“Diseases do not discriminate.” This was the rebuttal from Bennie Thompson, Chairman of the Committee for Homeland Security, in response to a letter from North Carolina Representative Robin Hayes. In it, Hayes wondered “why the heck the Committee feels that immunizations are needed to travel to my hometown?”, setting off a minor, but significant, flap that conflated categorizations of Republican and Democrat, Yankee and Southerner, NASCAR fan and the rest of the world.
The imbroglio began when, in conducting research on health preparedness at large gatherings, Congress sent aides to two NASCAR events, one in North Carolina (Hayes’ state) and one in Alabama. Before going, it was revealed, the researchers were advised to vaccinate themselves against a variety of diseases, including hepatitis, tetanus, and diphtheria. As news of the recommendations, and Hayes’ indignant response to them, leaked out, politicians, almost instinctively, began reinforcing their party lines in an effort to dispel, or inflame, outrage at the implication that taking a trip to the American South demanded the same preparation as an excursion to a third world nation.
While Thompson attempted to explain that the inoculations were recommendations, not requirements, as they were visiting “hospitals and other health care facilities” nearby, Republicans saw an opportunity to indict the Democratic-controlled committee (even though Thompson is himself from Mississippi). North Carolina Republican chairwoman Linda Daves leapt quickly: “Democrats should know that there is no preventive measure yet designed to ward off the blue-collar values and patriotism that NASCAR fans represent.”
This kind of back-and-forth made for brief, bemused banter on the cable news outlets as further evidence of either the persistent philosophical divide between Republicans and Democrats, or the ludicrous lengths to which spinsters will go to gain political advantage over their opponents. To place this story in the context of pure politics, however, is to ignore the much more important resonance that Thompson’s recommendation and Hayes’ outrage have in the American South. For many, including fans of NASCAR, this is an issue that evokes the complexity of history, class, and stereotype.
For many, the mention of NASCAR evokes a specific image: sleeveless shirts, beer coozies, the Confederate battle flag, and a twangy, brambled drawl oozing slowly from the mouth in accordance with the speed of the thoughts that accompany them. In other words, in the popular imagination, NASCAR equals rednecks. But that term deserves closer scrutiny. Having lived most of my adult life in the states of Texas and Virginia, I’ve come across more than my fair share of who some might see as a “typical” rural Southerner.
On one occasion, for example, I passed an enthusiastic crowd ogling a replica of The Dukes of Hazard‘s General Lee car in the parking lot of a grocery store. On another, I ate in a diner where everyone—including the cook—was festooned in hunting camouflage. This is not to say, though, that all of these people were slack-jawed yokels just itchin’ to get their guns and right the wrongs of the “war of northern aggression”. The reality, as is the case with all stereotypes, is of course more complicated than this. Just as Austin, Texas, the capitol city of one of the reddest states in the union, is more a home for VW vans, drum circles, and patchouli shops than ten-gallon hats and five-pound belt buckles, the rest of the South is awash in complex contradiction.
However reductive the redneck (or any) stereotype is, though, the cultural forces that forge them into being are powerful and persistent. If nothing else, this NASCAR episode demonstrates the persistence of the Mason-Dixon line in American national consciousness. This is not to stay that the South still holds a grudge for losing the Civil War, but rather that ignorance, suspicion, and antipathy—for both former Yankees and Rebels—can quickly bubble to the surface at even a slight provocation like this vaccination hullabaloo.
The resentment that would force such a molehill into a mountain stems, for all the talk of red state / blue state divisions, from a more fundamental economic divide, one that was starkly revealed in the wake of hurricane Katrina. The South, to this day, is the home of the most dire and widespread poverty in the country. Many there feel ignored and shut out by their northern compatriots. (And given the state of much of New Orleans even to this day, it’s not hard to see why.) This fundamental divide goes a long way toward explaining why the third world overtones of the inoculation recommendations would hit so close to home and be so readily manipulated by Southern politicos.
Complicating this issue further is a kind of slippage taking place in NASCAR’s identity as a sport. In recent years, stock car racing has grown by leaps and bounds in popularity, pushing its way into sports pages, onto talk radio, and even onto the canonical collection of sports in America, ESPN’s Sportscenter. As it’s grown, however, NASCAR has, for many, diluted its historically Southern, rural, working-class fan base. More sponsors, bigger cities, and more exposure have undoubtedly raised the sport’s profile, but for many this has come at that cost of leaving the original fans and their values behind.
This shift explains why the success of a driver like Jeff Gordon, a California boy married to a Belgian model, would occasion such vitriol among many of NASCAR’s most ardent fans, who throw their support behind drivers like North Carolina-born Dale Earnhardt, Jr, whose father, before his death during a race in 2001, was known to fans as “The Intimidator”. Also, NASCAR as a motorsport competes for attention with the Indy Racing League and its European counterpart, Formula One. Both leagues feature open-wheeled racing, as well as European playboy drivers, the likes of which were lampooned by Sacha Baron Cohen (of Borat fame) who played an effeminate French racer named Jean Girard in the Will Ferrell vehicle Talladega Nights. The encroachment of a corporate, middle-American influence, coupled with its proximity to a more worldly motorsport, combine to put NASCAR supporters on edge when it comes to discussion of public hygiene—and all the social biases, self-righteousness, and, importantly, power imbalances that this might entail.
However cutting Baron Cohen’s portrayal in Talladega Nights was, it’s Ferrell’s role as Ricky Bobby that best explains Congressman Hayes’ attitude. A goofy, mindless, oversexed speed demon, Ferrell’s character embodies fully the disdain that many, whether they might admit to it or not, hold for NASCAR lovers and their idols. (Some might rightly point out that Tom Cruise’s Cole Trickle was our hero in the film Days of Thunder, but one thing that he wasn’t in that film, no matter his name, was Southern.)
By asking us to laugh repeatedly at rednecks who make left-hand turns all day long, Ferrell’s film, and other venues for this same redneck stereotype, agitate a populous that is torn between an inferiority complex brought on by these persistent jokes, and an attraction to a rapidly changing, if not vanishing, sense of place, tradition, and identity. Hayes’ outrage, then, is best understood not as the expression of one good-old-boy politician, but rather as an expression of the angst and resentment that were already active in his constituency—a group that has historically confronted cyclical poverty and redundant stereotyping, and with no finish line in sight.