Tom Wolfe and the Meaning of NASCAR

Tom Wolfe perhaps describes NASCAR best when he says “here was a sport not using any abstract devices, any bat and ball, but the same automobile that was changing a man’s own life, his own symbol of liberation, and it didn’t require size, strength, and all that, all it required was a taste for speed, and the guts” (29). And I think what Tom Wolfe is saying about NASCAR stock racing can maybe be extapolated out to a general explanation about sports: they’re at their core about US. Or at least they did in 1965 when this article was written. Tom Wolfe’s article tells the story of successful stock car racer Junior Johnson, a bootlegger out of North Carolina who became a racer on a whim.

Wolfe relates Johnson’s story with the same drawl and speech patterns of the part of the south that Johnson himself was from. He curses, shouts like a baptist preacher, and often refers to the stock car fans as “good old boys.” He is basically trying to bring us as readers and sports fans to the same level as the subjects of his piece. And he admits that this is at first glance a lower class of people, defined by industrial jobs, shabby homes, and rowdy behavior. And yet, Wolfe wants us to see sports as deriving from this class of people, that all of its strength lies in its origins with the lower class. He defines this as its own act of rebellion, that sports are things that the middle and upper class cannot take away from the lower class, no matter how hard they might try.

I think this was true back in the day, but I’m not so sure it cuts the mustard anymore. It’s true that NASCAR remains a primarily southern sport, deriving its popularity from those same good old boys that Tom Wolfe argued so passionately for. But most sports have tried to embrace the other classes of America as much as the lower class. The main reason may simply be the money. While advertising and sport were beginning to merge back in the 60s, there’s no denying that the link between the two now is stronger than its ever been before. The two have fused so that all games, NASCAR included, are deluged with advertisements both during the game and during break time. Every team has official sponsors, every major sport event is brought to you by some company. Industry has discovered how much money there is to be made from sports, and the upper classes simply have more of it.

So while I agree that the middle and upper class can’t take sports away from the poor, who can view the games same as anyone else, sports have definitely moved in a direction away from the lower class. Most baseball is only viewable via cable channels such as NESN, ESPN, or FSN. Boxing has long been the exclusive domain of HBO and Pay-per-View. Even football is moving in that direction, both with the birth of the NFL Network and with Monday Night Football moving from the free ABC channel to the non-basic ESPN channel. Perhaps this is why NASCAR remains popular in the South: it is mostly available on non-cable channels. Sports have made it harder for the poor to enjoy them, just as it is harder for them to relate to athletes who make yearly salaries in the 6-8 figure range. So while Tom Wolfe had the right idea once upon a time, I just don’t think sport fandom is still the act of rebellion against the upper class that he imagined it to be.

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