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Books | Sports

March 1, 2010

NASCAR in the Rear-View Mirror

Sports Illustrated editor Mark Bechtel tells Gelf about his new meta-history of NASCAR, an American art form.

David Downs

NASCAR divides friends from enemies, kin from outsiders. It's jingoism incarnate, and a living parody of the parody that is Talladega Nights. But it's also a distinctly American art form, on par with jazz or Chicago blues, rooted in immigration and desperation, and full of contradictions like illiterates who can intuit fluid dynamics. It's pastoral the way few things in the US truly can claim to be.

Mark Bechtel. Photo by Maureen Cavanagh.
"NASCAR used to be a big gathering of people in a big field watching cars go in a circle. Now it's like they're racing around inside a Rose Bowl, basically."

Mark Bechtel. Photo by Maureen Cavanagh.

Sports Illustrated editor Mark Bechtel provides a wide-angle view of NASCAR's history in his new book He Crashed Me So I Crashed Him Back: The True Story of the Year the King, Jaws, Earnhardt, and the Rest of NASCAR's Feudin', Fightin' Good Ol' Boys Put Stock Car Racing on the Map, chronicling the personalities as well as the culture and technology that collided in 1979 and catapulted the Daytona 500 onto the American consciousness, where NASCAR has been lodged ever since. Bechtel recently spoke by phone with Gelf about NASCAR's bestiary, hippy mechanics, outlaw culture, cheating, the birth of ESPN, luging, and the tough assignment of covering a Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue photo shoot in the Maldives. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Gelf Magazine: My only exposure to NASCAR prior to reading this book was from Days of Thunder and Talladega Nights.

Mark Bechtel: Fine works, both.

Gelf Magazine: Now I realize that it's all true.

Mark Bechtel: Yeah, stereotypes are stereotypes for a reason. I think there's a lot of truth in them.

Gelf Magazine: I was surprised by the amount of animals in this book. There's bear-wrestling and frog-hunting, and monkeys and alligators.

Mark Bechtel: Yeah, Cale Yarborough had a bear. Whichever Flock brother had the monkey. And then the frog, that's my favorite story: The guy who couldn't join the fight because he'd shot himself in the foot while frog-hunting. You just don't see injuries like that anymore. Drivers are a little laid-back these days. I don't think Jeff Gordon is wrestling hippopotami or anything. The guy with the bear—that's one of my favorite quotes. I think he said, "It's inevitable, if you get a bear, then you're going to do some bear wrestling." Well, what else do you do with a bear?

Gelf Magazine: It was so pastoral in a way I just didn't imagine NASCAR ever being.

Mark Bechtel: It is sort of weird. Now there are these huge stadiums, but if you see old races on ESPN, when they go back 25-30 years, the people would just sort of sit on hills. And there were a few stands, but it was just sort of out in the middle of a big field. It was a big gathering of people in a big field watching cars go in a circle. Now it's like they're racing around inside a Rose Bowl, basically.

Gelf Magazine: The other thing that struck, that I didn't know about the birth of NASCAR, was the hippies and the counter-culture that was around, because this was the late 1970s. The mechanics had long hair; they protested stuff. The drivers had peace signs painted on their visors.

Mark Bechtel: That surprised me, too. There's this guy, Richie Barsz—he was sort of the one guy who really fit that mold. I had no idea. He did have a funny quote about how Richard Petty's wife didn't trust him or any of the other guys because they had long hair, but I can't remember the other part.

Gelf Magazine: He said that Petty's wife "thinks we hate Jesus."

Mark Bechtel: That was one thing I liked getting into—how NASCAR fit into the culture and how NASCAR's growth wasn't all based on what NASCAR did. In a lot of ways, it was a function of what else was going on in the world. In a lot of ways the time was just right for NASCAR. I was talking to a couple of professors who were experts in country music who honed this idea that there was this outlaw counter-culture movement going on in the late '60s and early '70s, and it was just natural NASCAR would feed off of that. There was this synchronicity of growth in NASCAR and country music that never really occurred to me until I was picking the brains of some guys.

Gelf Magazine: It makes sense to graft that outlaw spirit onto this existing sport which was born out of basically being an outlaw and outrunning the revenuers.

Mark Bechtel: There was this perfect overlap between the mindsets of the two. This outlaw mentality got more and more mainstream in terms of music and movies. It just seemed NASCAR would get dragged along with it.

Gelf Magazine: You posit that TV slingshotted NASCAR to fame when the Daytona 500 was broadcast nationally for the first time in 1979 and there was a dramatic crash and a fistfight. Did you have any sense of how many homes that race was going into? Am I correct in assuming this medium played a pivotal role that year?

Mark Bechtel: It was. Everyone always points to Daytona that year being the key moment in NASCAR's history. I want to say the audience was 10.5 million, which, for a Sunday in 1979 was pretty good. But I think just as important if not more important was cable coming onto the scene, with ESPN and The Nashville Network, which is now Spike, I think. They used to show races, too. You just had these networks that were coming on the air 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and they had nothing to fill the air.
NASCAR was looking to get on the air and these stations were looking for programming so it became a natural fit, and it's a lot easier to carve out a niche when people can actually see it. It's how it grew from a regional thing to a larger phenomenon. I don't think it would have been possible without cable TV and networks. Daytona was important, but it was just one race.

Gelf Magazine: So cable needed content and these guys had three-and-a-half-hour shows ready to go all year?

Mark Bechtel: Exactly. Originally ESPN wanted to do three or four hours a night, but it was cheaper to buy 24-7 in terms of rates. They just bought the 24-hour block, and had it been more expensive or had the hourly rate been cheaper, God knows if ESPN would have been born. Now, instead of filling a couple hours a night, they had to fill 18 hours a day, then 24 hours.

Gelf Magazine: I love the contrast of these guys, some of whom were illiterate and who could combine that part of their identity with an insane mastery of engineering—enough to effectively cheat. They learned to exploit wind turbulence—that's nonlinear fluid dynamics. Did that surprise you at all? How advanced they were for how deliberately simple they claim to be?

Mark Bechtel: I covered the sport in the late '90s, and it's still like that. A lot of the crew guys are very pleasant guys, but you hear them talk about, "Well, we'll just fix this deal and a do a little of this" and you think these aren't the smartest guys in the world. Then you think about what they are doing. And now it's incredibly high-tech. Back then it was very intuitive—they just went by feel. Now it's all computerized. These guys might not seem like the smartest guys in the world, but they are a lot smarter than I am. I'm not the one doing the complex mechanical equations.

Gelf Magazine: Illegally cooling gasoline to get more horsepower? That's insane to me.

Mark Bechtel: Yeah. If you're just a car guy and you're around cars, eventually you're going to figure out how everything works together. There's this guy Jake Elder who at the time was Dale Earnhardt's crew chief, and he was the guy who had a second-grade education and couldn't read, couldn't write. He carried this tape measure around that had all these markings, and he'd sort of hold it up to the car, and wherever the markings were, he knew he's supposed to do something here and push that in and pull that out.
The sport started on the idea that everybody would be in the same car, a "stock" car, to see who's the best driver. If you do that, guys are going to start to look for advantages, and there was a premium placed on guys who could bend the rules or break them without getting caught. It brought that need for engineering and the knowledge of the dark arts into the picture. To me, it's really cool—it's what made the sport cool back then. Now it's a lot tougher to cheat, and you don't hear these stories about guys building incredibly elaborate Rube Goldberg devices to get more air into the carburetor. It's a sad byproduct of the fact that NASCAR is run a lot more like a serious organization now rather than just a bunch of guys out racing and having fun.

Gelf Magazine: No kidding, there were some great anecdotes about, "Well, what were you guys messing with?" And them being like, "Everything. The wheels, suspension, that chassis—anything we could mess with, we were messing with."

Mark Bechtel: Like anything, so much money gets brought into it—and there's so much money at stake—that cheating becomes more controversial. You'd hear stories about guys who would fill the rails of the car up with buckshot so they'd make weight and then once the race started they just pull a little switch and all the buckshot would come running onto the track and just slide down to the bottom, and now they are a couple hundred pounds under weight. It was a lot more colorful back then.

Gelf Magazine: Then there was the straight social hack, like, "I'm going to put a radio in my passenger seat that's actually a lead brick and take it out after weigh in."

Mark Bechtel: Sometimes it's best not to overthink it.

Gelf Magazine: Doing a history has to give you some perspective on what NASCAR's lost and gained over the years. Is it better or worse?

Mark Bechtel: That's a tough question. It's lost a lot of its color and a lot of its character, but those losses have come because of this huge growth that has brought these massive amounts of money into the sports. Like cheating: If there's a couple of thousand dollars on the line, cheat away, but if it's $1.1 million, then you know if somebody's cheating, then everyone else is going to be a little more pissed.
It's sort of ironic, but one thing that hurt the sport was, back then teams were at radically different places on the learning curve. The fastest car might be 10 or 20 miles per hour faster than the slowest car. Now, they are just bunched within maybe one mile per hour, or maybe less than that. So much money has come in that the teams at the bottom could make these huge leaps. Now the cars are a lot more bunched together—they are a lot more similar—and there's this money to spend. The sport's become more about technology and less about a guy getting into a car that you would see on a street. Back in '79, these cars did look like something driving on the road. It was like guys out for a really fast Sunday drive.

Gelf Magazine: So have we come closer to the ideal that "it's just all about the man," if the cars are so much closer in terms of performance?

Mark Bechtel: The funny thing is as close as they come now—that they are all bunched—you'd think it would be a lot harder to dominate, but we've had the same guy, Jimmie Johnson, win the championship for four years, which had never been done before. It's this impressive spell of domination at a time when it would seem like we should be in this era of parity. It's weird: Everyone bunches together, but the good teams are still better than the bad team by this small margin. The same guys are always good, but instead of routing everyone, they beat them by half a lap.

Gelf Magazine: What did you want to do differently with this book? How did you want to add to the history of NASCAR?

Mark Bechtel: A lot has been written about the history and who these guys were. Not a lot has been written about why: What was it about that point in time that made NASCAR take off? Originally, I was just going to do the race. That was going to be the whole book, because every list of the greatest races in NASCAR or seminal moments has that one. But the more research I did, the more it seemed like the idea was just too simple. I wanted to take that story and just get into it a little more deeply. I wanted to look at what was happening socially, culturally, and politically. And everywhere I looked, there were these things happening that made it ideal for NASCAR to come along at that point.

Gelf Magazine: It was more of a macro-analysis. If I was an American Studies professor, this would be on the syllabus.

Mark Bechtel: Actually, I talked to several professors at schools that I went to or were up around here, who had written books, and they all sort of said the same thing: "Yeah, it was definitely the perfect time in America for that, and it was no coincidence that all this happened when it did."

Gelf Magazine: NASCAR '79 benefited from a huge winter storm that kept everyone indoors watching Daytona on TV, and your book came out during a huge winter storm—

Mark Bechtel: I know! I know!

Gelf Magazine: Did you get a winter bump at all? Are people curling up around the fire?

Mark Bechtel: I hope so. I don't know. It was funny. Washington had the biggest total ever and it eclipsed '79, which was the old record. It was perfect timing on my part. I don't know that people—when a blizzard is on its way—necessarily head to Barnes & Noble to buy a NASCAR book, but they should, though. They should.

Gelf Magazine: What made now a good time to do this book? I know the Daytona 500 wasn't that long ago.

Mark Bechtel: Originally I was timing to do it and have it come out around the 30th anniversary of the race, which was a year ago, but I didn't want to rush it. And then it was going to come out at the end of the year of the 30th. But then it seemed like, "Let's not wed ourselves to this anniversary. It's not like this is a monumental, celebrated event."
We decided the smart thing to do is wait 'til Daytona, when NASCAR is fresh in people's minds.

Gelf Magazine: The word on Daytona this year was that it was faster, there was a pothole, and a lot more rubbing.

Mark Bechtel: Yeah, we talked about how closely bunched the cars are in NASCAR, and it's especially true in Daytona, where they do various things to restrict the speeds of the cars. There's virtually no difference between the fastest guy and the 25th fastest guy, and that's always been a problem for Daytona—with cars running that close together, it's inevitable that somebody is going to hit somebody at some point.
But for the past few years, they've been trying to figure out what to do about "bump drafting," which is just this completely insane practice these guys do. They go 190 miles per hour and you're drafting and you just hit the guy in the back because the second car can go faster than the first. It used to be, you pulled up on a guy's bumper and you had this train. But they figured out you could get a little boost by just knocking him in the back, so they started doing that at like 190 mph. And the problem came when guys were doing it in the corners. It's insane to do it at 190 miles per hour when you're going straight, but it's doubly insane to do it when you're turning, and it started to cause too many wrecks.
This year they said, "Look, we're not going to regulate it at all. We're going to leave it up to the drivers." The idea is, if somebody is bump-drafting when they shouldn't be, somebody is going to take them back and, you know, yell at 'em or take a swing at 'em. So there was a lot more contact. And the pothole, that was just weird. It came out of nowhere. I guess the last time the track had been resurfaced was right before the '79 season. The smallest little imperfection in the track is a big problem. If there's a hint of rain, anything, it's so easy for these cars to get out of shape when they are going that fast. Obviously a pothole is a huge deal, but even a little bump can be borderline catastrophic.

Gelf Magazine: How did you react to the bizarre luge death this month, where everyone immediately brought up NASCAR as a way to justify deaths during sport? Is that weird when people do that?

Mark Bechtel: I saw it, and it's funny: NASCAR hasn't had a death since Dale Earnhardt. They do an incredible job, they spend a lot of time and money on safety, and they are not messing around when they say how important it is. But there is that threat and every driver has to come to grips with that, and if it's the kind of thing they even think about, then they are just not going to make it.
When you look at the luge, it's petrifying. These guys are going incredibly fast. He was going about 90 miles per hour and on smaller tracks cars are barely going 90 miles an hour. It's a lot of speed and…

"Back in '79, these cars did look like something driving on the road. It was like guys out for a really fast Sunday drive."
Gelf Magazine: Who puts poles there?

Mark Bechtel: Why is the side of track not raised higher? Or why is there not some sort of fence or net?
I've never talked to a luger, so I don't know if there's that understood threat of death, even however small, like NASCAR. But obviously I think a person who does that for a living is by definition kind of a thrillseeker, or not someone who's going to be defined or overcome by fear.

Gelf Magazine: They are definitely not actuaries in their spare time.

Mark Bechtel: Yeah. It's a peculiar hobby. I'm thinking about what we wrote in Sports Illustrated last week. There was a little piece and it is funny: A lot in that easily could have been from racecar drivers.

Gelf Magazine: That fatalism?

Mark Bechtel: The fatalism and the "speed as fact of life" and sort of, "the show must go on." It seems like the things the lugers say were the same things the drivers say after something bad happens. "We know it's a possibility, we internalize it, and it's not going to keep me from doing this." There's definitely some parallels there.

Gelf Magazine: Speaking of thrillseeking, it was great to read about these drivers who took off in a plane without having any idea how to land it.

Mark Bechtel: I loved that, too. I always wondered how they got it off. I guess it's easier to take off than land.

Gelf Magazine: The fact that they all have these planes that they are flying around without any training was really awesome to read—in addition to the skydiving without learning how to skydive first.

Mark Bechtel: This is the same guy who had the bear—Cale Yarborough. Yeah, he landed on a dentist's office.

Gelf Magazine: That's classic Will Ferrell to me.

Mark Bechtel: Exactly. Yeah. And if Ricky Bobby had done something like that, it'd be, "Oh, that's hilarious, but you know, it's obviously a joke because it's Will Ferrell." But, yeah, it's all there.

Gelf Magazine: Did you enjoy Talladega Nights as an expert?

Mark Bechtel: Yeah, I enjoy pretty much anything Will Ferrell is in. I liked the kids "Walker" and "Texas Ranger": classic names for the kids.

Gelf Magazine: Where were you during 1979 Daytona?

Mark Bechtel: I was seven and I lived in Cleveland. I didn't watch the race, but I do remember the blizzard. I remember snow drifts bigger than we were. As far as the race, I never got into NASCAR, even when I moved to Alabama. I just never really got into it until I came to Sports Illustrated and started to cover motor sports.

Gelf Magazine: What's the fastest you've ever traveled in a motor vehicle?

Mark Bechtel: Oh, good question. I went around Daytona in a pace car with Mark Martin and it was only 120 maybe, and it was bizarre because Daytona is so big that it felt like we were going about 50 miles an hour. It was so weird because he was just looking at me and talking and I was like, "Why don't you keep your eyes on the road? We're going 120 miles an hour." But there's no chance that anything bad was going to happen.
We did go to Skip Barber Racing School on Long Island and there you're in these little Indy cars and you're sitting about nine inches off the ground. It felt like we were in a jet. We were like, "How fast was I going on the straightaway? 100? 120?" And the guys were like, "No, you're going like, 55." We got some real speed going in the end, but that—I could see that just being petrifying: being in a Formula 1 car, an Indy car, and that kind of speed with nothing around you.

Gelf Magazine: I got the sense that the fighting-racing-outlaw culture of the south expressed in NASCAR was a function of this immigration of two and a half million Scots-Irish to the Appalachians. These were serially persecuted northerners up there above Hadrian's Wall. They brought over boxing. Is that a correct reading?

Mark Bechtel: Yeah, definitely, that whole thing was suggested by this guy Humpy Wheeler who was a long-time track owner and promoter. We were talking about why these guys fight, and he's a staunch believer in the whole Scots-Irish thing and he has these copies of this history of the Scots-Irish that he works into every conversation he has. It's all very interesting.

Gelf Magazine: Even down to the etymology of terms like redneck, right?

Mark Bechtel: Yeah, depending on who you ask, "hillbilly" and "cracker" have Scots-Irish origins, so you have these derogatory Southern words that, according to some, have their origin in the Scots-Irish.

Gelf Magazine: It really reframed NASCAR in my mind. I was born in 1980 and the identity politics of NASCAR have always been very "ra-ra Jingoism America, corporations yada yada." But it reframed it more in terms of an American art form on par with Jazz; something distinctly a part of us and rooted in these immigrant cultures and their response to hardship.

Mark Bechtel: Exactly. It's become a national phenomenon, but in its heart it was a very southern thing and, like you said, a southern art form, basically, that did grow out of who these people were.

Gelf Magazine: New topic: You went to the Maldives for the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue shoot. Can you discuss?

Mark Bechtel: Yeah! It was incredibly nice. It was not the hardest assignment of my life. I'm not going to lie; I didn't really do anything.

Gelf Magazine: What was your assignment?

Mark Bechtel: The assignment was basically to write about the Maldives. Every shoot we write about the place we went, the place we stayed, the accommodations. So I was sort of a professional traveler. And there were some other small responsibilities, like we set up Twitter accounts so people could follow along vicariously.

Gelf Magazine: Did you get to hold the reflectors that bounce the sun into the photo shoot?

Mark Bechtel: I did. They actually have professionals to do that, but by the end of the week they sort of trusted that I would do it without screwing up. It's impressive how much goes into a shoot, just how much goes into a shot on the beach. You figure, "you're standing out in the sun, whatever," but it's a lot of work.

Gelf Magazine: You're fabricating a reality.

Mark Bechtel: Yeah. But my job was neither essential nor difficult. It was a lot of hanging around and trying not to get too sunburned.

David Downs

David Downs is a journalist based in San Francisco.

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Article by David Downs

David Downs is a journalist based in San Francisco.

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