Sunday, April 24, 2005

NASCAR AFter Forty Years

Last night, I surprised myself by watching Kurt Busch win the Subway Fresh 500, a NASCAR race in Phoenix.

It’s not that I’m some sort of “eastern liberal elite” who looks down on stock-car racing. No. In fact, I have a great pedigree for it. But I hadn’t watched a NASCAR race since 1964, when my boyhood racing hero, Fireball Roberts, crashed at the Charlotte Motor Speedway, receiving the burns that eventually killed him.

Stock-car racing fascinated me from my earliest days. Perhaps that’s partly because my grandfather grew up in Wilkes County, North Carolina—where, he once told me, you didn’t dare pull off the road, for people spread broken glass and nails to destroy the tires of the revenuers seeking the hidden stills that dotted the county. Junior Johnson and the Pettys came from Wilkes County and got their introductions to racing hauling moonshine down to Charlotte.

My mother grew up in nearby Lenoir. I remember that, once, in a barbeque place near there, someone showed me a photo of a group of early drivers—one of whom had exposed himself before the camera. Racing was a rollicking, wild game in those days—and I loved it. Not simply for the speed, but for its outlaw nature.

My parents weren’t interested in racing, though, so I never got to see a race live. Television, in Atlanta in the early 1960s, was what brought auto racing to me.

Though I admired many of the drivers, there was only one I really loved: an ex-minor league pitcher called “Fireball.” “Glenn Roberts” was what he was preferred (Glenn was his middle name—Edward his first), but he could not shake the nickname. He drove Pontiacs when I first started following him, but switched to a Ford in the early 1960s.

I didn’t see the World 600 in 1964, but photographs of the crash were all over the papers in the days that followed. Roberts was badly burned. He hung on in agony for over a month before he finally died.

My interest in auto racing died with him.

So I surprised myself by not clicking the remote after it rested on the race last night. But I was fascinated. It took me a while to adjust to the presentation: to me, stock-car racing on television was seen through stationary cameras, in black and white, and with a minimum of commentary.

At first, all of the extras distracted me: I wanted to see the race, not the scroll of leaders, shots from the cars themselves, and all of the other bells and whistles that 40 years of technological development have provided. But I kept watching, and soon began to understand the rhythm of the presentation.

What fascinated me most, however, was the difference in the cars—especially in terms of safety. Sure, it’s still a dangerous sport, as the presence of Junior Earnhardt reminded anyone viewing (the ghost of his father will always be with him). But I saw cars taking damage and shrugging it off, damage that would have destroyed them in the races I remember.

This, I suddenly realized, has changed racing absolutely. No longer is the viewer watching with the fascination of impending doom for the drivers. I don’t know when this change became so evident and important (perhaps the death of Dale Earnhardt was the impetus for the final flurry of this long-developing change), but it allowed me to watch a race for the first time in 40 years and enjoy it. I got to concentrate on the skill without wondering if I weren’t watching from some morbid curiosity about death and destruction.

It was, once again, fun.

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