Thursday, February 20, 2014



Thirteen years ago, on the final lap of the Daytona 500, Dale Earnhardt, Sr crashed head first into the turn four wall. Working to block a train of drivers in pursuit of his drivers, Dale Jr and Michael Waltrip. The latter would go on to win his first Daytona 500 for his longtime friend and chief advocate. Earnhardt never finished the race and never saw his driver win. A tribute to the man and the effect he had on the NASCAR stands outside of turn four.  

Car owners purchase the right to car numbers. Earnhardt's other longtime friend, Richard Childress, held the rights to Sr's easily marketable number 3. With it's trademark black design, the car and the man were inseparable. As a tribute to the driver and legions of loyal fans, Childress moved his Nationwide driver, Kevin Harvick, into the sponsor's seat but not the number. In the world of NASCAR fan loyalty, numbers mattered.

Though the number has been brought back out on occasion, noticeably last year with Jr driving, Childress had held to a promise that the number and the man were connected. That is until this season. 

Today at Daytona, Childress's new Sprint Cup driver, Austin Dillion, will lead the first of two qualifying duals for Sunday's race to the start/finish line from the pole position. Dillion will be driving a Chevrolet with the iconic 3 on the doors and roof. The number has been resurrected. 

It comes back in a new form. Different driver, different paint scheme, at least initially, and different sponsor, but the 3 is back. As with resurrection in its theological form, the bodily form points to a past presence but also to a new future. How much of the past does one hold on to in resurrection and how much needs to be let go? If our consciousness survives, then some part of our past is present. And today, the number 3, as it will on Sunday, will prompt the consciousness of racing fans. Dillion is not Earnhardt; he can't be.  Other drivers have driven iconic numbers. 43 still makes circuits around racetracks all over the country. But rarely has such a number been put away as a tribute to a man only to make a reappearance with another driver.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Jason Leffler

Race car drivers, and those who work and live with them, are more aware of mortality than the rest of us.  They also know to tuck that awareness deep in the recesses of their minds and forget.  If they did not, no one would return to the track after the tragic loss of a friend and colleague.  Last night, one of those moments confronted the worlds of NASCAR and IndyCar.  Jason Leffler, Lefturn as they referred to him, died while racing a sprint-car in Bridgeport Raceway in New Jersey.  In a heat race, where he apparently was in second place, Leffler's car slammed into the turn four wall.  Air-lifted to a nearby hospital, he as pronounced dead at 9:00 p.m.  Within one hour of the wreck, Twitter posts started appearing for @JasonLeffler and #Lefturn, first as requests for prayers for Leffler and then as notes of concern for his family. has stayed on top of the story and collected a sample of the posts.

Leffler had made a mark.  Coming out of California, he did not cut a familiar NASCAR swath.  For that matter, Tony Stewart, Jeff Gordon, and Jimmy Johnson, among a host of other drivers, do not come from the Southeast or the highly cultivated moonshine mystique.  But like the others, he climbed the ranks as a USAC champion and made it to the "bigs" of both NASCAR and IndyCar.  Like many others, his career stalled and though he had a  competitive spirit he lost the third car seat at Joe Gibbs Racing after 21 starts for the FedEx team, the car now driven by Denny Hamlin.  His final Sprint Cup race was last weekend at Pocono where he finished forty-third.  But along the way he had raced at the biggest venues and with the greatest drivers of his generation.  In his death, they were reminded of their fragility.
Parker Kligerman@pkligerman4
Race car drivers immortality is a way of life. 1 day we find 1 of us 2 be mortal is a day in which we struggle 2 comprehend @JasonLeffler
Kligerman's Twitter post highlights that strange place between believing oneself to be "immortal" and being reminded that one is not.  In the years since Dale Earnhardt, Sr.'s death on the track at Daytona, NASCAR has worked to make the cars and raceways safer.  Drivers have continued to suffer both injuries and deaths, but more often these events have occurred at tracks like Bridgeport and off the national media radar.  Last night, one of their own died doing what they all love to do.  And through social media we all got a glimpse of that reminder of mortality and the shift to bury it once again.  With Nelson Pique, Jr., all of us who love watching cars go fast and drivers defy most odds can say:
Nelson Piquet Jr. ‏@NelsonPiquet
Racing is unfair sometimes....  Rest in peace Lefturn!

Monday, April 1, 2013

Breaking for Easter

Before the teams and drivers of NASCAR head to Martinsville this weekend, I thought it might be time to revive this blog with a post about NASCAR, Easter, and Mother's Day.  As part of my research about the effects of automobiles on the South, I have noted that since preachers were among the first to adopt the "new" technology they were rarely in a position to condemn the cars themselves, as a destroyer of family and community values.  Instead, preachers often placed the blame at the feet of drivers and their poor behavior.  At the same time NASCAR was gaining traction in the South by the mid-1950s and competing on Sundays as the post World War II revival was underway, preachers worried about speed limits and the rising number of auto related deaths.  When they complained about NASCAR, they lamented the added distraction to a growing number of distractions for Sunday observance.

In an interesting move, NASCAR gave drivers two Sundays off that might have riled southern Christians more than any other: Easter and Mother's Day.  Yesterday was one of those days "off" for the Association's three top series.  In the South, like other places in the U.S., the two high attendance Sunday's are Christmas and Easter, in that order, unless Christmas day falls on a Sunday and then the Christmas Eve service takes the top spot (at our church: Christmas Eve service always wins).  The season is over before Christmas, so only Easter has to compete.  And as the movie Thunder Road asserted, even bootleggers listen to their mommas when they are in their mother's presence, particularly if she is religious.

It appears to me that NASCAR's gift to the teams has less to do with teams and more to do with their fan base, who likely would have to listen to momma fuss if their true loyalties were revealed on Easter and Mother's Day.  In the fight for cultural dominance, the two giants, the Church and NASCAR, made peace and break for Sunday on those two days every year.  After resurrection and celebrating momma, it's back to racing.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

American Hero

On the biggest weekend of elite motor racing (Monaco, Indianapolis, and Charlotte), I thought I would I look back to a another time when racers could be millionaires but never on one night of even after multiple seasons.  Even so, southern stock car drivers were on the rise, and their life stories were part of the changing world of automobile racing.

In 1965, Tom Wolfe opened a door for exploring how the automobile transformed southern culture and by extension American culture.  With quick wit and devastating precision, he described a South looking both backwards and forwards at the exact same moment.  Wolfe profiled legendary stock car racer, Junior Johnson, but in doing so left a snapshot of the southern United States during radical change.  Even in the article, “The Last American Hero Is Junior Johnson, Yes!,” Wolfe does not always seem to understand the possibilities the changes have unleashed. 

junior johnson is the last american hero yes
Esquire, March 1965
Praising Johnson at the very moment that Johnson’s hero status to “good old boys” was most contested, he covered Johnson’s last NASCAR Grand National (an early name for the Sprint Cup) race running an “independent” car make, Dodge.  Junior Johnson’s fame came from his David versus Goliath status in 1963 when he won the Grand National championship running a Chevy while the “Ford teams” had manufacturing help from Ford Motor Company (something I'll blog more about in the future). 

Wolfe caught Johnson right before the racer betrayed the little man, David, to join Goliath.  He highlighted the bootlegger tradition for stock-car racing because Johnson’s family made it a business, which the sport adopted as an important part of its lore and sadly folks only seemed to remember that aspect.  But the Esquire magazine article shined a light on the non-bootlegger trajectory of NASCAR.  Junior Johnson was not the last American hero because he “tripped” moonshine for his family; he fit Wolfe’s understanding of hero because he stood for a rugged individualism that did not cower in the face of giants, real or imagined.  By 1965, however, none of the “heroes” were Davids. The irony of writing Johnson’s story as a hero at that exact moment meant that Johnson’s worshipers remembered his past, even as he moved forward.  The article revealed a series of complex, contested notions about the American south.

Wolfe opened the article describing that at 10 a.m. on Sunday morning while stuck in traffic headed to North Wilkesboro racetrack he heard a preacher on the radio and an Aunt Jemima grits advertisement and the Gospel Harmonettes singing “If you dig a ditch, you better dig two . . .” and “three fools in a panel discussion on the New South.”  According to Wolfe, the three fools would have “General Lee running the new Dulcidreme Labial Cream factory down at Griffin, Georgia."  Right there, as if we are sitting in the car with him, in the the car’s radio the entire South could be encapsulated by preaching, food, gospel music, and arguments over a "new" South versus "the old" South, “and all of it, all of that old mental cholesterol, is confined to the Sunday radio.”    Fire-and-brimstone preachers, gospel music, and the glories of the old South mixed into the new brought to the listener through the technological advancement of the portable radio in the advanced technological achievement, the automobile.  The irony suggested powerful change was underway in the South, in particular, and the nation more generally.  The region had become consumers of religion, food, politics, and cars.  Of the four, the most intriguing consumption involved the automobile because the other three were often southern made but the car was foreign in so many ways.  Southerners, however, adopted it and made it their own.  Wolfe sensed that profound change when he noted that “a wild new thing, the Southern car world,” had been unleashed on the land in the form of traffic-jammed highways as he was “heading down the road on my way to see a breed such as sports never saw before, Southern stock-car drivers.”

In the glitz and glam and high-tech cars of today, Ron Howard was on the Speed Chanel this morning, Tom Wolfe saw the change coming in the mid-1960s.  Heroes are what we make them, and sometimes, we make them into our imagined selves.  

Friday, May 25, 2012

NASCAR prayers

In an academic world, scholars stake out their intellectual tuft and spend the rest of their careers tending to that spot of ground.  Not everyone follows this model, but most often if someone diverts from her chosen speciality, questions are asked about how the new interest ties into the old one.  In my case, I entered the academy studying religious cultures in the U.S.  Since most of the focus for the past twenty years has been with issues like the Civil Rights Movement and the rise of the "religious right," those subjects filled up my writing time and my bookshelves.  But I have always loved cars, particularly race cars.  Since I grew up about a mile, as the crow flies, from Richmond International Raceway, NASCAR has filled my imagination.  On occasion, I wondered if I could combined my intellectual interest with my "hobby" interest.  More often than not, someone told me that I would ruin any academic life I might have if wrote about NASCAR before I established myself as a scholar of the Civil Rights Movement, so I tinkered away on the latter and longed for the former.

One Saturday evening several years ago, while watching a Sprint Cup race, I realized that NASCAR is the only nationally televised event that shows both an innovation (prayer) and the National Anthem.  All other sporting events show the National Anthem, and even Major League Baseball has added a variation on the seventh-inning stretch during the World Series, but none of the other major sport leagues has a prayer.  What struck me that night, and has dogged some of my research agenda since then, is that in the late 1940s up through the 1970s ministers in the American South often fought against sport car racing, NASCAR in particular because of Sunday afternoon racing.  Bill France, Sr., a driving force behind NASCAR's formation and its elevation to national prominence, recognized the liability early on and had a local pastor open races at his Daytona track.  Since the mid-1980s, local pastors from the area around the event track's town have spoken an invocation before every NASCAR sanctioned event.

Last Saturday night at the start of the Sprint Cup All-Star event in Charlotte, Joe Gibbs, former NFL coaching great and team owner of Joe Gibbs Racing, did his now-annual duties of praying the invocation.  Gibbs has never been afraid to share his faith publicly, and on this night like others before, Gibbs witnessed to the saving power of Jesus Christ and the importance of the substitutionary atonement for all sinners, for himself as much as for those sitting in the stands holding their Budweiser and Miller Light cans.  The prayer is a razor-sharp version of witness tracts that Evangelicals and Fundamentalists alike leave in public bathrooms or an unsaved neighbor's house.  The event passed like so many before it --- prayer, anthem, racing, product endorsement on pit road and in victory lane --- with no fanfare or commentary.  Evangelical Protestantism's marriage to NASCAR appears seamless, but that has not always been the case and most likely isn't now.  Since NASCAR's Sprint Cup series does not race on Easter or Mother's Day, there is a cultural understanding to the invocation.  The spectators know it will be given, take off their hats and bow their heads, to ask for a safe race.  More ritual than rite, the invocation is a formality, except for those who do the praying.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Churches and Automobiles

As part of what drew me to this car project, I wanted to know how church folks responded to the new technology of the automobile.  In previous research I had noted ministerial associations posting resolutions and notices about how car racing brought unwanted, often presumed immoral, characters into their communities.  I expected to find an early rejection of the automobile by churches and their leaders.  What has become apparent is that the technology of the car itself did not bother anyone, but the use of the car outside of prescribed functions did bother church folks.

In 1931 the Macon Telegraph reported that auto racing promoters petitioned the city of Macon to hold a car race on a stated date.  One of the aldermen inquired as to whether said date fell on a Sunday.  The paper reported that the aldermen concluded that the date was indeed on a Sunday and the petitioners were denied access to the track at Central City park.  Fourteen years earlier in Atlanta, a Baptist church raised a similar concern but placed the emphasis on pleasure riding on "the Sabbath."  The good folks at Jones Creek Baptist Church were upset enough in May 1917 to send a resolution to the Christian Index, Georgia Baptists' newspaper.  In direct terms, the resolution condemned material progress and consumption when it interferes with Sunday religious obligations.  They called the "use of automobiles for pleasure and profit" both "unchristian" and "illegal."  The resolution called on Christians to be examples against this "evil."  Oddly enough in the same issue, the Christian Index ran an ad for the Ballard & Ballard Co., a flour company in Louisville, Kentucky, offering a free automobile to a pastor.  "Ford Car FREE" the headline read, which was followed by a bold claim about the power of the car.  The ad continued, "Think what that will mean, not only as a help to your pastor in his work, but as a stimulus to the Church itself.  Churches all over the country have been buying cars for their pastors, and here we offer to give you one free." The readers were encouraged to send their name and address to the flour company to receive more information about the program. The interesting point to the advertisement involved the emphasis the company placed on the automobile's status value.   In this case the automobile can help the status of the church: "A man who gets a car feels that he has advanced his standing in the community.  It is the same way with the church."

The problem for churches was that pastors often adopted the automobile faster than others in the community.  The car could elevate a person's status but it could also help carry out important work within churches.  Like most innovations, the positives have negatives and racing became an outlet for car enthusiasts.  Their congregating on Sunday was a direct challenge to churches everywhere.

Southern-style Car Culture

I have toyed with the idea long enough, so now I am taking a leap of faith.  Here is a new blog dedicated to my current car project.  In the coming weeks and months, I hope to post logs detailing some aspect of a research project I am calling "All The Horses Had Four Wheels."  Since the American South, as a region, has remained attached to notions of "place," the power of a technology that moved individuals and groups from one location to another quickly posed a significant threat to the centrality of place.  Our highly mobile society means that we are more likely to be detached from any one place than connected to it.  This quick adoption also meant that southerners did not fully anticipate the changes the car would make on the region.  Though I am aware that the car culture is a national reality, there has been very little scholarship on the subject in the South.  More importantly, there has been very little documentation of the cars southerners have owned beyond registration lists.  I want to begin a process where we start collecting stories about the cars themselves and our relationship with them.  If you follow this blog, I encourage you to share your own stories about your first car or a parent's first car.