This ran in the The Nation's Aug. 15/22, 2011 Sports Issue
A most sacred cow of sports, the Masters, ambles onto the greensward this week to open the big-time golf season and renew all that’s retrograde in American life. Forget about the return of Tiger Woods to health and competition and the sightings of President Obama on a Hawaiian course. Those were no signs of stimulation as far as I was concerned. Golf is about business as usual. Golf helped get us into this economic fix.
The Masters (did they mean Masters of the Universe?) is played at the Augusta National Club, in Georgia, which was founded in the early 1930’s for northeastern businessmen. Under pressure, the Club finally admitted at least one African-American member in 1990. Thirteen years later, it gave up millions in TV sponsorships rather than give in to a campaign to admit at least a token woman member.
But there’s far more to golf than mere lack of equality. Golf is an environmental nightmare, a waste of space, of fertilizer, of water. Think of the vegetables that could be grown on those useless lawns. Think of the lovely meadows, walking trails, wildlife sanctuaries.
Bernard Madoff was a golfer. There was even a links-linked red flag for his victims, according to a CNBC report that found his golf scores oddly consistent, too good to be true – just like his reported investment returns. And even the attempt to desegregate Augusta was really about making money – opening the higher levels of corporate deal-making to business women. Want to play a round with a Bernadette Madoff?
In these hard times, with fewer new golf clubs expected to open this year than old ones closing, according to the National Golf Foundation, while country clubs lower their dues and some sponsors on the 2009 PGA tour re-think their costs, I’ve been hoping this useless sport was finally in the rough. We’ll have to watch the scoreboard.
Meanwhile, I must disclose there’s a personal issue here.
April is the cruelest month for me because so many of my friends here in the northeast disappear. They’re out playing golf. When I complain, they tell me to come along, to take up the game.
Right. I’ve really thought about the joys of thrashing at a small object that’s not moving, then complaining about my performance to sympathetic listeners. Golf is not even a game, it’s a socially acceptable way to avoid your spouse, do business while pretending not to do business, or imagine you have a purpose in life.
I say all this to my friends and they either laugh or look at me with the pity that true believers reserve for sad cynics.
Randy Rothenberg, a digital trade executive, explained to me that golf is his way of trying to better himself without having to beat someone else. He defines his weaknesses and improves. Improves what, I ask? Your capacity to drink after you are done driving your little geezer cart up and down tiny hillocks?
Gary Paul Gates, most recently co-writer of Mike Wallace’s biography, tells me how I’ll make some new pals on the course. Like who, I snarl? Some guy who wants to sell me derivatives?
Tim Sullivan, a TV producer, describes the mysterious changes that golf has led him through, how it has healed his spirit and softened his temper. He even has a website (Sullivanwords.com) in which he writes about all this. Golf, I snicker, sounds like religion. He pats my head.
My friends are slipping off my social radar screen as we speak. The economy has given some of them more free time than usual, and we live near an inexpensive course. I know from past years I will feel a little pang this spring as I bicycle past my cold-weather friends driving their little wagons over the hills, laughing and discussing their lack of improvements and their spiritual handicaps while wearing their Tiger gear. It’s not the pang of feeling left out, but the pang of watching guys with some life left measuring it out in strokes they meticulously record.
It’s symbolic. I’m not expecting any major national turn-arounds as long as good people keep deluding themselves that chasing a little white ball is something as grand as hunting a great white whale. Our national denials will take us down as surely as Moby Dick drowned Captain Ahab. Who looks for terrorists, crooked politicians, greedy stock traders on a golf course? Who is trying to reform health care, regulate the markets, clean the air while putting?
If, however, you are among those trying to face reality these days and thus unable to sleep, I suggest you take advantage of golf’s single gift – watching any tournament on TV, including the Masters, is safer than taking sleeping pills.
This is from ESPN.COM
This is what I learned in high school this year: The kids are not all right, and some of them even know why.
I've been talking to high school kids, especially jocks, on my book tour for "Raiders Night," a controversial new young-adult novel about the aftermath of a brutal training-camp hazing incident. In the book, the coaches, the school and the town try to put a lid on the incident. On the tour, coaches, schools and towns have been trying to put a lid on the book.
"Raiders Night" has become a banned substance in many places. It is clearly R-rated. I've been told that the hazing scene is too graphic, and that the language, sex, recreational drugs and steroid use will offend the kind of parents who put locks on their computers. I can understand that. But I think something else is going on. I have been invited by librarians and teachers, the usual gatekeepers of language, then disinvited by athletic directors and principals.
This has happened now in such places as Austin, Texas, and Raleigh, N.C., which I can understand. High school football is a righteous church in Texas, and the apologetic librarians who met me in a Raleigh bookstore one night wondered if the troubles at nearby Duke might have rubbed everyone raw.
But Washington, D.C.?
The librarian of an upper crust boys school that educates the sons of senators and media bigfoots had invited me before. She was enthusiastic this time after reading "Raiders Night" reviews and a letter to her in which I wrote, "I'm also interested in creating a national dialogue about Jock Culture, its impact on kids and families and how some of its worst values and definitions – exclusivity, sexism and homophobia, domination, winning at any cost – have become ingrained in our national psyche. It's not hard to connect the dots from the field house to the White House."
She liked the idea that the protagonist, a steroid-using, Vicodin-popping wide receiver, struggles with his conscience; as a captain, he wants to do the right thing but also wants to do the best thing -- get a scholarship far away from his driven, abusive father. The librarian said making moral choices is a major topic at her school.
Not long afterward she sheepishly got back to me. The director of athletics had wondered why I wasn't also going to "talk about music" and the headmaster wondered if I couldn't talk about "violence in our society with jock culture as one of its manifestations." They didn't seem all that concerned about the language in the book, the sex and the drugs. I think they got the yips from the hard look at the dark side of high school sports, the arena in which they controlled their boys and whipped them into shape for the big time.
I wasn't going to change the message, and so I was disinvited.
As it turned out, the high school kids I did get to, in New York, Illinois, Michigan and California, weren't all that concerned about the language, the sex and drugs in the book, either. It was what they lived with every day. They said they could handle that. What they did want to talk about was something they obviously couldn't handle – betrayal by adult society.
At one suburban Chicago high school where more than a hundred juniors and seniors had read the book before I came to speak, the football players I talked to privately wanted to vent about their profound and sophisticated mistrust of coaches.
"There's like one coach I might talk to," a senior lineman told me, "an old guy, maybe 60, who doesn't have anything to prove. He's retired, he won a championship in another district, and he volunteers with us. But the head coach and the other guys, all they care about is winning. Play you hurt, mess with your head, they don't really care about us."
His friends agreed, although some of them weren't so sure about the old guy, either. When I brought up the tacit complicity of their parents, there was some eye rolling among themselves, but otherwise they got busy with the water and cookies the librarians had set out for us. As a group, they didn't want to go there. Alone, some players talked about how excited their dads and moms got at games, how important success at football seemed to be at home. It was clear that talking about it made them uneasy. Talking about it makes Dr. Michael Miletic mad.
"We're seeing an escalation of what is pure and simple child exploitation," he said. "Coaches and school administrators are doing it for personal – sometimes financial – gain and parents are doing it for emotional gain. In some cases it becomes child abuse."
Dr. Miletic was my coach and partner in the creation of "Raiders Night." Most of the book's best insights came from his medical practice and athletic experience. He is a Detroit-area psychiatrist who played high school football before majoring in weight-lifting and becoming a Canadian heavyweight champion and a member of the Olympic team.
"It's very seductive when adults promise a kid fame, power, glory. But what they are really doing is derailing and skewing his development, taking away his chance of having healthy relationships, moral values, of a grounded control of his own life."
He wasn't at all surprised about my tales of athletes' distrust of adults. "They see what's going on. How can they trust authority figures? What's interesting is in the past 10 years or so, the moral authority of coaches has eroded and parents are taking over, using the coaches as vehicles for their kids' advancement, threatening their jobs if they don't win. The parents are putting pressure on the coaches as well as the kids. No wonder there's steroids and abusive behavior."
All this is happening right now because high school sports is the next gusher in the jock entertainment complex. The ground is already rumbling. It took H.G. Bissinger's classic, "Friday Night Lights," 14 years to make it from the page to the big screen, but now it's a network TV show as well. Its time has come. Hoover High of Birmingham, Ala., arguably the best prep team in the country, has its own MTV show, "Two-A-Days." Last year, an ESPN reality show, "Bound for Glory," featured the football team of Montour High in McKees Rocks, Pa., trying to return to its state championship days with Dick Butkus as coach, Reebok uniforms and a new $40,000 scoreboard.
Meanwhile, ESPN and Fox Sports will be televising 21 high school football and basketball games nationally. Nationally. Sports Illustrated has joined USA Today in publishing high school rankings (they already proliferate online) and stories of high school and college scouts at Pee Wee games are no longer strange but true. It may be the reason the shoe companies are phasing out their meat-market summer camps – the college coaches know who the blue chips are by the time they get out of junior high. Two years ago, Judith Thompson, then marketing director for the National Federation of State High School Associations, told the New York Times, ''Corporate involvement at the high school level is about to explode nationwide. It's an unlimited, untapped market and it is in places companies often can't easily reach. But on any given Friday night, in all those middle-American flyover states, sitting in high school football stadiums are millions of people.''
By the next day, she later told SportsBusiness Journal, "Cell phone companies, quick-serve restaurants, pizza – they were all calling. Fortune 500 companies with big budgets."
But nothing much happened because the federation has no real power over its member state associations who could not agree on a national system of championships that could be underwritten by giant corporations. While almost every state needs the money, most of them were not ready to give up local power and/or make deals with the devil.
So that's how close the high school sports biz is right now to becoming a commercial minor league for colleges in much the way the college sports biz is a commercial minor league for pro sports. All it needs is a charismatic leader, a Baron de Coubertin, a Bill France, a Peter Ueberroth.
That commercialization may already have happened in Texas, where naming rights for high school fields go for a million or more and Friday night games have traditionally not been televised in real time to protect the live box office. Dave Stephenson of Titus Sports Marketing, who brokered the $1.9 million naming deal in Tyler, Texas, told SportsBusiness Journal, "Every superintendent in Texas has in his files a contract for Coke or Pepsi or Dr Pepper that runs 10 years for seven figures. Now they want to know what else is out there."
Everything's out there, and once it comes in anything goes. The pressure on high school kids to perform will be even more intense than on college kids, who tend to be less vulnerable to coaches and dads (especially if they're not living at home), and more aware that this will probably be their final level of play.
High school boys, those immortal risk takers, seduced and excited by Showtime arriving along with hormonal tsunamis and a driver's license, will put their souls, bodies and neurons on the line to make men proud.
Steroid use will escalate, of course. While it may be, as Dr. Miletic believes, only a symptom of exploitation and abuse, it is the most vivid window on just how insidiously adults betray children.
Here is a common scenario, from jocks on the road and from Dr. Miletic's case histories.
In late spring, before the end of classes and the start of the "voluntary" captains' weight-lifting sessions, one of the assistant football coaches will take a junior aside and casually say, "You know, if you could put on 30 pounds this summer, you could get a I-A ride."
The kid is no dummy; he knows what that means. The andro and creatine aren't enough anymore. He's seen older kids put on muscle over a summer and start hitting like trucks. They'd spring pimples on their backs and some nasty moods, but those who stuck with the lifting program along with the juice often got their scholarships. On the other hand, he knew that 30 pounds worth of anabolic steroids could cost $5,000.
At dinner that night, the kid repeats what the coach said to his dad, who nods and says, "You better hit the weights this summer."
"What about my job?"
"Maybe I can help you out."
The kid goes upstairs and Googles anabolic steroids, which he has done before, but this time he is trying to absorb enough information so he doesn't look like a newbie when he goes into the market. He roams the suppliers who promise good gear and no scams and no chance of "sweater melons" or raging acne. He checks the ads for additives called Velocity and Thermocharge. He pauses in the chat rooms where lifters discuss stacking and pyramiding and how only a fool doesn't take a break after eight weeks. Nobody is talking right or wrong here, just the right way and the wrong way to cycle properly and grow big. He's nervous, but it's obvious that thousands of guys have done this before.
As expected, dad leaves his wallet out, with enough cash for a start. Soon enough, he'll leave out a debit card.
The kid is wary of mail order, so he talks to some lifters who played ball in past years and eventually finds his way to an ironhead gym on the highway and a friend of a friend who deals out of his trunk in the parking lot. Nice guy. He takes the time to show the kid how to inject into a thigh muscle. They practice on an orange.
This is based, I repeat, on anecdotal evidence, not scientific surveys. Which amazes me. With all the leaked BALCO papers, the reefer madness warnings from anti-doping officials and the media moralizing about big-league enhanced performers, there isn't much hard information on steroids and sports, especially its effect on the fastest-growing population of users, high school athletes. No one wants to deal with it, I think, because all that entertainment money is beginning to cascade down to the high school level and everybody wants a taste.
Even more dangerous than steroid use, I think, will be the widening gap between Jocks and Outsiders (also known as Pukes). It started in elementary school, of course, choosing up sides, dividing the already insecure into good bodies and bad bodies, and then took off as the littlest leagues started skimming their cream into traveling teams, some of whom roam the world with sneaker contracts.
The Jock-Outsider gap became a Sunday morning discussable after the 1999 Columbine massacre. I weighed in with a New York Times column on the shootings as a response to the arrogant, entitled behavior of high school athletes, as encouraged by the adults who lived vicariously through them. The e-mail was overwhelming. It became an Internet forum that wouldn't quit as middle-aged men exposed the emotional scars of high school.
This was typical:
When I attended high school, I had so much built-up anger from being treated unfairly that, if I had access to guns or explosives, I would have been driven to do a similar thing to take revenge on the bastard jocks who dominated the school and made those four years miserable for me. After high school, I was not surprised to hear that a handful of these jocks had either died as a result of drunk driving and drug overdoses, or had spent a little time in jail for violence or drug possession. As for the dead ones, I would probably pee on their graves.
Here's one from a jock:
We really did get special attention both from the students and from the teachers. We also did cruel things to other students. I have a 20th school anniversary this summer and plan on seeking forgiveness from the people I know I helped terrorize.
When I read those e-mails to high school kids on the "Raiders Night" tour, I expected eye rolling and snorts. Instead, they gave each other knowing glances. Two football players who had feet in both the Jock and the Outsider camps told me separately about other athletes "trash-canning" band geeks in the cafeteria or stuffing them into their lockers. Not a lot had changed from John Hughes' teen flicks of the '80s.
One of the biculturals seemed more like a character than a real kid. He was a Goth, tattooed, dressed in black with studs through his eyebrows. He looked quick and wiry. He said he was a receiver and cornerback. He took out the jewelry for games. The other football players gave him some crap for his clothes and piercings, but he could deal with it. The Goths couldn't understand at all how he could play. He seemed to be getting off being both a Jock outlaw and an Outsider outlaw. Eventually he was going to have to make a choice between the one created by adult authority and the one created to flout adult authority.
Just a few years ago, I went to Massachusetts to cover the coming out of an American icon, a high school football captain. His parents and teachers already knew Corey Johnson was gay, but now he had to tell his teammates. One freshman freaked. He ran to the other football captain and squeaked, "How do you expect me to shower with a gay guy?"
The captain said, "You're a football player, suck it up."
That seemed to turn the tide. They all sucked it up, got past it, and after they won the next game they presented Corey with the ball and on the bus ride home sang "YMCA."
I told that story on the book tour, and while I had to explain in some places that "YMCA" was considered, in the '90s, a gay theme song, the jocks liked the idea of sucking it up, of being tough. The macho thing.
Not all of them bought it. The other bicultural, an immense lineman with none of the muscle definition, Cro-Magnon jaw or acne you associate with juicers, told me he was president of the Science Club and was known around school as Captain Geek. He didn't expect to play college ball (actually, he said, he hoped he wouldn't have to, that he would get into MIT on a physics ride) and he was late to practice so we could talk privately. That surprised me. Didn't coach have rules? Sure, Captain Geek told me, but they didn't apply to 325-pounders who couldn't care less. He said he mostly played football so no one would mess with him or his friends. He told me that the sex, steroids and recreational drugs in the book were real, and that he had a better story.
A couple of years ago, he told me, his school's quarterback dumped his girlfriend just before Homecoming and took the replacement to the postgame parties. The ex followed them with her cell phone. She e-mailed the pictures she took of the backfield drinking and smoking pot to the coach and the principal. They were suspended.
We laughed about that and I promised him credit if there was a sequel.
Then he got serious. I don't think what he said was aberrational, that he was the only one who thought of it, but I do think he was a kid whose unusual situation gave him a rare emotional freedom, if not fearlessness.
"You know," he said, lowering his voice, "even the kids who drink the Kool-Aid know what's going on. The coaches are getting over on us. The school looks good when we win. Nobody's giving up his body for the coach or the school – it's for your teammates, your buddies. I guess Iraq is like that."
The Following appeared on my favorite political site TOMDISPATCH.COM
1. It's the Car, Stupid
"I hate that term, NASCAR Dads, it's narrow and patronizing, but it's about time Democrats showed some sensitivity to the stock car culture." -- David (Mudcat) Saunders, political consultant.
The Democrats won the Senate and the House because the Republicans lost the garage.
Four years ago, mad political scientists created Nascar Dad to combat Soccer Mom. The result was as epic as Beowulf versus Grendel's Mother. We know how both those battles came out. And now we also know that Nascar Dad, like the great Scandinavian mercenary, began to wonder if he was protecting the right mead hall.
Like Beowulf, Nascar Dad may be a fiction. Nascar itself denies having any stereotypical fan, while encouraging the idea that it is a political player. Larry J. Sabato, director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics, described Nascar Dads as "middle-to-lower-middle-class males who are family men, live in rural areas, used to vote heavily Democratic but now usually vote Republican." Most political experts more or less agree with that description, although political consultant Mudcat Saunders adds that Nascar Dads are often suburbanites who are "rural-thinking" about religion, patriotism, hunting, and fishing.
One of the sharpest thinkers in Nascar Nation, H.A. (Humpy) Wheeler, president of the leading North Carolina track, told me back in 2003, "They liked the President's Top Gun performance, but they're not so gung ho anymore on Iraq because this is the crowd that joined the National Guard."
That turned out to be a distant early warning.
Nascar Dad still voted for Bush and Republicans in 2004. Among other reasons, as many Nascar Dads told me then, they thought that Bush was more "manly" than Kerry, whom they despised as the patronizing snot who had been putting them down since grade school.
Republican attitudes toward evangelical Christianity, unashamed commercialism, guns, the environment (racing cars still use leaded gasoline), and diversity (the Nascar garage is overwhelmingly male and white) seemed a perfect fit with Nascar values. Nascar supported Bush financially and courted his attention through its ruling family, the Frances. They have owned and operated the sport since 1947 when promoter Big Bill France whipped a brawl of hot-headed former moonshiners into a confederacy called the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing. His son, Bill, Jr., and now his grandson Brian, extended his vision brilliantly, signing record TV deals. They did it with racers that sort of looked like everyday street cars, but weren't, and they held onto their southern hardcore while reaching out to markets in California and the Midwest.
I remember thinking -- in the years I actively covered Nascar -- that one of the most telling differences between my subjects and me was that they knew more people on active military duty than people in same-sex relationships.
That was still true this month, and that's why the Democrats won.
2. Dale Died for Our Sins
"You might be a redneck if you think the last four words of the national anthem are ‘Gentlemen, start your engines.'" -- Jeff Foxworthy
On the final turn of the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500, the first and most celebrated race of the Nascar season, Dale Earnhardt, Sr. slammed into the wall near where I was sitting. I can still hear the frantic voice of Earnhardt's crew chief calling to him through my radio scanner: "You okay, Dale? Talk to us, talk to us."
Minutes later, a blue tarp was thrown over that famous black #3 Goodwrench Chevrolet. It was my first race and I didn't understand the full meaning of the blue tarp until I heard the air whoosh out of 200,000 chests and people around me in the press box begin to cry.
The clash of reactions to Earnhardt's death -- Oh, God vs. So What? -- was a signifier of America's cultural divide. There were millions of Americans who barely knew what Nascar was, who thought of it as numbing Sunday afternoons of gas guzzlers mindlessly snarling around a track while rednecks got hammered. But there were also millions of Americans who built their family vacations around those races and their buying patterns around the products advertised on their favorite cars. Nascar claims some 75 million fans and, by some measures of regular season TV viewership, it is second only to pro football as a national sports pastime.
Beyond the three top levels of Nascar -- Nextel Cup, Busch, and Craftsman Truck -- lies a competitive racing culture that starts with an estimated 4,000 American youngsters between 5 and 13 driving quarter-midgets, little fiberglass cars with 2.5 to 4 horsepower engines that can reach speeds of almost 40 miles per hour. They graduate into dozens of classes of cars at hundreds of race tracks, predominately in the South and Midwest, driven by men, women, and children in front of grandstands packed with Nascar families.
For them, Earnhardt, known as "The Intimidator," was one of the last of the laconic, hard-charging carburetor cowboys with whom Southern workingmen could identify. They flew Confederate flags with his face superimposed. They wore hats and shirts with his number 3 and grew imitations of his push-broom moustache. And they plastered their pick-ups and rec vehicles with pictures of his main rival, California-born Jeff Gordon. There would be a red slash through Gordon's pretty face and the words Fans Against Gordon (F.A.G.). It was the worst they could throw at Gordon, a hearty hetero who drove as hard as Earnhardt (who liked and mentored the younger man).
At 49, Dale was the cocky, daring, triumphant yet accessible hero of a wounded land, a tough guy who might tolerate the Northern corporate suits who dogged him like little boys, yet never lost touch with his rural roots. He hunted and worked his farm and tough-loved Dale, Jr. into a superstar, too.
I didn't get it while he was still alive. I spent some time with him the month before he died. He was gruffly charming and I found what I considered his contradictions amusing. Here was a populist hero whose North Carolina office-race shop complex, the so-called Garage Mahal, contained a curated display of his hunting rifles, mounted animal heads, and pictures of his executive chef cooking up his kills. I was simply too new to the sport, maybe too New York, to appreciate his mythic place.
Thousands jammed his memorial services, lined up to leave notes and flowers on the fence near where he died, wore black, and painted a 3 on their cars and pick-ups. Think Princess Di.
His death was at least as poignant; he was in third place, blocking the field for the front-runners, his son, Dale, Jr. and his protégé, Michael Waltrip, a 37-year-old journeyman who went on to win his first Cup race.
My story of Earnhardt's death appeared the next day on page one of the New York Times, but his name was not in the headline. The editors decided that not enough Times readers knew who he was. They were probably right, yet another indication of the red-blue divide. The headline read: "Stock Car Star Killed on Last Lap of Daytona 500."
In her best-seller, Slander, Ann Coulter, in an attempt to portray how out of touch and elitist the Times was, claimed that it took the paper two days to get around to covering Earnhardt's death and, when it did, the lede read "His death brought a silence to the Wal-Mart," which she interpreted as a disdainful swipe. (That was actually in a reaction piece several days later by Southerner Rick Bragg.)
In an attempt to show how out of touch and misleading Coulter was, Al Franken reprinted that front page in his best-seller Lies and the Lying Liars who Tell Them.
The beatification of Dale Earnhardt, Sr. as a man's man who sacrificed himself to shepherd his flock to the finish line, a hero who in death evoked both John Wayne and Jesus, presented America with its biggest joint jolt of sports and evangelical Christianity since Billy Sunday left the Philadelphia Phillies outfield more than a century ago to become a superstar preacher. But as William J. Baker, author of the forthcoming book, Playing with God: Religion and Modern Sport, told me, it shouldn't have been a surprise.
"In many ways, evangelical Christianity and big-time sport are similar," said Professor Baker, who was a preacher and a quarterback in his time. "Both are win-loss mentalities. In evangelical Christianity you are either saved or lost. You've gone to heaven or you've gone to hell, you win or you lose and that's what this sport is all about."
3. What's the Matter with Nascar?
"People do not necessarily vote in their self-interest. They vote their identity. They vote their values." -- George Lakoff in Don't Think of an Elephant
I was an accidental gearhead. In 2000, Neil Amdur, the Times' sports editor, had cool-spotted stock car racing as the next major-league entertainment. Just at that moment, I was looking to let some fresh air into my weekly column. As we planned it, I would drop into Nascar from time to time, a dilettante anthropologist. Then Earnhardt crashed and I was suddenly the department's leading expert on the new century's hot sport.
Most of the people I spent time with over the next few years were white Christian men with rural roots. Once I got a few rules of the road under my belt -- drink beer, not wine; never underestimate their intelligence or sensitivity to slight; and be totally honest about my own lack of car sense -- it was the best time I had as a sportswriter. They were eager to help me understand their sport. This included not only hilarious nights of eating catfish with sides of raffish tales, but a window onto an America I had not known and, most memorably, a chance to drive a stock car at about 135 miles per hour. Those sixteen laps around Lowe's Motor Speedway in Charlotte (cleared of all other cars for obvious reasons) were the only time in my life I did not have a single extraneous thought. When it was over, I brimmed with admiration for Nascar drivers who drove fifty miles per hour faster, while being rubbed and bumped by forty other cars.
I also appreciated the passion of their fans who clearly understood the realness of this sport, its danger, its demands for concentration and skill, and -- compared to the insecure faux macho of so many "stick-and-ballers" -- its…manliness.
It's part of the Nascar deal for drivers to attend sponsors' and car manufacturers' breakfasts, trade shows, and customer parties, even on race days, and those who do it well can extend a mediocre career. So they interact with their fans far more than any other athletes and are always saying how "grateful" they are to them.
They should be. Nascar fans shop against their best interests so they can remain loyal to the sponsor of a driver they root for. They understand, they'll say, that the main sponsor's annual infusion of $15 million or so is what makes their favorite car go.
One fan actually told me: "My husband buys Tide even when it's more expensive than Wisk because he likes the driver Ricky Craven. We have friends who don't like Bud but drink it because of Dale, Jr. When my Sprint contract is up, I'll probably switch to Nextel." (This was before the merger.)
It gets worse. Pfizer, which sponsored the Viagra car, used to set up a tent at racetracks offering blood and urine exams by local doctors for diabetes and other disorders. I sat in one day and was amazed at the number of overweight men and women with dangerously high glucose and blood pressure levels. For many of them, this was their only medical exam of the year. Some said they had made a choice between their medicine and their grandstand tickets. "Why live if you can't go racin'?" was the way they'd put it.
Some of the Pfizer docs thought that they were making an understandable -- if regrettable -- "quality of life" decision.
Those grateful drivers don't have to make quite the same decisions. Unlike most other athletes, they sound like their fans, they even look like their fans, who use words like "modest" and "humble" to describe them. But after the race is over, while fans wait hours in monster traffic jams to leave the track, the drivers typically chopper to the airport where they fly their own jets home to backyard airplane hangars in gated communities. Their neighbors tend to be corporate executives.
4. Nascarizing Politics, Politicizing Nascar
"In an unsettled economy such as this one there will be even more of a disparity between the richer teams, which typically dominate victory lane, and all the others." -- Geoff Smith, president of Roush Racing
Like the GOP, Nascar could crack wide open, and knows it. Both are ripe for breakaways. This is the main reason why the France family recently capped at three the number of cars a racing team could run in its premier series, the Nextel Cup. Too powerful a team, besides destabilizing Nascar's idea of competitive balance, could also make demands, using as leverage the threat of starting a competing racing league.
A Brand New Party to rival the Grand Old Party? The threat may be more real for Nascar, which owns twelve of the twenty-two tracks on which it holds races. Most of the others are owned by rival Speedway Motorsports, Inc., parent company of Texas Speedway, which was behind a recent lawsuit aimed at forcing Nascar to let it stage not just one but two of the 36 annual Nextel Cup races.
Nascar finessed the problem, but in so doing looked -- to many traditionalists -- pragmatic to the point of hypocrisy. Nascar sold one of its most storied raceways, Rockingham in North Carolina, to Texas Speedway for $100 million. Texas had little interest in the real estate, but could now take over Rockingham's Nextel Cup date and have its two races.
Like any good autocracy, the France family has often subordinated the best interests of individuals to its own control and for the sake of "growing" the sport.
Take a fine Republican issue like safety regulations -- or the lack of.
Driver safety didn't become a discussable issue until after Earnhardt's death. Drivers, long in denial, suddenly realized that if Old Ironhead could buy it, so could they. Until that time, few wore the head-and-neck supports that are now standard. And, believe it or not, wearing helmets was not mandatory then (although all did).
Now, Nascar is finally developing "soft" walls and making a greater effort to supervise recovery from concussions and other injuries that drivers once tended to disregard.
At the bigger speedways, where it's possible to race at more than 200 miles per hour, the specter of cars flying off the track and into the grandstand led to the invention of the "restrictor plate," a piece of aluminum with small holes that limits the fuel-air mixture entering the carburetor. In effect, it slows down the car. It also means closer, more competitive racing because a fast car can't run away from the pack. So now they race in tight bunches which leads to frequent (though rarely deadly) wrecks, which fans love. Drivers hate it.
Take another Republican issue, the "right to work." In the early days, Big Bill intimidated drivers (sometimes with his pistol, it was said) who tried to unionize. These days, the France family uses more sophisticated corporate tactics, including what seems like favoritism to certain manufacturers and race teams -- and a rule book so fluid everyone is always off-balance.
The joke goes that the Nascar rule book is written in pencil and no one has ever seen it. There actually are some rules, but the codicil to all of them -- "except in rare instances" -- gives officials the latitude to change technical specifications and racing regulations, thus keeping races exciting and competitive. Last week's rule about gas-tank size, say, or post-accident procedures can be modified this week for reasons only conspiracy theorists claim to understand. Enforcement has often seemed arbitrary, not to say political. (It's all a plan to let Dale, Jr. win, they whisper.)
I've always thought that Nascar's wink-wink attitude toward such bad behavior as unnecessary bumping during a race and fist-fights afterward, as well as outright cheating, was another form of Republican-esque control.
Cheating has never been considered immoral or unethical in the sport. In fact, trying to bend the rules is expected as long as no one offers a direct challenge to the supreme authority of the France family. Tiny changes in the size of a gas tank, a shock absorber, or a restrictor-plate hole can win a race. There are constant technical inspections. Seized tampered parts are displayed in the garage area, where it's fun to watch crew chiefs checking out the contraband for new ideas. Nascar rarely imposes real punishment, almost never on its stars.
And then there's the media.
By tightly controlling access, Nascar has kept a lively, questioning motor-sports media at bay, White House style.
5. God and Guns
"This season has been a morale boost for our soldiers working both here and overseas and I expect we'll have even more to cheer for in 2005." -- Lt. General Roger Schultz, Army National Guard.
At the finish, I think, it comes back to the difference that struck me at the start -- my subjects knowing more people on active military duty than in same-sex relationships.
In Nascar, the gay issue is abstract and religious because there is no gay presence at the track. Evangelical Christian preachers follow Nascar like old-time circuit riders. They have their own double-wide trailers parked in the garage area, conducting prayer meetings and operating with the full cooperation and encouragement of the tracks. They minister in cases of death and injury, counsel couples, and offer drivers and crewmembers a place to talk about stress, addiction, and depression. Like cops and soldiers, Nascarites would prefer talking to the chaplain than to a shrink.
They have ethical discussions.
Jeff Gordon, whose first wife plastered psalms inside his car, once told me: "There is a fine line in our sport between trying to do the right thing and trying to do the competitive thing that puts you over the top to win. We've had a lot of conversations in our Bible studies about that. God wants us to do all of what we know in our abilities to win the race, but we all know in the back of our minds what wins a race in a way that you'll feel proud and what wins a race in a way that you're not very proud of."
There is a starchy pride in Nascar, at least in the garage. Drive hard, finish the race, stand up like a man. Once they bought the WMDs and the need to oust Saddam, they accepted deployment. Military service ran in Nascar families.
All those brothers, sisters, cousins, and friends on active duty were making satellite calls and sending e-mails back to the garage. It was the citizens of Nascar Nation who knew first that the war on the ground was losing its wheels. And they were the first ones who raised money to buy armor for their kids' Humvees in Iraq.
I wish I had been at Michigan Speedway two years ago when Greg Biffle won the GFS Marketplace 400 at Michigan Speedway in a car sponsored by the National Guard, which then decided to extend its Nascar enlistment for another season. Neither the Guard nor the Army, which also sponsors a car, would release figures. They say it comes out of an advertising budget of more than $500 million for all the services. The Marines and the Air Force have lesser Nascar deals. Painting your logo on just a lower rear quarter panel (behind the tire) goes for between $250,000 and one million.
How much armor would that buy?
When asked if Nascar advertising really drew recruits, Ike Shelton of Missouri, then the ranking Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, said "You will not find them at golf tournaments."
Truth is, Nascar Dad, if he exists, also plays golf, watches the news and takes his time thinking through a problem -- how you fix an engine, craft a race strategy. He came to realize, as a citizen of Nascar Nation, that pragmatism trumps ideology, if indeed there is ideology to begin with. And then he made the connection. In the same way Nascar gave us the sentimental patina of good old boy tradition, Christian morality, and all-American products while it was expanding into Mexico, courting Toyota and Jack Daniels, and selling out old Southern tracks to make room for major metro markets, the Republicans diverted us with clanging alerts about gay marriages, partial-birth abortions, and terrorists, while pumping up their profits.
The supposed lesson of this dog-eat-dog business is don't get eaten, get better, because if you don't it's your own fault. None of that stick-and-ball welfare where baseball and football try to keep weak franchises afloat.
If you lose, it's because you didn't work hard enough.
You didn't have enough faith.
Until this past race.