Friday, June 24, 2005


So, last weekend I went to see a NASCAR race with my father, who's in the neighborhood (they're visiting my sister, not me, because she has kids and I don't...there's probably a post in that too, but maybe later). It was Father's Day, and Dad is a big racing fan.

This was not my first time seeing NASCAR live and in person. I saw a race before perhaps 14 years ago, so I had an idea of what I should expect. The day did, however, still have its weird elements, and I did learn a lot.

Most of what I learned was about the people watching. They were, to be honest, generally a little weird. When the people who were sitting to the right of our group sat down, the female (hot in a redneck housewife kind of way) asked me if she could clean her glasses on my shirt. How do you respond to this kind of question? I couldn't tell if she had no social grace or if she was coming on to me.

In some ways, a NASCAR audience is like a time capsule from ten years ago. The gentleman sitting in front of me was wearing this Big Johnson shirt. I thought those died a long time ago, but apparently not. Yes, misogynist clothing is funny. Incidentally, if you are interested, they have actually published a History of Big Johnsons book, where they call the t-shirt design "America's most popular t-shirt." Now we know why the feminist movement is still necessary

Anyway, this and other examples make it clear to me that NASCAR has a ways to go before they reach true diversity. For instance, they are not very popular with the brothers...I may have seen one black family in our section, and I saw very few others as we were leaving. Interestingly enough, though, my sister's husband did point out a nice, heartwarming example of NASCAR lesbian love on our way out, but I guess that is acceptable to the masses for the tittilation factor alone.

If there has been a big change in NASCAR in the last decade and a half, it is that the audience doesn't seem to be as overtly "redneck" (Big Johnsons aside) as it used to be. I only saw a few mullets, for example. I didn't notice a preponderance of rebel flags (and yes, the race was in Michigan, but that doesn't always mean anything). Not sure how many other overt displays of redneckishness there were either.

What there was, in abundance, was people wearing hats and clothing which represent their favorite driver. More often than not, however, their outfits more clearly represented the sponsor of their favorite driver than the driver itself. Dale Jarrett, for instance, drives the UPS car. Well, many Dale Jarrett fans were wearing UPS hats. Did they support the company as an extension of their driver loyalty? Did they just like the logo and not really care about the company? Or were they loyal UPS customers who started rooting for Mr. Jarrett because he drove their company's car? Or, even weirder, were they UPS employees showing the colors?

Yes, they sound like silly questions on the surface, but NASCAR fans do show a suprising loyalty to products. I would bet that the hardest thing to find at such an event would be someone who likes both Chevys and, there were people who had some seemingly irrational hatred towards a brand of car. Would they still like Dale Earnhardt Jr. if he started driving a Ford? I have to wonder. I was left with the mischevious thought that Hyundai needs to enter NASCAR, just to tick off the hard-core fan.

I also have to wonder what's at the root of the severe hatred towards Jeff Gordon. There were some fans who would flick off Mr. Gordon every time he took a lap, screaming out obscenities. There was one woman who had a picture of him taped to her cooler with the caption: "Jeff and I share one thing: We both like men." There were plenty of people booing his every move, who would've been happiest if he would've wrecked. Not liking someone is something I can understand, but why would someone invest the time, energy, and money into attending a race just to boo one driver?

My father thinks it's just because he's good (which seems strange enough; we like our drivers to be good but not too good!?!?). I suspect it's largely because he (1) is from California, not the "Deep South," and (2) because he still looks a little boyish. Yes, Jeff Gordon is an affront to most NASCAR fans because he (in academic-speak) "subverts the dominant NASCAR paradigm of masculinity." Drivers are supposed to talk with an accent and look like they could either rebuild a transmission in their living room or punch you out; instead, Jeff talks normally, looks normal, and can outrace them. Than is why people hate him and think/wish/hope he is gay. He threatens their desired image of machismo. It's a theory, anyway.

So, what about the actual race? Some sports translate very well to television, some work very well in person only. Personally, I think NASCAR is much better on television by far than it is in person. Once the leader started lapping cars, it became very hard to tell who was on the lead lap and who was being lapped. You could spend all your time rooting for someone who, you would later discover, was actually a few laps down and stood no chance. And since the track was so damn big, it was very hard to tell what was going on on the opposite corners.

It was loud, though. The one thing you really cannot get from watching NASCAR on television is a true appreciation of the raw power. Race cars sound like fighter jets screaming around the tracks. You can feel them coming around the corners in your chest. They move much quicker than simple automobiles should. And they are driven by people who look and talk like they could be sitting in the stands. More than anything else, NASCAR is about the image of unbelievable power controlled by seemingly-ordinary people. In this way, it is truly a populist sport.

Having said that, most of the drivers are millionaires. They are all explicitly tied to major corporations. In actuality, NASCAR is really more about these major corporations coopting the populist image of good-ole boys tinkering with cars, but this is an argument which is really more suitable to an academic article than a blog.

Oh, I did learn one more thing, something drastically important, something everyone reading this can apply to their real life on a daily basis: when a sunscreen says either "lasts for eight hours" or "waterproof and sweatproof," they are lying.

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