Sunday, February 15, 2009

The Last American Sport

I love the smell of burning rubber in the morning.

Hurray, the Great American Race has returned. The thing about stock car racing is you either get it, or you don't. And even if you don't, there's a chance if you read Tom Wolfe's "The Last American Hero'' you will discover some true meaning that otherwise would have escaped you.

I doubt the readers of Esquire magazine in 1965 ran out and bought NASCAR tickets and Junior Johnson memorabilia after the story was originally published. More likely what happened is they became REALLY afraid of Southern rednecks and vowed to stay the hell away from dusty bullrings like North Wilkesboro Speedway. At the same time, they surely developed an abiding respect for these hard-driving racers and the dirt and grime and hell and fury that make up the fabric of the sport.

But forty-four years is a long time and a lot of miles later. Stock car racing has morphed into a different beast than the one Wolfe depicted. It's been years since a songwriter has even tried to slip in a good line about racing -- or allude to Junior's "other'' occupation.

James Dean in that Mercury '49
Junior Johnson runnin' thru the woods of Caroline
Even Burt Reynolds in that black Trans-Am
All gonna meet down at the Cadillac Ranch

God willing, they'll still race hard for 500 miles today on the steep banks of Daytona, and the champion will spin a donut in the infield grass, stand on top of his machine and spray cola on his pit crew, and maybe even do a back-flip or climb a fence.

It's still the Daytona 500, you know? Where it all begins each year. Where Richard Petty won an amazing seven times. Where Junior Johnson -- Junior! -- in 1960 got his only win by beating Fireball Roberts to the checkered flag. Where the Allison brothers in 1979 ganged up on Cale Yarborough after a final-lap spinout, leading to this memorable quote by Bobby: "Cale's chin just kept running into my fist.''

And where Dale Earnhardt in 2001 died after smacking the wall on the final lap.

How tragic was Earnhardt's death? Stock car racing feeds off its heroes and villains, and Earnhardt was the consummate multi-tasker: he filled both roles, maybe better than anybody before him, certainly better than anybody since. It's been eight years, and racing still hasn't recovered. That's tragic.


  1. Fireball Roberts was a pitcher for the Florida Gators baseball team, hence his prophetic nickname.

  2. How' bout them Wisconsin drivers!

    I saw that Kenseth did an ESPN photo shoot after the race at Lambeau and did the leap into the crowd they had assembled. Pretty cool.