Two for the Road is a hangout for mystery writers Tammy Kaehler and Simon Wood to chat, reminisce, gossip, speculate and argue about all things motorsport.

Monday, December 10, 2012

NASCAR's Early Days

by Tammy

I finally finished reading a book someone recommended a while back about the early days of NASCAR: Driving With the Devil: Southern Moonshine, Detroit Wheels, and the Birth of NASCAR, by Neal Thompson.

The back-of-the-book copy sums it up better than I could:
Part Disney, part Vegas, part Barnum & Bailey, NASCAR is also a multibillion-dollar business and a cultural phenomenon that transcends geography, class, and gender. But dark secrets lurk in NASCAR’s past.

The bottom line Thompson tell us is that revisionist history would have NASCAR springing from the genius of Jim France on the sands of Daytona Beach ... which is only partially true. France had the iron will and the foresight to see what NASCAR could become (though how could he have envisioned the megalith it is today?). But daredevil drivers pushing souped-up cars to the limit? That came from moonshiners seeking to outrace the authorities on their tails.

What I most enjoyed, and why I recommend the book, wasn't the story of how criminals and illegal acts were the genesis of NASCAR (though that's amusing), but the stories of the early stars. Thompson clearly admires them too ... what they accomplished and against what odds. Men like Raymond Parks, the first, great team owner (who funded his racing efforts from his empire of illegal or slightly legal businesses); Red Vogt, the first genius mechanic, and Red Byron, NASCAR's first (and by some accounts, first two-time) champion. (Byron, by the way, won dozens of races and his championships with a leg full of shrapnel from WWII.)

Most of all, as history does, this book of NASCAR's history helps illuminate the present. The origins of the racing series in running 'shine and breaking the law explain some of the affinity the modern fan has for the rebels in the field today. NASCAR fans don't like their drivers too Yankee, too pretty-boy, or too polite, after all (hello, Tony Stewart? Kyle or Kurt Busch?). Through these drivers who push the limits and outrace (by car or mouth) the authorities, fans can live vicariously, dreaming of their own speed. And being glad we're not the ones crashing.

Have any of you read the book? Or did you know NASCAR's history already?

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