As the newest addition to the staff at Frontstretch.com, I thought it might be a good idea to introduce myself. Some of our readers may remember me from past online writing gigs; most of you – on the other hand – won’t know me at all. Allow me to take this opportunity to say hello and warn you about what looms ahead.
I have been around stock car racing my entire life, as a fan, a participant, and as a writer. Much of my childhood was spent sitting with my parents on a horizontal telephone pole at Herb Harvey’s Speedway (Racetrack? Bull ring?) in Lemon, Pa. From there, I graduated to the grandstands at what-was-then Shangri-La Motor Speedway (now called Tioga Motorsports Park) near Owego, NY. While being a follower of NASCAR’s more recognized racing divisions, I spent many years watching modified drivers like Jimmy Spencer, Dutch and Dean Hoag, and George Kent. By the time I turned sixteen, I found myself working/hanging out (albeit very briefly) on pit road with Brett Bodine, who drove a modified based out of a race shop in my hometown.
Living near Pocono Raceway allowed my parents to introduce me to the USAC stock car series (where I met an up-and-coming local driver named Geoff Bodine) and to the USAC Champ Car division (the home of drivers named Foyt and Unser). Pocono was also where I got to watch NASCAR legends like David Pearson, Richard Petty, and Bobby Allison compete in what-were-then-called Grand National races. As you can see from this little stroll down memory lane, automobile racing (and stock car racing, in particular) has been a significant part of my life.
My mom and dad were race fans, and weekends at the racetrack led me to years in-and-around the world of stock cars. Any dreams I had of competition gave way to college, which gave way to graduate school, and eventually I wound up a professor at Michigan State University. It was there that my doctoral dissertation – a cultural history of the NASCAR Winston Cup Series – became a book in 1997. Few, if any, within academia had ever given NASCAR (nor automobile racing, for that matter) much serious consideration. My lifetime around the people and places of NASCAR told me different, and my research demonstrated that stock car racing was much more than just loud cars roaring around in circles; the sport embodied the attitudes and values of this thing we call an “American character,” and it embraced the fascination we have with the concept of heroic behavior and celebrity culture.
Most of all, NASCAR reflected a tradition of corporate rhetoric that secured its relationship with the movers-and-shakers in a capitalistic society. That said, the book _(From Moonshine to Madison Avenue: A Cultural History of the NASCAR Winston Cup Series)_ gave readers an in-depth look at a sport often reduced to stereotypes by the general public. I, on the other hand, found myself with an opportunity to experience NASCAR – the good, the bad, and the ugly – from a front-row seat.
I’ve worked with several NASCAR then-Winston Cup teams over the years as a participant observer/researcher. My fieldwork allowed me to follow Travis Carter Motorsports (when Hut Stricklin was driving the “Smokin’ Joe’s Garage”/ Camel Cigarettes Ford) back in 1994, and I was a photographer for Kenny Wallace’s Web site during the summer of 2000 when he drove the Square D Chevrolet for Andy Petree Racing. From 2001 through the 2003 season, I traveled as part-time pit support/gopher/hanger-on for Brett Bodine Racing. My involvement there was because of a book project I was doing for a publisher who wanted a history of the Bodine family. Even though the book never materialized (one of the biggest and most personally-painful failures of my career, so far), I learned a great deal about life on the NASCAR trail and how the sport of stock car racing was – at that time – surviving as a mainstream sport despite the loss of its biggest competitive name; my first race with BBR came at Atlanta in 2001, the day Kevin Harvick won his first race in Richard Childress No. 29 Chevrolet.
As NASCAR (and my book) developed an audience, I was called upon by folks within the media to talk about stock car racing and its unique role within society. When NASCAR celebrated its 50th anniversary, I was a guest on NPR’s “Talk of the Nation.” After Dale Earnhardt died at Daytona, I sat in with Dr. Jerry Punch and Washington Post sportswriter Liz Clarke to do “Nightline with Ted Koppel.” When “NASCAR Dads” became the new “soccer moms” during the 2004 presidential campaign, I was asked to explain how racing for a national title had ties to racing for the White House. Such topics for discussion bubbled over into academic conferences, where audiences of my peers – most of whom regarded NASCAR racing as little more than a blood sport for the unwashed masses – got to hear me huff-and-puff about stock car racing’s right to be considered a mainstream sport.
Simply put: I’ve logged a lot miles and a lot of lectures over a lot of years to defend NASCAR against a lot of critics. Along the way, it was fun to discover how many closeted NASCAR fans there were lurking about in the hallways of colleges and universities worldwide. The biggest lesson I learned during this time was that NASCAR truly meant something to people who followed the sport and loved what it provided, regardless of whether that meant door-to-door, bumper-to-bumper, high-speed competition, or simply the opportunity to spend weekends with friends both old and new at speedways all across the nation.
In a previous life (1998 – 2001), I got to “meet” hundreds of race fans through the weekly (weakly?) column I wrote for a Web site called Speedworld, which became known later on as SpeedFX. It was during those days when I became a fan (and later, a friend) of Matt McLaughlin – the same Matt McLaughlin whose writings presently entertain, agitate, and educate readers of Frontstretch. Matt and I often saw eye-to-eye on issues in and around NASCAR, but we’d have our differences of opinion, as well. Matt’s approach to the sport taught me that there was no place for a fair-weather fan (or commentator) on a NASCAR-based (but not sanctioned, as in the property of the organization itself) Web site. Matt’s writing showed me that criticism regarding a sudden rule change, or a driver’s off-track behavior, or a questionable comment published somewhere in the media was not only OK, but necessary.
This approach continues to show the way in our current culture of 24/7, immediate access to user-generated/democratized information. Not commenting about a biased article (regardless of the medium), an inappropriate blog entry, or an offensive “tweet” does not mean that such occurrences are OK or should be condoned; just the opposite is true, and one of my goals while at Frontstretch is to try and deconstruct such material. It won’t be my only role, but it’s a job I’ll be taking seriously. Most of my writing will be of the historical/cultural/analytical variety. I’ll offer event analysis and commentary, but I’ll also write articles that address NASCAR’s past. My own time served around NASCAR may inspire the occasional essay, but don’t worry that my columns will devolve into a “I remember how, back in the day, I used to…” kind of deal. Such stories can be interesting, but only within the appropriate context. My content will be based on what I think NASCAR fans (or racing fans, overall) might want to read.
NASCAR, to me, has always been about people. Growing up in a stock car crazy family in Northeastern Pennsylvania, racing was always about enjoying a day at the racetrack surrounded by friends and neighbors. Getting to meet people during my travels as a writer and professor taught me that NASCAR was a shared and very communal experience. This past week, for example, I spoke in San Antonio, Texas at the joint national conference of the American Culture Association/Popular Culture Association. My lecture dealt with the idea that NASCAR has been trying a variety of experimental options (both on the track, as well as off) to recapture a core audience that has been hard-hit by a recessed economy and stagnant racing. I said that along with revolutionary changes in equipment, the calculation of points, and environmentally-friendly initiatives, the 2011 season (so far) has demonstrated that NASCAR has the people in place to re-energize itself.
Consider some of the big stories thus far – events like Trevor Bayne and the Wood Brothers winning the Daytona 500, Danica Patrick breaking Sara Christian’s 62-year old “highest finish by a woman” record, and last month’s photo finish at Talladega (the top-eight crossing the line within .145 seconds of each other) have put NASCAR squarely back on the sports page. As the economy slowly improves and as television ratings quietly climb, perhaps better days lie ahead. If a fan-favorite like Dale Earnhardt, Junior can make it back into victory lane (and he’s getting closer, riding waves of increased confidence and competitive momentum), the aftermath might be bigger than we could ever expect. Toss recognizable models of American cars (can you say “muscle”?) into the Sprint Cup Series over the next couple of seasons, and NASCAR’s renaissance just might hit full speed.
As I see it, NASCAR is dealing with a new world order, of sorts. The usual socio-economic hierarchy is still at work – those with big money can afford big names and score the big wins – but such a format is getting cliché in our current economy. We hear a lot of grumbling about the teams that “start and park” their way to a quick (and not nearly large enough to be much good) paycheck, but what other choices do these teams have? If there’s going to be a full field of cars in any given event, it’s inevitable that a majority of them will be underfunded operations. We see the one-off sponsorship deals each week in all three of the major touring divisions, but is that not the way of our economy today? The eternal and vicious cycle of motorsports continues to turn – you can’t win unless you have enough money, and you can’t get enough money unless you win. That rule has dictated automobile racing since the days when Barney Oldfield painted “Firestone Tires are my only life insurance” across the side of his car, chomped down on a cigar butt, and roared off in a cloud of dust to the cheers of fans across America. That formula, circa 2011, isn’t going to change.
The savage cruelties of global economics aren’t limited, however, to affecting the performances of race teams; any hopes for increased spectator attendance may be dashed as gasoline prices climb above four dollars in most parts of the country. As consumer prices go up, the numbers of fans in the stands will likely drop off even more than we’ve seen of late. When you see rows of empty seats at a perennial sell-out facility like Bristol Motor Speedway during a time when the economy is supposedly improving, one can only shudder to think about what another summer of high fuel prices might do to the travel plans of NASCAR fans. As someone who lives in a major resort/tourism-based region (Leelanau County in Northern Michigan), I can report that the term “staycation” is already being heard. Just when things are looking up for NASCAR, variables beyond the sport’s control step in to ruin the party. One word of advice here-and-now: if the cost of a Nationwide or Sprint Cup weekend gets too high for you and yours, find a regional/local short track and watch the action there. Not only will you see great competition, but you may also get to see a future NASCAR superstar. It’s worth the time and effort!
I’m looking forward to being a part of the Frontstretch team. It’s been a while since I’ve tackled such work, so hopefully it won’t take long for me to brush off the cobwebs. Most of my teaching load is advanced composition, and I’m always harping to my students about knowing their audience. One thing I’ve learned from writing for the Internet is that I have immediate access to the folks who read and disagree with – or agree with – my finished work. I don’t Facebook, nor do I use Twitter (I do, sometimes, quiver, but that’s a too-much-caffeine sort of deal); I do, however, work regularly with e-mail (as a professor at Northwestern Michigan College, I teach online courses and log a ton of computer time).
Given that, please don’t hesitate to drop me a note whenever you have a question or a comment. My goal, since the early days of my Internet career, has always been to respond to readers in a prompt and personal manner, and I plan to keep that up during my time with Frontstretch. I’m happy to be here, and I hope to be a worthy addition to this respected motorsports website. Thanks for reading, and please stay tuned for more…