February 24, 2008
After a wilderness ski tour last weekend, my buddies and I staggered exhausted and odiferous into the Woody Creek Tavern for a pitcher of “Doggie Style” and a heaping platter of gooey nachos. We happened to sit down just as the final laps of the Daytona 500 came roaring into view on the bar TV.
It is impossible to avert one’s gaze from the hypnotic flickering of the TV, so I occasionally glanced at the Daytona while recounting with my friends the epic tour that had wrung out every toxin from our bodies. (We now were in the process of restoring those toxins with beer-guzzling and nacho-gnoshing.)
Glancing at the Daytona reminded me of a nagging question a friend had asked recently regarding the popular phenomenon of NASCAR. “What is it about NASCAR that is so popular?” he asked with incredulity. “I just don’t get what makes people so eager to watch cars run around in circles.”
I had pondered the question with blank incomprehension, but now that the Daytona was front and center, the query lodged in my gray matter the way a fiery jalapeno was just then cauterizing my tonsils. The two impulses generated some thoughts on the matter.
There is a formidable gap between participating in car racing and actually doing it. First, you can get killed car racing. Second, it’s illegal. Spectators are drawn to NASCAR by the vicarious pleasure of watching someone else do it … and do it better than the spectator probably could in the family SUV.
But there is more to NASCAR than vicarious thrills. NASCAR is a national religion for millions who find not only a visceral thrill in watching racers roar around a track, but who revel in a communal experience anchored in the great American car culture.
For more insight, I turned to an enormous coffee table-sized book, “Thrillcraft: The Motorized Consequences of Motorized Recreation,” a volume you never will find on the coffee table in any red, white and blue NASCAR household.
In it, writer and social critic James Howard Kunstler writes that the car culture is an off-shoot of suburbia, which solidified the role of the car in 20th century America. The NASCAR craze of the 21st century, he opines, occurs as the nation reaches the “absolute zenith” of automobile use.
Since millions of Americans spend up to two hours a day commuting in their cars, they become fixated on their contrivances. Kunstler calls NASCAR the “apotheosis” of this fixation, particularly as it lionizes the “stock” car, which is quite different from the “sports” cars that are popular in European auto racing.
Millions of Americans find pleasure in NASCAR as a representation of their own commutes, or as Kunstler writes: “watching souped-up ordinary cars move symbolically around in circles.” At races, fans ballyhoo their heroes from grandstands and sky boxes, for an experience that, according to Kunstler, “is like sitting on a freeway overpass for five hours watching traffic.”
Historically, says Kunstler, NASCAR is a regional derivative: “The NASCAR subculture arose in the South, the old Dixie states, where the automobile had had tremendous social transformative power … where it liberated the red-necked peasantry from the oppression of geographic isolation.”
NASCAR is a balm, a salvation, says Kunstler, for “a nation of outsourced blue-collar jobs, shrinking incomes, vanishing medical insurance, rising fuel and heating costs and net-zero personal savings”
NASCAR also is a “projection of our will to power,” he adds, as are most “thrillcraft,” i.e. snowmobiles, jet skis, dirt bikes and four-wheelers. To stomp a gas pedal or throttle up a thrillcraft provides an extension of individual power that satisfies a need for something greater than one’s self.
Speed, power and noise become the intoxicants of the peak-oil culture in which NASCAR spectators feel emboldened to maintain the illusion that gas always will be affordable and available, both for their daily commutes and for shuttling to and from the spectacle of the NASCAR oval, the Elysian Fields of automotive absurdity.