In 2008, after years of phenomenal growth, interest in NASCAR racing fizzled noticeably. Fans cite a litany of reasons: the poor economy, mediocre racing, the ill-conceived pseudo-playoff known as the "Chase for the Championship," the presence of (horrors!) a Japanese automaker in the Sprint Cup, and the pathetic spectacle of the Detroit automakers begging for billions of dollars in bailout money.
I could go on. But maybe NASCAR's biggest problem is that the sport has strayed so far from its southern, semi-professional roots. As Neal Thompson writes in Driving With the Devil, his excellent history of the culture that spawned stock-car racing and eventually NASCAR, the first drivers and owners operated on shoestring budgets, racing cars (usually Fords) they purchased straight from the dealership and – as often as not – modified to transport moonshine whiskey. Stock cars were called "stock" for a reason.
The protagonists of Driving With the Devil are people like Raymond Parks, an Atlanta businessman who got his start running high-quality moonshine from rural Dawsonville, Georgia (a town that would produce a disproportionate number of stock-car legends, including Bill Elliott). Parks teamed up with Red Vogt, a surly but brilliant mechanic, to turn V8-powered Fords into "whiskey cars" that could outrun Treasury agents and survive the rough, red-dirt roads of rural Georgia.
A wise man once said that people got the idea to race cars as soon as the second automobile was produced, so it was only a matter of time before southerners got the idea to pit "whiskey cars" against each other, often on dirt tracks ploughed out of farmers' fields. Parks occasionally drove himself, but he usually left the racing to the legendary Lloyd Seay and Roy Hall – the former murdered by his own cousin, the latter stuck behind bars for many of his prime racing years. Moonshine whiskey, alas, sealed their respective fates.
Seay and Hall regularly beat a driver named Bill France on the track, but France would have the last laugh, bringing order to the chaotic world of stock car racing by creating the sanctioning body which would eventually be known as NASCAR. Thompson tries to portray France as ruthless and domineering, and to some extent, he certainly was. (Woe to the NASCAR driver who raced in a non-NASCAR race, or spoke out against the organization's business practices.) But the reader cannot help thinking France did precisely what had to be done to make the sport what it is today.
Or, more accurately, what it was. Part of the appeal of stock car racing was that the race cars bore a pretty strong resemblance to Fords and Chevrolets you could buy straight from the showroom. The resemblance has diminished over the years, to say the least, and today's "Ford Fusion" not only looks almost nothing like the stock Fusion, it doesn't look much different from a NASCAR "Impala," "Charger" or (gulp) "Camry." And the single-car, independent team? Forgot about it. Even the legendary Richard Petty, who won 200 races, has more or less conceded that his team won't be able to survive on its own.
Some say NASCAR will not (or should not) survive, but Driving With the Devil left me convinced that it most certainly will, at least in some form. The obstacles facing today's car owners and drivers don't even come close to what the sport's pioneers voluntarily put up with. (Kurt and Kyle Busch, I'm sure, will not get into a violent argument over illegally produced whiskey anytime soon.) Who knows? If the "Detroit Three' withdraw from the sport, maybe NASCAR teams will use modified versions of cars purchased straight from the dealership. Or, as they were once known, "stock cars."Powered by Sidelines