By Ryan McGowan
On Sunday afternoon, I rediscovered my Southern roots.
OK, I lied. I was born in Rhode Island and grew up in Massachusetts. I fit in south of the Mason-Dixon line about as easily as Charlton Heston at a vegan convention. But for one day, I was Southern.
I remember the first time I watched Daytona. It was 1997 and I was a freshman in college. My friend Tim Costa, who lived next door, was a bit of a “Yank-neck”, a term usually reserved for lumberjack-like mountain men who live in the wild woods of New Hampshire and rail against the influence of the “flatlander” Massachusetts city folk who continue to creep farther and farther north into tax-free Live Free or Die country. Tim was a tried and true “Masshole” but he definitely had some kind of redneck edge to him, as evidenced by the fact that he used to carry around a knife tucked into his boots around campus at perhaps the number one white-bread college in America.
In `97 I was strangely intrigued by this window into another culture. My sheltered Irish Catholic upbringing hadn’t allowed me to experience what John Edwards would call “The Other America,” the America of pig roasts and tractor pulls and Sundays with the scanner and a 30-pack of Bud Heavy at “The Rock.” Over the years, I watched helplessly as NASCAR became more and more of a mainstream sport, finding itself reported on SportsCenter for its actual storylines and not just the obligatory “Dick Trickle” reference. And then the Winston Cup (a classic tribute to Southern tobacco-growing heritage) became the Nextel Cup, sponsored by that ultimate symbol of cosmopolitan, on-the-go America in the 21st century: the cell phone. To borrow a phrase from Jim Rome, “Neck-Car” had gone bigtime.
When faced with a cultural war such as the one that NASCAR has waged against traditional sports strongholds over the past decade, one can either fight back or give in to the inevitable rush. Even though most research shows that NASCAR’s growth has plateaued over the past couple of years (mostly because it had grown so astronomically over the previous 10), I decided that to totally ignore Daytona would be an ignorant form of cultural arrogance; after all, what would I say about some Ivy League philosophy professor who refused to watch the Super Bowl or the World Series out of principle? As an observer of the sports/cultural scene, I had to embrace it.
Still, my elitist Northern sensibilities didn’t allow me to watch Daytona unironically. From the beginning, I searched nascar.com to find the drivers who had the most white trash or stereotypically redneck sponsors. I decided to pick Clint Bowyer as my patron driver for the race, not only because his name is “Clint” but also because he drives the #07 Jack Daniels car. In fact, in honor of Mr. Bowyer, I poured myself a few glasses of Jack and Coke and settled in to watch the race.
Now, you have to understand, I lived in North Carolina for a year, but I lived in a (relatively) enlightened, educated, cultural center: the Triangle area of Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill. When I would drive to the Outer Banks or Wilmington, however, the Hazzard County-esque landscape of bail bond stores, Piggly Wiggly supermarkets, and Bojangle’s fried chicken franchises caused me to snicker and sneer arrogantly. Watching Daytona on Sunday, however, led me to realize that such landscape is not the exception here in America in 2007; it is rather the rule. The reason that NASCAR is so popular is because its culture mirrors America, or rather, the great majority of America that those of us who live in the supposedly sophisticated Northeast corridor like to pretend doesn’t exist. We can get so wrapped up in our snooty worlds of private colleges, indie movies, Starbucks, and Whole Foods supermarkets and pretend that Ricky Rudd and Dale Earnhardt, Jr. don’t really reflect America. We’re mistaken; we just need to embrace that they do. We all need to embrace our inner redneck, and for one Sunday in February, I took a giant step toward that acceptance.
I watched the race – ALL 500 MILES. I watched the pre-race analysis with Darrell Waltrip. I asked questions to my more learned roommate, Beth, about speed limits in pit row, the art of drafting, the pros and cons of going two or three across the track, the slope of the embankments, the history of the sponsors and why certain guys are “teammates” with other guys. I wanted to know why the other drivers don’t like Kurt Busch, or why a lot of fans hated that Jimmie Johnson won the Cup last year. I watched all the spinouts, all the wrecks, and I stayed focused until the final, ultra-exciting finish when Kevin Harvick beat out Mark Martin by a fender. I was hooked.
After the race, I felt so deliciously white trash that I insisted we go out to KFC to get a greasy fried chicken meal for dinner. I almost stopped at Strawberry’s to pick up a Toby Keith CD and burn their Dixie Chicks inventory. I wanted to burn all copies of Fahrenheit 9/11 and throw darts at pictures of John Kerry and Hillary Clinton. I searched the Internet for a Dale #3 sticker with angel’s wings that I promised to affix on my car. I thought of taking the Red Sox 2004 World Series celebration photo off my living room wall and replacing it with a big #07 for Clint. I wanted to grow a mullet and trade in my Toyota 4Runner for a Chevy. I started to sing, “This is ouuuuuurrrrrrrr country…”
Then I woke up and realized where I was. I still live in Boston, the Athens of America, the Hub of the Universe, and one of the few enclaves in the nation safely removed from NASCAR and the rest of the Wal-Martization of America. Now that the race is over, I can go back to worrying about who the Red Sox are going to use as a closer this year, whether Schilling can be signed to an extension for 08, how J.D. Drew is going to be received by the Nation, whether the Celtics will blow enough games to ensure that they can get the most ping pong balls for the Kevin Durant/Greg Oden sweepstakes, and marveling at the fact that Tom Brady’s boys most certainly can swim.
So until they transform Fenway Park into Fenway Motor Speedway, NASCAR will be a once-a-year thing for me. Which is a good thing, because I don’t think my aging body can take the levels of Jack Daniels and fried chicken I pumped into it on Sunday. I guess I’m just a soft Northern blue-stater; the real NASCAR fans will be doing that every weekend until the Chase for the Cup is over. Thankfully, I’ll be safely out of the way.