Sunday, October 07, 2012
A Book That Changed My Life
I have never been a sports fan. I used to go to the horse races with my father when I was a kid growing up in California until we moved back to Indiana. At that time, Indiana had no thoroughbred racing tracks; state newspapers didn't print horse racing results; Hoosier bookstores didn't sell Turf Magazine or any other publication related to racing. So, my interest waned and for forty years after that, I had no passion for any sport. My husband tried to get me interested in Indiana University basketball but it left me cold. My kids attempted to lure me into supporting the Colts but the NFL didn't turn me on. And so it went.
Then I decided to write a novel and to make my main character a race car driver. I chose that profession simply because it seemed that race car drivers embodied courage and daring and sex appeal and those were all the qualities I wanted my hero to have. I had attended a few drag races with my friends many decades before and of course, being a Hoosier, I'd was familiar with the Indianapolis 500 but stock car racing? No way.
I realized I'd have to do some research, at least enough to be able to write somewhat knowledgeably about NASCAR (National Association of Stock Car Auto Racing). I went to the library and got a book - Sunday Money, by Jeff MacGregor. At this time of my life, I was the unlikeliest candidate for becoming a NASCAR fan-atic you would ever find - older single female, political junkie of the liberal persuasion. I'm a religious agnostic and my patriotism isn't of the "my country right or wrong" variety. I'm not an aficionado of either beer or barbeque (though I do love guns and country music).
I dreaded the thought of actually having to read Sunday Money so I picked it up reluctantly, in the way you'd open a textbook to study for a homework assignment.
I turned to page one....and fell in love. Sunday Money chronicles a season in the life of NASCAR as McGregor and his (long-suffering) new wife criss-cross the country in a motor home, going from track to track. (NASCAR has the longest season in professional sports, starting in February at Daytona and ending in November at Homestead-Miami). This was no puff piece by a long-time NASCAR enthusiast, written for people who are already fans. MacGregor covers the good, the bad, the ugly and the profane of the sport and does it with colorful language and biting wit, mixed in with an affectionate appreciation for the drivers, the cars and the verging-on-maniacal fans. In short, MacGregor captures and shares the fascinating spectacle that is NASCAR.
It turns out that stock car drivers really are courageous and daring...but they are also human and accessible in a way you don't expect from stick and ball superstars. It turns out the tracks are all different, requiring different driving styles and strategies to master. (Super-speedways are nothing like road courses are nothing like short tracks are nothing like mile-and-a-halfs.) It turns out that NASCAR, unlike other sports, does not rely on franchising, rather teams must convince private enterprise to support them. That's why drivers' firesuits are covered with sponsor logos and a field of cars is a mosaic of colors and advertisements - from Miller Lite to Wheaties to Lowe's to Mountain Dew. It turns out that the sound of 43 Sprint Cup cars starting their engines is the sexiest sound in the world.
NASCAR is a celebration and a lifestyle as much as it is a sporting event. Forget traditional tailgating - NASCAR fans camp out in the infield in their motorhomes for a week, barbequeing and drinking and partying, the flag of their team flying high above their site. Most of them own a small fortune in driver gear - clothing and diecast cars and license plates and key chains and coolers. Some of them sport green mohawks and others feature tattoos of Dale Earnhardt's face or Jeff Gordon's car number (24).
I tiptoed into NASCAR fandom. I visited NASCAR.com, poking around without understanding much of what I was reading. I joined a NASCAR discussion group though many of the e-mails that came to my inbox were bewildering. What did they mean by fuel strategy and restrictor plates, why are pit stops so important and what is the Chase?
Meanwhile, my liberal friends were confounded by my new incarnation to NASCAR fan. One of them commented on my screensaver - "There's a NASCAR screensaver on your computer," she informed me, as if I didn't know.
"Yes," I agreed.
"How did that happen?"
"The usual way. I downloaded it."
"Yes," I laughed. "On purpose."
"I figured you'd have Barack."
While that was happening, my new friends told me I must choose a driver to cheer for in order to get the full NASCAR experience so I picked Jimmie Johnson, who was a rookie when Jeff McGregor wrote Sunday Money. Jimmie won the first race I ever watched - the 2008 Indianapolis Brickyard 400. That was the year of the exploding tires. Old fans bitched their heads off but I was enthralled, not knowing any better.
By now, I've been to several races in person. I got to see Jimmie win his fifth championship at Homestead-Miami. The cars are even louder and more heart-thrilling up close and personal as they roar around the track - 200 miles an hour and inches apart. Who knew how heady the smell of exhaust and burning rubber could be? I now hold my breath during Jimmie's pit stops (hopefully, less than 13 seconds). I set my alarm clock for 6:48 a.m. in honor of his Lowe's 48 Chevrolet. (No, I do NOT have a tattoo!)
My weekends now revolve around racing. The Sirius radio in my car is tuned permanently to the NASCAR channel rather than NPR. I watch SPEED t.v. rather than C-Span. I obsess over NASCAR stats rather than political polls results.
All this because a man wrote a book. A writer, who was not an experienced expert himself, was able to write 367 pages in such a way as to convince someone totally disinterested in his subject matter to do a 180-degree turn on the strength of his skill. I appreciate Jeff MacGregor for all the hours of joy I would not have experienced without him. As a writer, I appreciate him even more for making me personally aware that we truly can change lives with our words.