I 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.