Well, here was the thing: In the same weekend, the same two books about stock car racing were reviewed in the New York Times and in the Raleigh News & Observer. The reviews contrasted in ways that were not terribly surprising yet irresistable to my neurotic Flyover State self, hence this post. The NYT review by Jonathan Miles irritated the conservative Tennessee blogger Instapundit, and while I hate siding with Instapundit on anything, it IS curious that before undertaking to write about NASCAR, Mr. Miles is at such pains over whether NASCAR is fit (as in, not too distasteful) to write about:
For a certain segment of the population, Nascar's raid on American culture... triggers the kind of fearful trembling the citizens of Gaul felt as the Huns came thundering over the hills. To these people, stock-car racing represents all that's unsavory about red-state America: fossil-fuel bingeing; lust for violence; racial segregation; run-away Republicanism; anti-intellectualism (how much brain matter is required to go fast and turn left, ad infinitum?); the corn-pone memes of God and guns and guts; crass corporatization; Toby Keith anthems; and, of course, exquisitely bad fashion sense. What's more, they simply don't get it... Cover your ears, blue America. The Huns are revving their engines.
The Raleigh N&O review is by Scott Huler, a good feature writer and former N&O staffer, who has written a book about NASCAR himself, and in the Raleigh paper could confidently assume that his reader needs no introduction to the subject. Huler gives thumbs up to Full Throttle: The Life and Fast Times of NASCAR Legend Curtis Turner, but a mild pan to Sunday Money, an account by Sports Illustrated writer Jeff MacGregor of a year on the NASCAR circuit.
The problem is, at the end I don't really know the subject of MacGregor's book. MacGregor practices what might be called the American Magazine Style, in which every object is worthy of comment, the comment often more important than the object.
Mr. Miles in the NYT likes Sunday Money (the one NASCAR book a non-Hun might want to read) and compares MacGregor's approach to Tom Wolfe, Mr. American Magazine Style himself--which is apt, considering Wolfe's Esquire profile of Junior Johnson is still probably the pinnacle of NASCAR lit. MacGregor's sojourn with the ballcap wearers of NASCAR Nation is a 21st century counterpart to Wolfe's long strange trip with the Merry Pranksters--calculated to scare and titillate the Eastern establishment.
As I blogged once before, NASCAR tries to have it two ways: honoring its disreputable Appalachian roots, yet aspiring to be the perfect modern marketing vehicle, sleek and squeaky clean, high-tech and family friendly all at once. Personally, I'm turned off by the marketing side of it but am fond of the scruffy side, represented by Curtis Turner and Junior Johnson. My regard for NASCAR got a big boost when I learned that Junior Johnson (a superstar of the sport) had to take a year's hiatus at the height of his career to serve federal prison time for bootlegging. My affection wanes, though, as NASCAR adds races in Dallas and Miami and Los Angeles, leaving behind historic small tracks like Rockingham and North Wilkesboro.
I think Jonathan Miles is right to say that NASCAR has a looming identity crisis, an "Elvis-comes-out-of-the-Army moment." NASCAR is in the process of establishing a Hall of Fame, and I heard somebody on the news the other day, probably Bill France, arguing that the Hall needs to be located in North Carolina because of NASCAR's roots here. Well, Bill, you sure didn't bat an eye when you abandoned Rockingham.