Tuesday, December 28, 2010

NASCAR: Perception, Reality and the Hollywood Film -- a seminar paper by Dan Conway

Dan Conway
HST 485
13 December 2010
NASCAR vs. Hollywood
With the recent battle among race car drivers Jimmy Johnson, Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick NASCAR has been a big subject of discussion. Johnson has dominated the Sprint Cup Series for four years winning the Sprint Cup each year. 2010 would prove to be his toughest test yet. Coming into the final race of the year Johnson was in a tight race, trailing Hamlin with Harvick hot on his heel. This was the closest the championship had been in recent years. When the checkered flag was waved, Johnson finished a second ahead of both Hamlin and Harvick. It was enough for the California boy to vault past Hamlin for his fifth straight championship. It is interesting to think that Californian-born Johnson could dominate what is traditionally thought of as a southern sport. The idea of NASCAR being a southern sport is a common misconception. In 2001, the organization had a reported 75 million fans all around the country in places such as New York, Pennsylvania and Michigan.[1]
If NASCAR is popular all around the country, then why does it have a reputation of being a Winston-smoking, beer-drinking, good-ol’ boy sport?[2] Even Hollywood represents its characters according to this profile in movies or scenes related to car racing. They are portrayed as a place for white southern people to gather, drink and show off their southern pride. No matter if the movie stars Annette Funicello (Fireball 500), Tom Cruise (Days of Thunder) or Will Farrell (Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby), there is a sense that the south is the place for racing. What are the repetitive aspects in these movies that have contributed to the idea that only people from the South are NASCAR fans? Every movie portrays the profile of drivers as being southerners or invaders, quick to brawl outlaws and the events themselves as a place for violence, massive wrecks and promoter or owner greed. This paper will discuss the aspects of this profile and how the aspects are exemplified through movies.
NASCAR’s roots go deepest in the Piedmont region of the South. It is in this region from which the original myth of NASCAR comes. This myth states that NASCAR was born from bootleggers coming together in cow pastures to race their modified automobiles. Promoters realized the potential of this kind of entertainment and sold it to the nation. While some elements of this myth have some truth, overall it is just a myth. The real roots of NASCAR come from a cultural change in the daily life of the Piedmont area.[3]
In the early 1900s, the Piedmont region underwent a change from a primarily farm driven society to the new system of mills and mill town. Many farmers of the era could not keep their farms afloat. So they sold their land to corporations that combined the land and built new mills that did much the same as smaller farms but on a larger scale. The problem was that farmers were trading a job which had them working primarily outside in largely open spaces for a mill job that was in a loud, noisy, closed space. For twelve hours a day and six days a week, workers were confined to these mills and under the supervision of management.[4] If that was not hard enough, entertainment was also limited and many workers were in search for a new form of entertainment.
At the same time, the traditional cultural values of the mill workers were becoming strained. Dating back to the days before the Civil War, there were three values that were most important to the southern people: toughness, sense of freedom and a lack of dependence.[5] The new mill system severely limited the workers sense of freedom and made them very dependent on the mills to survive. Suddenly, finding a new form of entertainment became more than just a way to escape the everyday toil of mill life. It became away to express and reinforce their cultural values.
The rise of the automobile would become their new outlet. Like most new technologies, in the beginning, automobiles were a play thing for the wealthy. But like all technologies with time, and little help from Henry Ford’s Model T, automobiles became less expensive and the Piedmont working-class began to purchase them either new or used. Driving became the new past time of the working-class for the little free time they had. Being a good driver was seen as an essential part of owning an automobile. Equally as important was an owner’s ability to repair their vehicle, because early in its existence the automobile could be very unreliable.[6]
The automobile became the mill worker’s new sense of freedom. With this new machine mill workers had the ability to travel greater distances than ever before. While driving, the workers could escape the ever present watch of their mill supervisors. The ability to repair their automobile became a way to be less dependent. Being able to pull one’s automobile under a tree and fix whatever was the problem was seen as a way to be self-sufficient and self-reliant.
This idea of being self-sufficient and self-reliant is represented in the film, Days of Thunder. In the film, the California native rookie driver, Cole Trickle (Tom Cruise), joins a new NASCAR team with legendary crew chief, Harry Hogge (Robert Duvall), as the man who is supposed to get Trickle into stock car shape. In one of the bonding scenes between the two men, Hogge tells Trickle to feel out the car and tell him if anything needs to be corrected. Trickle’s response is that he has no idea what Hogge is talking about because he has no knowledge of the internal workings of a car. Hogge is stunned at Trickle’s admission and by his statement that he just got in the car and could drive.
Hogge just assumes that Trickle has at least the basic knowledge and vocabulary that goes along with being a stock car racer. Hogge, a southern man by birth and a builder of cars, would have known the importance of knowing how a car works from childhood as it would have made him more self-reliant. Trickle, being from California, could be seen as typical of non-southern Americans. He is just some invader to the sport that may have some skill driving but has no real appreciation of what it takes to be star in NASCAR.
The rise of the mill system is directly connected with the rise of another lifestyle system. When it became clear that many people were giving up the farm to join the working-class of the mills, many people were unwilling to quit on the life that they had come to love. But it was clear that they would need to find another way to supplement their income in order to keep their farm. In a strange twist of fate the American government in 1919 would indirectly provide these farmers with the answer to this question with the passing of the Eighteenth Amendment.[7] Like Al Capone in Chicago, Prohibition gave moonshiners in the Piedmont region the opportunity to make all the money they would need and more.
The passing of the Eighteenth Amendment made the manufacture, transportation and sale of alcohol illegal nationwide. But what it could not do was eliminate the desire of most of America to consume alcohol and according to economics when there is a demand a surplus will follow. Even before Prohibition, people in the Piedmont region were manufacturing their own whiskey. However, this was on a small scale operation. It is important to state that the image of moonshiners as backward hill people is incorrect. When the need to improve the quality of their product as well as the need to increase the amount made came around, moonshiners developed new ways, like triple distilling, to produce their liquid.[8] The increase in the production of illegal alcohol can be seen in the seizure reports. In 1935, one of the largest seizures of illegal alcohol occurred in North Carolina. On the farm of Glen Johnson, founder of famous bootlegger and NASCAR star Junior Johnson, officials seized “7100 gallons of whiskey, 9150 pounds of sugar, four copper condensers, five complete distilling plants having a combined capacity for the manufacturing of 2000 gallons of liquor each week”.[9] The manufacturing of moonshine was very profitable but making it was only part of the process. More important to the future of NASCAR was the transportation of the illegal alcohol.
With the emphasis on self-reliability, those who were interested in getting the highest performance out of their vehicles would often tinker with their vehicles to achieve this high performance. Early on their vehicle of choice was Ford’s Model T, because of its inexpensiveness and all the after-market products that came for it. When Ford introduced their flathead V8 engine, bootleggers were eager to get their hands on this motor with its potential of power. Also the emergence of the Hot Rod industry, especially in southern California, produced high quality aftermarket products to enhance many of the popular vehicles of the era.[10] These new high performance vehicles were capable of high speeds and avoiding pesky law enforcement.
Bootlegging was a highly lucrative business indeed. According to Junior Johnson a runner could make $350 to $450 a night hauling moonshine.[11] This gave the runners and moonshiners all the money that they would need to make improvements to their vehicles in order to stay ahead of law enforcement. The drive of the vehicles was the real appeal to the drivers. The thrill of outdriving law enforcement on country roads was something that either mill or farm life could not match. It connected the runners to their traditional values of freedom and self-reliance.
Another thing that the runners were known for was their toughness. Having a sense of freedom and being self-reliant was an important part of being seen as a man in the south. But it was equally important for a man to be tough. Like many cultures one way of proving how tough a man was through fighting. In some cases it was not enough to simply get into a fight. Winning the fight could be the difference between one being seen as a man or as a boy. When a man possessed all three values of freedom, self-reliance and toughness, some would characterize him as a “Hell of a Fellow”.[12]
How much this “Hell of a Fellow” description defined what is believed to be the typical NASCAR driver can be seen in the movie Fireball 500. In the film, Dave Owens (Frankie Avalon) is the new hot shot racer that comes to the South from California. Owens is a fast talker and an even faster driver. After winner a race against the unbeaten local hero, Sonny “Leander” Fox, Owens is approached by the race’s promoter, Martha Brian (Julie Parrish). Brian wants Owens to become her new runner of moonshine, which Owens did not even know was still occurring. Owens is against it originally but is forced to join the profession by the Internal Revenue (revenuers) in order to bring down big time bootlegger Charlie Bigg (Harvey Lembeck). Owens must now make a choice that can turn deadly.
Again in this film, a California born racer comes to the south to prove his worth on the track just as in, Days of Thunder. But this time Owens has all the appropriate qualities to be considered a “Hell of a Fellow”. Through racing Owens gives off a sense of freedom. When he turns down the opportunity to make a lot of money, Owens demonstrates that he does not need to depend on anyone to make a living. Several times during the film Owens’ toughness is tested. When Bigg finds out that Owens and Brian were having a romantic affair, he becomes insanely jealous and a fight breaks out between Owens and Bigg. When Leander forces Owens off the track in the final lap of a race, Owens takes exception and a fight breaks out. Owens even walks away when his car is forced off a cliff. Owens is definitely a “Hell of a Fellow”.
Having interest in a certain activity does not mean that it is going to translate into a sport. All major sports have one thing in common. It is not that they give people a chance to be the hero or that they even entertain those how watch them. The one thing that every sport has to do in order to survive is that they have to be able to produce a sufficient amount of money. The Piedmont region was the area where racing would produce the most amount of money along with the highest interest in racing.[13] It would take promoters to tap the newly found interest in the automobile racing before the sport could thrive. Unlike other major sport leagues today, NASCAR can thank most of its growth on one man.
William “Bill” Henry Getty France was born in 1909 in Washington D.C. This father was a bank clerk that tried to set a good foundation for his son. But young France had no interest in following in his father’s career choice. France instead was much more interested in cars and had skill as a mechanic. After just two years of high school, France dropped out and got a job working in a local garage.[14] While working on other’s cars France was able to pursue his dream of auto racing. He, along with his friends, would build cars and race them. This early exposure to racing gave young France some valuable experiences, which were good and bad. France married Anne Bledsoe, a Carolina girl who had connections with bootleggers. By the age of thirty, France was tired of repairing cars on a cold ground and so he decided to move his family down to Florida. France had every intention of settling in Miami, but this plan got derailed with he reached Daytona Beach.[15]
Daytona Beach has always attracted racing enthusiasts. Being in Florida, Daytona Beach has just one season and people tended to go there in the winter months to get away from the cold. But to racers it was a place for them to show off both their driving skills and powerful cars. Early racers would hold grudge matches and time trial with everyone wanting to be the best and have the fastest time or car. They would usually race along the beaches. It was a viable hotbed of drivers, mechanics, enthusiast and promoters.[16] In other words it was a racing Mecca.
France was in heaven when he reached Daytona Beach and quickly decided that it was there that he and his family would make their new home. He purchased a filling station and it became a place for local and traveling enthusiast could stop by, have a chat and get caught up on all the racing news. Mechanical work soon took a back seat to France’s passion for racing and promoting racing. In February 1936, Daytona Beach city official sponsored a 250-mile sand race. It was the first large scale race that the city had sponsored and it generated a lot of excitement from both fans and drivers. However the event was nothing but trouble. The sand track began to erode after the first few laps especially at the turns. Every car in the field had to be pulled out at least once. An inexperienced official even had difficulty determining who actually won the match. There was a controversy over who actually won the race. France finished fifth overall in the event. This disaster of a race ended up costing the city over twenty thousand dollars and put doubt on whether or not there would be any more like it in the city.[17]
France was not deterred from the challenge of having a race in Daytona Beach. He convinced the city council to let him hold another event at the track, but instead of just sand France used a new mixture to give the track more stability.[18] The mixture worked and France was able to hold three different races at this one event, which included a stock car event. What was imprinted on France during this early race was that there was money to be made from the working-class. He also learned that the best drivers were mainly the bootleggers and it was through them that France had his best shot at finding stars. This meant that France would have to be a master interpreter to deal with the bootleggers and businessmen. Plus he would have organize the bootleggers and make them follow a standard of racing, which was harder than it sounds because they often like to bend the rules as far as they could or they would just plainly cheat.[19]
It became apparent that the red-clay of the Piedmont area was the best place to hold racing events. Plus the working-class offered up the most excitement over the race and it was the best chance that France had to turn a profit. He began to promote races all over the region, but focused heavily on the areas of Atlanta and the Carolinas. Atlanta became the place to hold races, but its value was significantly hurt when the race banded bootleggers from competing in races.[20] That made the Carolinas more valuable to France because he was relying heavily on the bootleggers to help promote his interest. But France was interested in more than just having a successful string of racing events. He wanted to control the new sport that was developing and in order to help further his cause; France founded the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing in December, 1947. Besides forming the corporation, the meeting accomplished only setting up three divisions: strictly stock car, modified and roadsters.[21]
France had extreme difficulty with pitching stock car racing to the rest of the nation. Even at this time it was seen as a southern sport that could not compete on a weekly basis. In addition to this view, those outside of the Piedmont area were turned off by the dirt tracks, and the rowdy nature of both competitors and fans. As cars would race by on dirt tracks they would kick up dust that would settle on the crowds. The bathrooms were nothing more than outhouses. Drinking was a real problem. Fans would drink heavily both before and after the races which led to the usual problems associated with alcohol (fights, belligerence, and stupidity). It was also common for drivers to have a few drinks before the race which gives a whole new meaning to the phrase drinking and driving. Fights would also break out between drivers and were quite common. Spectator safety was also an issue as some wrecks would go into the stands or the infield.[22] These races could be deadly but they were not lacking in excitement.
Still France was left with trying to sell the nation on his newly formed organization. To prove that stock car races could be both successful and profitable, in 1949 France started his Strictly Stock Car series at Charlotte Speedway. The qualifications were only 1946 model cars or newer without any modification. It was an uneventful race that was a real test of the drivers’ skill and the car’s ability to last. However, the race drew thirteen thousand spectators and proved to France that people would support this type of racing.[23] France promoted seven more strictly stock car races that year. Along with the strictly stock car series, NASCAR started promoting weekly races. This led to the development of Sportsmen races, which were amateur races that locals could join. It was a chance for amateurs to show their hometown people what they could do behind the wheel of a car. As a bonus for NASCAR, it was a new type of farm system where young drivers could be observed.[24]
The 1950s proved that stock car racing was at a national level. In 1950 alone NASCAR sponsored eighty-five races in Ohio. This was more than any other state and more than all races combined in 1949. Darlington International Raceway also began holding the annual Southern 500 race.[25] It would prove to be the most important race for stock cars besides the Daytona 500. But the Southern 500 was the first real test of the durability of stock cars. Until this point it was thought that a stock car would not be able to last a five hundred mile race. France was putting a lot on the line with even having this race. He was risking alienating auto manufactures because this grueling style of race would show the durability of their cars.[26] If cars broke down in the middle of the race then it would look bad for their manufactures. However the race was not so much a test on the cars, as was originally thought, but was more a test of tires. Every driver had to change his tires multiple times. France’s concern with making auto manufactures look bad was based on his desire to get them involved in the sport.
During the 1950s, NASCAR began imploring new methods of promotion designed to increase both profits and the sport’s popularity. The biggest method used was meant to draw in the auto manufactures. France realized that fans were identifying with what brand of car was winning races. So NASCAR began to publish the manufacture of the cars that finished in the top five of races. This allowed fans to monitor the durability of cars and manufactures to use the results as away to sell cars. But auto manufactures did not start to sponsor drivers until after Marshall Teague convinced the Hudson Motor Company to provide him with a car, spare parts and a technical support staff. The result was that Teague won five out of fifteen Grand National events. Good results on the race track translated into good result on the showroom floor with Hudson doubling their sales in 1954.[27]
Other methods that France and NASCAR tried using were having boxing matches at events. They would pay celebrities to come to their races in order to sell more tickets. Women drivers were also paid to enter in races. This was not a political step made by France in order to have equal right among men and women. It was just a way that for the promoter to try to fill more seats. As soon as the novelty wore off, the appearance money dried up and women were not allowed in the pit anymore.[28]
This style of promotion caught the eye of Hollywood as well. Talladega Night: the Ballad of Ricky Bobby is the story of Rick Bobby (Will Farrell), a moronic NASCAR driver and his love affair with stock car racing.[29] Ricky Bobby is a loveable idiot whose world is turned upside down when the owner of his racing team brings on a new sort of driver. Jean Girard (Sasha Baron Cohan) is a French formula one driver turned stock car racer. He is openly gay and is sponsored by Perrier, which are two things that are troubling to Ricky Bobby’s view of his sport. His world comes crashing down after a crash which results in Ricky Bobby losing his confidence. The movie is a hilarious spoof on the sport.
Talladega Nights can be seen as the way that Hollywood and the media view promoters. In the movie, the owner of Ricky Bobby’s team wants more than the steady stream of wins that Ricky Bobby brings him. He bring is Girard to replace Ricky Bobby as the number one driver of the team. This move was done out of greed and it completely disrupted the nature of the team. In the final race of the year at Talladega, Ricky Bobby is trying to earn back his place in NASCAR by defeating Girard. The owner demands that the driver Cal (John C. Reilly) take out Bobby, who was his best friend. When Cal helps Ricky Bobby instead, the owner has his other driver take out Cal. This creates a massive wreck which leaves only Ricky Bobby and Girard to compete all because of one man’s greed and pride. But to be fair to all owners and promoter, NASCAR is a corporation and corporations are formed to make money. The National Basketball Association runs commercial celebrating their charity work and how “the NBA cares”. While this charity work is a wonderful thing that comes from the NBA, do not forget that the commercial are a promotion method of trying to soften its image.
There are two other points that attempt to validate the profile of the NASCAR fan as a white southerner who loves the sport because of the brawls and excitement. Most of the racing took place in the south. The fans wore their T-shirts loyal to their favorite driver. They love the excitement, the roar of the race, the inherent dangers of racing, and, of course, the drinking and eating that goes on at the race. And, they love the brawls that occur. One of the most famous fights was the fight between Cale Yarborough and Donnie Allison at the Daytona 500 in 1979.They were fighting for the lead against each other until they ran into each other in the last lap. That fight, in addition to the race being the first 500 race to be televised on major TV from start to finish, did more to engage the fans in NASCAR than anything else in the 1980’s.[30]
When it comes to how Hollywood portrays NASCAR and its fans, there is a definite over exaggeration that race car driving is a southern sport and those that participate at any level are rowdy, red-neck individuals. They are portrayed as southerners that have to deal with the cocky invaders that have come to prove to the ignorant, red-neck southerners how driving is really done. When push comes to shove, drivers will always let their fists to the talking and promoters are greedy men who will do anything to make more money. If Hollywood’s portrayal of NASCAR is correct, then the only real appeal of the sport would be the crashes that are unavoidable. Some of these qualities do have a hint of truth still left in them, but overall NASCAR is not just a southern sport. It is the second most popular sport around the country and as promoter continues to find new ways to reach different audiences, it could become the most popular in the future. In the race to dominate the entertainment of America, to quote a famous NASCAR driver, “If you’re not first, you’re last”.
Gill, Matthew. 2008. Corporations brought to you by NASCAR: Rhetorical identification through sponsorship. International Journal of Sports Marketing & Sponsorship 9 (3) (04): 180-92.
Hembree, Michael. 2000. NASCAR :The definitive history of america's sport. New York: Harper Entertainment.
HUGENBERG, LAWRENCE W., and BARBARA S. HUGENBERG. 2008. If it ain't rubbin', it ain't racin': NASCAR, american values, and fandom. Journal of Popular Culture 41 (4) (08): 635-57.
Lucsko, David. 2008. The Business of Speed: the hot rod industry in America, 1915-1990. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press
Menzer, Joe. 2009. The great american gamble :How the 1979 daytona 500 gave birth to a NASCAR nation. NASCAR library collection. Hoboken, N.J.: Wiley.
Nalley, Richard. 2006. Talladega nights. Forbes 178 (12/12): 174-.
Newland, Paul. 2009. Look past the violence: Automotive destruction in american movies. European Journal of American Culture 28 (1) (02): 5-20.
Newman, Joshua I. 2010. Full-throttle jesus: Toward a critical pedagogy of stockcar racing in theocratic america. Review of Education, Pedagogy & Cultural Studies 32 (3) (Jul): 263-94.
Newman, Joshua I., and Michael D. Giardina. 2008. NASCAR and the "southernization" of america: Spectatorship, subjectivity, and the confederation of identity. Cultural Studies/Critical Methodologies 8 (4) (11): 479-506.
Pierce, Daniel S. 2010. Real NASCAR :White lightning, red clay, and Big Bill France. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.
Puig, Claudia. 'Talladega nights': It's a winner. USA Today.
Rusz, Joe. 2003. NASCAR goes from moonshine to sake. Road & Track 54 (8) (04): 157.
Wasserman, Todd. 2005. Nascar, nextel hitch ride with herbie. Brandweek 46 (23) (06/06): 6-.
[1] Hugenberg p 635
[2] Ibid 636
[3] Pierce p 14
[4] Ibid 15
[5] Ibid 23
[6] Ibid 27
[7] Ibid 16
[8] Ibid 16
[9] Ibid 18
[10] Lucsko p 40
[11] Pierce p 16
[12] Ibid 21
[13] Ibid 55
[14] Ibid 36
[15] Ibid 37
[16] Ibid 34
[17] Ibid 43
[18] Ibid 44
[19] Ibid 60
[20] Ibid 75
[21] Ibid 101
[22] Ibid 109
[23] Ibid 114
[24] Ibid 120
[25] Ibid 133
[26] Ibid 133
[27] Ibid 144
[28] Ibid 37
[29] Puig p 1
[30] Menzer p 5


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