Why America Loves NASCAR

(Hint: Because it's not black.)

By saying NASCAR isn't black, I mean it isn't African American. And NASCAR is not at all black: Not in the cockpits of the stockcars; not on the pit crews; rarely, if at all, among the multitudes filling the 160,000-seat speedway stands. It's considered an all-American sport, inclusive and meritocratic, but to see it on TV or in person, it does have a certain flavor.

Not all of America loves NASCAR. It's mostly those who live in the "red" swath of middle America, an area that includes the South and the Southwest and that helped elect George Bush last November. These are the ones who punched Dubya's chad, the ones who did so purportedly as a vote for "values." So significant is this group that television networks are increasingly gearing their programming toward it.

Last fall, ESPN presented a biopic on the life of the late NASCAR driver Dale Earnhardt. The movie, 3, casts Earnhardt (Barry Pepper) as the idealized "American Everyman." He grows up in blue-collar poverty, with racing as his single-minded passion (father-inspired). Neither love (women, inexplicably, are drawn to him like country singers to whining lyrics) nor children (he fathers a passel, abandoning some with brooding regret but no apparent damage done to any of the parties involved) can keep him out of the cockpit and away from his destiny with all-American herodom. Throughout he remains blissfully unaware (and, remarkably, utterly untouched) by the historical moment.

This is, after all, the 1950s, '60s, and '70s South. Yet, though the movie is set largely in North Carolina during an era when Southern society was in violent turmoil, black characters are missing altogether from 3. In fact, African Americans, as a group, are referenced just once in the movie, in an anecdote about delivering moonshine to the "black" neighborhood (not the "colored," "negro," or, probably more accurately to the speech of poor whites of that period, "nigger" side of town). African Americans, both then as well as now, make up a significant component of the culture and landscape of the South. Even so, the scriptwriters wrote blacks out of the narrative. The NASCAR audience, they seem to be saying, would not mind the absence. (Ironically, the network's TV ad closed with the tag-line: "One man, one sport, one nation.")

Where this idealized "Dale Earnhardt" is Everyman, today's American Sportsman has become, in Sly Stone parlance, Everyday People. That is to say, he's black. Specifically, urban black: hiphop; flamboyantly flashy; naturally gifted but lazy. The American Sportsman/black athlete personifies the opposite of the values that the NASCAR fans seem to hold dear. As opposed to the NASCAR driver presented in 3, a white man who leathers his hands working with tools and relying on his daring to earn victories, the American Sportsman/black athlete squanders his God-given talent and is loud-talking and brash. He is a millionaire whiner who complains about how inadequate is his pay (Latrell Sprewell), or who brawls with paying fans (Ron Artest). He is lascivious, perhaps even a rapist (Kobe Bryant). And there's reason to think he's a cheat (Barry Bonds). The 2004 US Olympic basketball team—which, despite boastful predictions, won only Bronze—represents the worst of the American Sportsman and, like that shamed team, has brought disgrace on the country before the entire world.

The treatment of race (or lack thereof) in 3 calls to mind the similarly troubling representation of black and white in another 2004 movie, Friday Night Lights, based on H.G. Bissinger's 1990 book of the same name. Bissinger, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, spent the fall of 1988 in Odessa, Texas, following the local football team. Early in the season, the star player was injured and a series of unexpected losses ensued. The book chronicles the maniacal obsession and egregious racism of 1980s Texas high school football, where poverty predominated, black kids were commonly referred to as "niggers," and the team's success and the town's identity were noxiously intertwined. I had looked forward to seeing the movie, in part because I'd played football in my Texas hometown, but mostly because I'd read the book a decade before and remembered that Bissinger's account had basically gotten it right.

The movie, on the other hand, gets the story wrong—offensively so. The film version does touch on the racism that Bissinger exposed in his book when, in one scene, a bubbly woman booster refers to the star player as a "dumb nigger." Likewise, it shows the overwhelming pressure and scrutiny that small-town Odessa places on its high school football team. But that's not what the movie is about. It's about "values:" it's about how this group of boys, through grit and determination, overcomes overwhelming adversity to go all the way to the state finals.

Unlike 3, Friday Night Lights does not ignore race. On the contrary, in a sleight of hand that would make Rush Limbaugh titter, the movie reverses the racism: The African American sportsman is the evil villain who, though physically superior, unscrupulously uses whatever means to dominate underdog Odessa. In the championship game, Odessa is pitted against Dallas's Carter H.S., and in the movie version the all-black and urban team is cast as flamboyant and boastful. (The players even wear garish red and blue uniforms that call to mind minstrel show clowns.) At a pre-game meeting, the Carter coaches, who are shown wearing ostentatious business suits (as opposed to the Odessa coach's simple windbreaker and cap), insist that a black referee be included in the crew, for fear of racism towards their team. During the game, it is that lone black ref who cheats, in favor of Carter.

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