Race Theory: NASCAR’S White Knuckle Ride

Stock car drivers are nothing more than guys who know how to turn left and step on the gas. Growing up in the upcountry South as I did, I heard this joke not from people who demeaned the sport (I didn’t know any of those), but from men, and in many cases women, who lived and breathed the gasoline-choked air of southern stock car racing. I think they mocked the sport they loved because they understood that their obsession with oval speedways and the daredevils who roared around them at speeds close to 200 miles an hour every Sunday might not be to everyone’s taste. The rebel flags they flew when they attended the races, flags that sometimes bore the image of their favorite driver superimposed over the stars and bars, accentuated their belief that NASCAR belonged to them, that it belonged to the white south.

Since its beginnings, stock car racing has had a decidedly southern accent, a point made so often that it needs little repetition here. Born in the “hollers” of North Georgia, western North Carolina and East Tennessee, stock car racing long had a roughneck, low down reputation. Weekends at the old dirt tracks that dotted the Carolinas meant not only fast cars, but fighting, drinking, and general carousing, as well. Textile workers and red dirt farmers let it all out when they went to the races, freed by speed and sound from the button-down Protestantism of small southern towns and the economic fate that made their region the poorest and the least educated in the country. Stock car racing, this strange blend of rural rowdyism and fascination with modern technical prowess, seemed to belong to the white south. Southerners love sports in general and have turned college football into a liturgical pageant of manhood and imitative warfare. But “racing stock”, as it is sometimes called, belongs to the South in a way no other sport does or could.

Traditionally, much of the loyalty that adheres to stock car racing has come not only from its regional roots, but also from its class specificity. Stock car racing has its origins in the working class south, a south very much on the social and economic margins of American society. Many of the sport’s legends began their racing as bootleg runners, known locally as “trippers” in the 1950s and ’60s. Tripper’s souped-up their Chevys and Fords to run homemade whisky to Atlanta, Knoxville, and Memphis, often racing one another in their spare time to see who had built the fastest car. The sport’s roots ran deep, then, into the folk life of the region and NASCAR, at least until recent year, sought to present itself in just this fashion.

One aspect of NASCAR, however, seems southern in the worst sense: both the drivers and the fan base are overwhelmingly white. Black fans are seldom seen at the racetrack, and there has been no black driver able to achieve real success in NASCAR since the organization became an official sanctioning body in the 1950s. The obstacles facing black southerners who have sought to integrate the sport have been overwhelming, resulting the sport’s remaining very much a white bailiwick.

Some might express surprise that integration has not come to a sport traditionally strongest in a part of the country that most black Americans call home. Fifty years after Brown v. Board, why does this particular leisure activity remain one of the most segregated in America? Black southerners participate heavily in southern college football, both as athletes and as fans. What has made NASCAR so different? Some might answer this question by drawing on traditional stereotypes of economically marginal poor white southerners, assuming simply that “rednecks” are inherently and inveterately racist and have done all they can to make sure their world of beautifully colored cars and roaring engines has remained, racially speaking, lily-white.

The answer is much more complex and at least part of the answer has more to do with geography and history than with race and culture. Stock car racing has, for the most part, been the pastime of the piedmont and mountain south, a southern sub-region that has traditionally had a heavier concentration of white than black southerners. Many of the sport’s historic tracks are located in the upcountry south (with the notable exception of Darlington, South Carolina), places where much less informal intermingling of white and black cultural forms has occurred. Demographics, rather than race, have played some role here.

Geography, of course, only provides a partial explanation for the narrow racial parameters of NASCAR. In truth, black drivers have made the effort to drive in America’s largest and most popular racing league but found the obstacles to their participation impossible to overcome . . . obstacles that have taken a somewhat different form than you might guess. Historian Pete Daniel, in his fine book Lost Revolutions (University of North Carolina Press, April 2000) tells the story of Wendell Scott, a Virginia driver who, like most white drivers, first “raced” as a whisky-runner, began competing on local dirt tracks in 1947. Scott faced the kind of verbal taunting one might expect a black athlete to receive in the South of the 1940s and 50s, but continued to do well on dirt tracks throughout the region (only the Darlington Track, where the “Rebel 500” was held every fall, did not allow him to race).

In the early 1960s, Scott began competing in the Grand National Series, an early title for the NASCAR circuit. Always a competitor, Scott posted a win at a speedway in Jacksonville, although it would take weeks for him to be officially declared the winner (Daniel surmises, probably correctly, that NASCAR officials did not want fans to see an African American man standing arm in arm with the white “Winner’s Circle” queens as was traditional for the wining driver).

Eventually, Scott would be forced off the racing circuit, not by threats and taunts of redneck fans, but by his inability to garner a corporate sponsorship. Skill, passion, and frankly courage play an important role in NASCAR racing. Nevertheless, the mechanical aspects of the sport increasingly made a corporate sponsorship, actually several corporate sponsorships, essential to achieving respectable finishes. Wendell Scott, though with proven ability that would have, over time, won the hearts of fans as did black athletes in other sports, left NASCAR in 1973. He was still unable to find sponsorship in an era in which the tobacco industry poured enormous amounts of money into the sport (this is the reason that, until recently, Grand National racing was known as “Winston Cup” racing). Despite the grudging respect of other drivers that led a few to share parts, pit crew members, and know-how with him, Scott simply could not survive without corporate sponsorship.

Jeering, white, Confederate-flag waving country-folk did not drive Wendell Scott out of NASCAR. Something more interesting, and diabolical, worked beneath the surface of the Wendell Scott story, something related perhaps to what theorist Fredric Jameson called “the cultural logic of late capitalism”. Although its better not to get too theoretical here [though if you are interested in this line of argument, take a look at my article on NASCAR and economic class in Studies in Popular Culture (October 2002)], the larger point is perhaps that there is racism and then there is racism. There’s the ignorant comment of the half-educated and angry whites with so little power that verbal and physical taunts have become the only outlet for their rage. But then there’s the full-panoply of white supremacist power expressed by corporate power. In the case of NASCAR, corporate funds, the desire on some level to shape the sport as a white playground, helped play a direct role in the exclusion of African Americans from the sport. Advertising and image, more or less everything in corporate circles, found it useful to present a white sport to the largely white southern audiences who did not want to see their sport integrated in the way their schools soon would be.

African Americans have, it should be noted, found some interesting ways to subvert the white narrative NASCAR tells. NASCAR gear, specifically the brightly colored and corporate emblem littered racing jackets, has become the newest addition to the hip-hop uniform, especially in large southern cities like Atlanta and Miami. Though not a clearly political statement, the wearing of NASCAR gear shares some of the characteristics inherent in hip-hop culture. The hip-hop style, as many commentators have noted, can be defined as laying claim to public space otherwise denied, whether that means turning up the bass or wearing large, outsized clothing that calls attention to the black self otherwise made invisible by white racism. Perhaps the wearing of NASCAR emblems have become a way to assert one’s identity in the face of a sport that has, to its discredit, become a preserve of whiteness.

NASCAR as a corporate entity has made recent efforts to become something other than simply a preserve of whiteness and to encourage “diversity”. Recently, NASCAR has gone so far as to put together a steering committee, with former Laker’s All-Star Magic Johnson at its head, to encourage minority participation in the sport. A “race for diversity” project has a similar inflection, attempting to interest what the NASCAR website calls “urban youth” in motorsports. The more cynical (namely me) would note that these initiatives come at a time when NASCAR and its sponsors have an enormous interest in reshaping their national image. NASCAR has increasingly moved west, becoming much more a sport of the sunbelt rather than of the South. In the last 10 years, its fan base has become increasingly affluent: middle class rather than working class, suburban rather than rural. A need to change NASCAR’s image has accompanied these changes and the multicultural emphasis of much modern corporate “branding” has lapped the field. NASCAR needs a few black faces for much the same reason it needed all white faces 30 years ago: it comes down to the color of money.

Ironically, poor whites, the posterity of those shirtless country folk jeering at Wendell Scott, have themselves slowly been excluded from the sport. Ticket prices have climbed astronomically while the infield, formerly ground zero for redneck rowdiness, has become the preserve of fans able to afford expensive travel trailers and even more expensive executive boxes with names like “the Diamond Suite”. In the rural South, many a home still tunes into the race on Sunday afternoon, although this is often because they have no choice but to “tune in”. The race has become too expensive to go see and, more than likely, its being held in California or Las Vegas (as one angry fan said on my local radio station, “if they move one more race out of the Carolinas, they can stop calling it NASCAR and call it Kiss My Ass Car!”).

I suspect that few NASCAR executives really believe they will see black drivers, black fans, or black majority-owners of racing teams in the near future (in fact, NASCAR’s only racing team owned primarily by a black entrepreneur threw in the towel, or the wrench, in December. Why? No sponsors, of course). Instead they hope that black athletes like Magic Johnson, and partial team owner Reggie White of NFL fame will simply lend the aura of diversity to a sport seeking to change its image. The country boys are leaving the sport but isn’t it interesting that the ride NASCAR takes us for remains “white knuckle” in every sense of the word?