get some idea of just how wholesome a sport auto racing is.) Second, NASCAR is pandering to this vocal minority.

Everywhere I went at this race I was struck by how NASCAR uses a kind of cliched Red State idea of what a real American is. It wasn’t just the ostentatious religion and the waving Confederate flags. There were constant mentions of our military. I remembered one point in particular, the announcer said that our “military men and women” keep us safe. We spend as much on our military as the next 11 countries combined. That isn’t a military that “keeps us safe”; that’s an imperialist military. What’s more, I’m not convinced that the safety our military provides us isn’t offset by the extra danger they bring upon us. Certainly, the 2000+ US troops who have died in Afghanistan were not safer.

So I have an increased appreciation for the sport of NASCAR. But it is way more than offset by its cultural pandering. Of course, it wouldn’t be my thing anyway. It is incredibly loud. It may be interesting, but it isn’t exciting. And it doesn’t show humans at their best the way that baseball or tennis can. Regardless, NASCAR clearly goes out of its way to make anyone like me feel unwelcome.

17 thoughts on “NASCAR Culture and Sport

  1. This is just wonderfully done. You show respect for the athletes and the fans while deploring what deserves to be deplored. (Anita Bryant, barf.)

    According to NASCAR lore, the sport took root in places where bootleggers made a habit of hightailing it away from cops. That sounds too folksy to be true. But there was no local racing in Oregon when I grew up there, and there’s a lot of small-town racing here in Minnesota, a bootleggers’ historical hangout. (It was close to Chicago, close to Canada where the booze came from, and the police in St. Paul openly expressed amnesty for gangsters, so long as they committed no crimes within city limits.) So maybe that myth has something to it. (Minnesota’s not exactly a red state.)

    The SO’s dad was a small-town racer, and he tried, vainly, to teach me the subtleties of watching NASCAR on TV. I couldn’t get over the far-right cultural baggage. (Same reason I can’t watch NFL football anymore, it’s veered in the same direction.)

    Ever think about how NASCAR drivers pee? It’s a multi-hour race, after all. And so here’s a fun story, from the late, great Gore Vidal:

    Vidal heard an anecdote about Charles Lindbergh meeting the king of England. The king asked Lindbergh how he went potty during his trans-Atlantic flight. Lindbergh mentioned peeing in a bottle. The king, undaunted, plunged on; it was a 40-hour flight. How did Lindbergh poop? Well, Lindbergh admitted, he felt sorry for those Frenchmen who carried him after his landing.

    In short, NASCAR drivers pee in their suits. And, just for historical kicks and giggles, Lindbergh’s dad was a famous progressive legislator — he once sponsored a bill, not passed, which would have made it illegal to profit from manufacturing armaments, on the reasonable grounds that removing the profit motive would eliminate the incentive for weapon makers to incite/inflame wars.

    Tidbits and trivia on Monday morning . . .

  2. @JMF – Thanks. When I left, I wasn’t that positive about the sport, but the more I thought about it, the more I began to appreciate it.

    I believe that the bootlegging did have some relationship to racing, but of course, car races were a thing from about the moment that cars were invented. My father was also a racer here locally. I’ve always loved this Jim Croce tune:


    The drivers could use diuretics before the race. Just a thought. I don’t really want to think about it.

    • My SO’s dad was a local dirt-track racer. Thank the Lord. When he was dying, all he could watch at home was either “Fox News” or the 24-hour “Speed” car-race channel. The car-race channel at least had some narcoleptic properties.

      Lewis Black was so perfect in “Inside Out.” Now when I hear audio of him I almost imagine the little animated character from that movie . . .

      My God, the talent that appeared on “The Daily Show” was amazing.

      I think when I said the Pledge as a kid I wondered what “indivisible” meant in regards to a country. Did it mean fractions? Dividing by 0?

      • I would make a terrible mother: “Mommy what does indivisible mean in the pledge of allegiance?”

        “Well child, it means that under Texas v White the nation is unable to be split into multiple different sovereign nations.”

        “What?” “It means you have to eat your peas.”

        • Ha! Although I doubt you’d either be so dismissive of any curious child, even one who occasionally drove you nuts.

          • My nephew used to try the “why” game with me and got tired of it when I would patiently answer every question he had with detail explanations.

            Never have a too smart for her own good aunt.

            • Well, there’s a difference between the “why” game and a child with serious questions. The “why” game is just kids trying to bug adults. At that point, yeah, blow ’em off while sounding respectful. Then y’all can get back to baking cookies together or something else where the kid’s curiosity gets re-engaged.

    • I was pleased that the experience made me feel better about the sport. I still find it dull, though.

      Lewis is right about the old atheists (like me): we just don’t care. That’s the big problem with the New Atheists: what’s the point of being an atheist if you have to think about it!

      • See, that is a good point about being an atheist-you just don’t believe in God. What else is there to be done? Although your point once telling me it is nice to hang with likeminded people at least gave a reason for the New Atheist movement that makes sense.

        • Yeah, as long as it was having a good laugh about silly notions of God, that’s great. The problem comes when people start taking their own beliefs as important. I just don’t believe that the world would be all the different if most people were atheists. As it is, your average atheist is as irrational as you average Christian. It just isn’t true that anyone believes only in things they have proof of. I actually measured the circumference of the earth over a two day period while I was an undergraduate. So I’m in a much better position to say that the earth is round than most people are. But the truth is that I’m still convinced that the earth is round because I believe in the system that tells me so. I have, in other words, faith in science. It’s part of my world view. But it isn’t some kind of Platonic ideal of Truth.

  3. Interesting report. I stopped watching NASCAR years ago when they started messing with rules and changed their marketing – which resulted in many of the disturbing trends you wrote about.

    I love racing. I find the engineering and physics of making a car go fast fascinating. I enjoy racing a car much more than watching a race and I can easily why it is not for most people.
    I understand the skill it takes, the thinking and the bravery. Because frankly if you are not almost crashing in every turn – you are slow. So watching the very best master these is enjoyable to me.

    Right now I think the best spectator race series is Formula E. Hi-tech electric race cars racing on city streets with lots of passing.

    I found this in your comments: “For the record, I admire the auto racers.” – I knew there was something about you I liked!

    • It’s very impressive. People who really know how to drive are like people who really know how to play a musical instrument. And going to the track was really useful to me to see all these minor things I’d never noticed on television. But I think television destroys a lot of sports. I know tennis pretty well, and television trivializes the game. I’d be interested to know what James thinks about baseball. I find I get more out of it on television. It’s hard to really see what the pitcher is doing from the seats that I’m able to afford.

      • Late response — but the pitcher/catcher interplay IS better on TV. Doesn’t matter where you sit. That centerfield zoom camera will always give you a better view than seeing it in person.

        What live baseball gives you is the Z axis. You can see how high and how fast a ball is hit, in a way TV can’t show. So you can judge whether or not the fielder will get there in time, and if the runners took off too early or too late. It’s quite exciting when either a fielder misses what you expected to be a catchable ball, or catches one you thought was impossible to nab. But since baseball has very few such plays in a given game, it is often better on TV.

        Hockey is much better live. Football and basketball, much better on TV. The NFL really took off after video replay, so people had something to watch besides guys in huddles. And so many moves in basketball are so fast, it’s virtually impossible to see them in real time. Soccer’s about the same, either way, the field is so huge, the players always look like insects.

        But the best sport to see live is roller derby …

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