The Frontstretch: Professor Of Speed: The Road To Racing Knowledge by Mark Howell -- Thursday April 19, 2012

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Professor Of Speed: The Road To Racing Knowledge

Mark Howell · Thursday April 19, 2012

 

My recent trip to Boston for the 42nd annual national conference of the Popular Culture Association was not only successful, but also quite revealing. Driving long distances is always educational, but more so this time given the region my family and I were visiting; our travels took us through parts of the Northeast and New England – areas familiar to me from growing up around there, but seen from a different perspective as both 1) the father of a four-year old and 2) someone who is constantly connected to NASCAR Nation. Racing was a significant part of my conference trip, but exactly in the manner you’d likely expect.

The trip to Boston meant driving roughly 2,200 miles round-trip over the course of six days. We split our drives to-and-fro with layovers in upstate New York (going east) and northwestern Pennsylvania (heading west), taking advantage of our New York stop to visit briefly with my father and stepmom. That much-needed-but-all-too-short detour (we hadn’t seen my folks over 18 months!) simply added to the overall nostalgia of what was already a trip down memory lane for me.

Our drive across upstate New York had us passing relevant racing landmarks from my youth like the village of Bath, where “Dutch” and Dean Hoag – the father-and-son pair of Northeast Modified drivers – were located so many years ago. My mom and dad used to take me to Shangri-La Speedway in Owego, where the Hoags were always two of the toughest hot shoes to beat on any Saturday night. Shangri-La has since become Tioga Speedway, but back in the late-1970s and early-1980s, it was the place where I planned to begin my illustrious NASCAR driving career.

My biography for the NASCAR Hall of Fame would explain it all in greater detail, but I would drive Street Stocks and Modifieds at Shangri-La for a few years before making the move (with full funding from my core of wildly-loyal and insanely-devoted sponsors) to what was then the Sportsman division. From there, it would be a quick leap to the Winston Cup Series and all of the success that would shortly follow. I laughed about that naïve plan as we passed highway signs marking the exit for Owego; someday I’ll share that story with my son, especially if he’s having youthful, delusions of grandeur about a racing career of his own.

We also got to drive through the village of Chemung, the hometown of Geoffrey, Brett, and Todd Bodine. Their father, Eli, and their uncles, Maynard and Earl, all devoted their lives to automobile racing in the Southern Tier region. Eli Bodine owned and operated the Chemung Speedrome (the track where a young Geoffrey, Brett, and Todd all worked and started their careers as drivers), and Maynard joined forces with Earl to campaign race cars all throughout the area. Earl was a top-notch driver, and Maynard – right up until his death a few years ago – was considered one the finest mechanics in the business (tune-ups were his specialty, but he could sure build one tough racing motor). My last visit to the Speedrome was with the Bodine family back in 2001. It was the weekend of Watkins Glen, and Chemung was honoring their native sons and their race teams with an evening of Modified events. I added this to my list of good racing memories to share with my son.

We met my folks for brunch near Elmira, not far from one of the exits for Watkins Glen. My stepmom got to visiting with the manager of the place where we stopped to eat and made mention of NASCAR; before I knew it, I was learning about all the attributes of the road course and how much it meant to the region, not just from an economic perspective, but from a cultural one – Watkins Glen International was a point of civic pride, local history, and long-standing tradition. This information wasn’t new to me – I’d grown up near the track, gone to races there, worked with race teams there, and even gave a conference lecture there one time – but I listened closely because it sounded as though people living here felt slightly afraid for the track’s NASCAR future. Watkins Glen seems to have a home on the Sprint Cup schedule, but didn’t places like Rockingham and North Wilkesboro used to have a home there, too? NASCAR Nation knows all-too-well that there’s no such thing as a sure thing.

Our drive to-and-from Boston (by way of Ohio and New York) took us within very-loud-shouting distance of several legendary motorsports facilities, including Michigan International Speedway, Toledo Speedway, Sandusky Speedway, Lake Erie Speedway, the town of Unadilla (the epicenter of motocross), the town of Oswego (home of Oswego Speedway), and the town of Canandaigua (home of Canandaigua Motorsports Park). Our trip along I-90 West also took us past the town of Rome, New York – the home of Modified legend (and NASCAR Hall of Famer) Richie Evans. Such landmarks had me in the right frame-of-mind for this trip to the PCA conference, even if the conference focused its energies on a variety of other topics.

What Spring Break roadie would be complete without a Bodine family tour?

It used to be that the national PCA conference would feature multiple presentations about topics in motorsports. The lectures might cover issues in open-wheel racing, the history of a track like the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, biographical studies of relevant drivers and/or owners, or treatments of motorsports on television and/or film. My contributions usually centered on NASCAR, and I was typically one speaker out of six-or-seven others who made up two (or more) panels regarding a particular subject. Long story short: motorsports have enjoyed many years of rich and diverse attention at the PCA national conference.

Not so much however for 2012. Research interests often evolve over time alongside the culture-at-large. A subject generates advanced study if it’s already present within the society in question. If people aren’t consuming/enjoying/participating in a topic, there’s little reason for a scholar to devote time to the topic’s development or influence. For a subject to be part of our popular culture, it must be considered both “popular” and “cultural”.

Take the subject of vampires in popular culture, as an example. An old friend and former colleague of mine is area chair for panels regarding topics in gothic film and literature. That means he asks for possible lecture/research topics, collects the submissions sent to him, and selects the ones that will be presented at the national conference. Of the papers selected, my friend will sort them by subject, arrange them into thematic groupings, and schedule panels of three-or-four presentations per theme. For this year’s conference in Boston, my friend explained, one area chair received enough scholarship-quality papers about vampires in popular culture that he was able to organize nineteen panels of presentations. That’s almost eighty lectures on just that one topic alone!

NASCAR (and motorsports, in general) fell a tad short. My panel about racing was comprised of two presentations: a social historian from New Jersey who spoke about how the popularity of the Indianapolis 500 between 1911 and 1916 usurped traditional celebrations of Memorial Day (back when the Grand Army of the Republic lobbied hard to keep what-was-then-called-Decoration Day focused on fostering respect for citizenship through remembrance of the war dead), and my lecture about NASCAR’s efforts to embrace a more ecologically-friendly approach to stock car racing in hopes of attracting younger fans. Out of thousands of papers about thousands of topics, these two were it regarding the cultural significance of automobile racing.

Not that this panel – small as it was – didn’t delve into aspects of racing and its ability to influence policies and behaviors. Audience members raised questions and voiced comments about how recognition of traditional, more patriotic holidays has always been easily co-opted by the NASCAR schedule – it’s okay to race on Memorial Day, July 4th, and Labor Day, but don’t even think about having an event on Easter Sunday or Mothers Day! Questions also revolved around NASCAR’s “green” influence on other sanctioning bodies – did the actions of Brian France and company encourage other divisions to follow suit and consider new ways to save the environment? Given this past weekend’s running of the NHRA’s Four-Wide Nationals at zMax Dragway in Concord – an event that doubles the fun of a typical NHRA weekend by utilizing a pair of dragstrips at a time – our collective guess was that NASCAR’s thinking was not actively shared by others in the racing business.

The racing on everyone’s mind in Boston this past weekend however was the 116th running of the Boston Marathon. Just as the PCA conference was starting to wind down at the Copley Place Marriott, the high-rise hotel became a focal point for runners, sponsors, and officials getting ready for Monday’s event. People from all over the world were in town to challenge the terrain (and themselves) in what was predicted to be unseasonably warm conditions. The nearly 23,000 runners who ran the race were warned to mind the heat, and about 4000 competitors decided to waive their entrance this year to wait and try again in 2013.

To us NASCAR types, such actions seemed unusual. To anyone who’s ever been to Daytona in July, or to Talladega in August, dealing with higher-than-normal temperatures is just what you do. Not to take anything away from the talented folks who assembled in Boston for the marathon, but shouldn’t competing in shorts and tank tops for three-to-five hours be enough to justify lining up, squaring up, and taking their version of the green flag? Four hours at better than 180 MPH in a 130-degree stock car while wearing a full-face helmet, gloves, and a fireproof driving suit seems just a bit more taxing than what runners were panicked about in Massachusetts.

Granted, I’m absolutely the last one who should talk about such things; to paraphrase a comedian I once heard, “I can’t drive 26.2 miles without stopping for a sandwich and a pee break”. It just seems to me that such physically-fit people (and Boston was crawling with them) got that way because their dedication to running long distances involved overcoming the challenges of adverse weather and the discomfort it often brings. Just because the thermometer at Dover or Pocono or New Hampshire or Kentucky or Indianapolis pushes triple-digits, does that mean drivers, crews, and fans opt out for another day when temperatures are cooler and more to their liking? Having been hot and uncomfortable at many tracks over the years, I can say – from lots of personal experience – no.

Regardless of the above-normal temperatures and my skeptical/critical nature, the majority of runners in Boston on Monday made their trek without incident. Even the 2000-or-so who suffered from the heat received the help they needed while accomplishing something that very few of us will ever do. It was good for my son to see runners going about their training throughout the city. Being around such devoted athletes was, I hope, educational in some way.

I also hope being around so many racing-related locations was educational, as well. Not only did it allow me to share some of my past with my son, but it allowed him to see just how vast and diverse the sport of automobile racing really is. From the towns and tracks we saw in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New York, to the presentation he knew I was making at the PCA conference in Boston, my four-year old got to see what built and shaped his dad’s life, and he got to see that this sport we call “racing” involves so much more than engines, tires, sheet metal, and helmets – it also involves valuable traits like determination, desire, and endurance.

Of course, he’ll learn all that when he starts building his first street stock or late model. Now he knows where to race them and how to get there…

Contact Mark Howell

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Joe..
04/19/2012 07:45 PM
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Hi Mark, nice picture painted with words.
I’ve spent most of my life out here in the Southwest (New Mexico and Arizona) desert and I love it. My folks are from West Virginia and my wifes’ people are from Tennessee.Every few years we pack up the car and head East through the heart of NASCAR country. There is real magic driving through Bristol and seeing the exit for the speedway, would love to stop and see a race at the legendary track. Maybe someday.
I believe Brian France needs to be mindful of building longterm memories of great drivers and behind the scenes people of NASCAR. This is what the stick and ball sports does best. We need parents (fans)of NASCAR to pass on to their kids the wonder and excitement of the drivers. Brian France seems to have gotten away from what it truly is about NASCAR, the fans the drivers and going fast. He needs to look at racing as a sport of daring. Drivers living larger than life who are willing to drive for hours at 200 MPH. Stop thinking of short term gain and get the fans excited about just how difficult it really is to drive 200MPH only feet apart on the bigger tracks. Build excitement not short term profits and the money part of it will take care of itself. Mr France needs to build memories, not an overpriced HOF glorifying the empire.

One more thing, we need much better TV coverage and less commercials.