Goodbye, Lady in Black

South Carolina’s “Lady in Black” has lost her youthful charms for NASCAR. The raceway at Darlington will no longer host its fall race, the legendary “Southern 500”. The fall race has, in fact, left South Carolina completely and will be held in California A spring race remains but, with the exception of testing and some local events, the oldest of NASCAR’s paved tracks will molder in the fall like the bottom of an old leaf pile. A half-century ago, country boys who loved cars transformed farmland into this racetrack. NASCAR’s first 500-mile event, and the first stock car race not run on a dirt track, would take place in the rural South Carolina county.

NASCAR made its final fall run in Darlington several weeks after “NASCAR Dads”, the new desired electoral demographic that has perhaps replaced “soccer moms”. helped put George W. Bush in the White House. Certainly some South Carolina fans, many of whom are solid Bushies, must feel a sense of betrayal that an iconographic event in their beloved sport has left one of the redder of the red states to go to one of the bluer to the blue states out there on “the left coast”. One can only hope that they will feel a sense of betrayal and ask questions, not simply about NASCAR, but about a whole range of ideas, candidates, corporations and institutions that they have supported and that, meanwhile, have not cared a whit for them.

A disinterested non-fan might express little surprise at NASCAR’s decision, seeing it as the end of a tradition but one at least motivated by clear economic rationalism. NASCAR has high and maybe somewhat inflated hopes of attracting a larger audience, a national and international audience for this once rural pastime. These hopes will, if fulfilled, take the sport a country mile from its roots. If you know a little about NASCAR, especially about its links to the South’s roughneck past, you know that the those fresh-face boys covered from head to toe and from fender to tailpipe in corporate sponsorships are the direct heirs of a tradition born on whisky runs through the mountain South, migrating eventually to the dirt tracks and finally to the super speedways (for more on NASCAR and its origins, see my column of 30 June 2004 and

Almost 50 years go, now, Darlington Motor Speedway became one of those first steps in what would be a long climb to respectability. The Darlington raceway, the first of the asphalt speedways, sits in a tiny rural community that becomes a metropolis two weekends in year, with a surprising number of restaurants and strip joints that depend on those two events for business (a place where there are almost as many strip joints as churches, no small feat in South Carolina). Named “the Lady in Black” after becoming the first black top speedway on the stock car circuit, Darlington now feels a bit like an aging actress; beautiful more through the eyes of sentiment, and on TV, than up close. Almost literally sitting in the middle of a former cotton field, it’s just an old concrete pile of a place. The enormous parking lot has never been even been paved, leaving fans to park willy nilly, although generally they’d organize themselves in something resembling rows.

I was one of those fans parking in the dirt lot this year to see the final running of this legendary race. I’ve already taken you to the racetracks in the previously mentioned column, which was my effort to look at the racism that hides underneath the shiny cars and corporate sponsorships of the white South’s favorite sport, but the final Southern 500, run a few weeks after an election in which the so-called “NASCAR Dads” voted in droves for a well-heeled, Ivy Leagued educated scion of privilege, deserves some reflection. But be warned, friends, blue-staters, countrymen; I come to praise the NASCAR Dads and not to bury them.

The NASCAR Dads are often working class dads, sometimes even labor union members, and so its worth thinking aloud about the nature of their political loyalties. Everyone seems to be talking about Thomas Frank’s outstanding book What’s the Matter with Kansas?: How Conservatives Won the Heart of America (Metropolitan Books, 2004) so I guess I should, too. Frank, a native of Kansas himself, wonders in this book about the irony of the Republican party, the champions of the elite and Wall Street’s best friend, receiving the lion’s (or the elephant’s) share of blue collar votes in those “red states” that often have a strong tradition of economic populism.

Few will bother to ask the question “What’s the matter with South Carolina?” since an enormous literature (historical and personal, authored by natives and by outsiders) exists that describes already what’s wrong with South Carolina. A seedbed for reactionary movements rather than reform movements (like parts of the Midwest), South Carolina and the white South are seemingly standing on a long past when they vote for the most conservative candidate possible.

Its no surprise then, that a lot of those NASCAR dads in the southern states did not turn out to be Kerry voters, despite the Massachusetts’s Senator’s rather cheesy effort to don camo and go hunting (let me note, by the way, that he was “goose hunting” rather than the more common dove hunting, thus still giving off the cloying smell of aristocracy). There are, however, a few things worth considering. While white working class southerners of the sort who often love NASCAR may have voted for, as I noted, an Ivy Leaguer with New England roots, let’s not forget that they also voted against a well-heeled Ivy Leaguer with New England roots who, moreover, spoke and acted like one.

Maybe, however, it’s a vast oversimplication to lay Bush’s victory at the door of John Kerry’s utter un-Bubbaness. Indeed, lets not forget that many of these folks voted solidly against Bill Clinton, a man with fairly solid Bubba credentials. When Bill Clinton visited Darlington in 1994, charges of draft dodging trailed clouds of inglorious implications behind him, the crowd drowned out his effort to call out “Gentleman, start your engines” with a long and vigorous chorus of boos, hisses and unnamable insults. A sign at that event read “Redneck Racing Fans for Bush”, a statement so ironic that it needs little analysis and can stand on its own for the difficulties faced by progressive politics in the American heartland.

Many of the post-mortems of the elections stood in awe at the Republican ability to capture the hearts of these working class voters, to turn them into the proverbial turkeys voting for Christmas. Amidst the expected calls for immigration to Canada and an only partially playful pondering of the possibility of the blue states legal prospects for seceding from the Union (see Same Schechner, “Could the Blue States Secede?Slate, November 5, 2004), a few liberal voices berated the red state voters for their knuckledheadedness. Speaking contemptuously of “Jesusland”, as seen on Michael Moore’s website, blue staters confirmed every blue collar suspicion about elitists liberals; that they are secretly contemptuous of the things NASCAR Dads hold dear; whether that be religious faith, or folkways like downhome cooking and drawly, twangy accents.

Howard Dean got himself into trouble when, in the race for the Democratic nomination, he suggested that the Democratic party need to reach out to the guys with “Confederate flags on their pick-up trucks”. Dean spent a news cycle backing away from his comment while his opponents, even John Edwards who should have known better, leaped to the lectern to remind Dean that times had changed, the legacy of hate had been disposed of, yada, yada, yada. But that’s not what Dean meant and everybody knew it. He was expressing hope that the Democrats would find a way to speak to the hardhat/lunch box crowd in the South, and would have something to say to the textile worker whose job had gone to Mexico: he hoped the Democratic party would reach out to the NASCAR Dads, in other words. The Democrats didn’t find a way to do this, and NASCAR country remained Bush country.

I think that baby boom liberals deserve some of the blame for the profound disenchantment of blue collar folk with progressive politics. There is a brand of liberalism in this country that connects its silly and consumerist Starbucks and Pottery Barn lifestyles with liberal cultural politics, while writing off the poor and conservative as rednecks. Born long after and thus untried by the struggles of the civil rights era and the labor movement, these modern day cultural elites have little to offer a white guy with a technical college diploma whose angry about changes he doesn’t understand and worried that he won’t be able to keep up with the mortgage on the manufactured home and the pick-up truck. He would like to know that there’s more to liberalism than sending checks to Greenpeace and owning an espresso machine. He doesn’t think redneck jokes are funny, except when he tells them. Folks who are economically marginalized often feel culturally marginalized. These two burdens together are a lot to take in a country that denies the existence of a class structure, preferring the notion that one’s economic fate is a algebraic equation in which hard work on one side equals economic prosperity on the other.

But lots of the NASCAR dad are able to ignore the harsh realities of their economic and social fate The class structure of any society, as Marx put it, survives largely by mystification: the ability of elites to confuse the real issues (the economic: think social security and overtime pay) with false or ephemeral issues (the ideological and the cultural: think Christian Coalition) in order to prevent a “revolution from below”. The New Deal coalition, built on a foundation of sturdy economic liberalism, still serves as a model for blue-staters and red-staters to come together, a time when a New York blue-blood like depression-era President Franklin D. Roosevelt had the overwhelming support of white South Carolina and black South Carolina, indeed the support of the entire South.

What happened to that old coalition? In truth, it always had strains, cracks and fissures, many of them over the issue of race and its totemic power to drive poor white people in this country to act against their best interests. Economic prosperity has left many southern whites behind or, in many cases, made them promises and then played them false. Even certain aspects of late twentieth century evangelical religion may have had something to do with this, given its obsession with millennial musings and end-of-time obsession [evidenced in the popularity of the “Left Behind” television series by Tim Lahaye and Jerry B. Jenkin (Tyndale House, 1996). Bread and butter issues mean very little to folks who believe the world is, literally, going to hell in an apocalyptic handbasket and Jesus is coming soon.

The infield at Darlington, the center, still grassy part of the track where fans can park mobile homes and spend a weekend of drinking, eating, and watching racing, has a reputation for wildness, for representing an untamed version of southern white culture where Bubba cuts loose and has a fine time. On my trip to Darlington, behavior in the infield was decidedly tame and for some good reasons. First of all it was a cold November day, unusual weather for a Southern 500. Before last year, the legendary race had always been held on Labor Day weekend, the traditional three day holiday of working people, and the day of the race had been, as it always is in a fading South Carolina summer, hot enough to peel paint. This year, when I visited the infield, a raw, cold wind kept everyone bundled up and made serious inroads into the fans’ cold beer intake. Parts of the infield even seemed eerily quiet.

Some of this odd quiet came from some of those old loyalists who have been coming to the Southern 500 for decades. One aging motor home featured a cardboard sign that read “FOR SALE: Due to corporate GREED of NASCAR there will no longer be a Southern 500. We don’t need this motor home anymore.” Will those folks ever make the connection between the “corporate greed” that takes away an important element of the sport they love and the political party that rewards corporate greed with tax cuts, tax breaks, and outright subsidies? Thomas Frank writes that the illusions of American conservatism actually depend on folks never making those mental connections, never connecting their chump change paychecks or inability to pay their elderly mother’s hospital bills to the candidates they vote for and the corporate money that sponsors those candidates (ibid, p. 248).

But perhaps the triumph of American conservatism has also depended on progressives failing to make certain connections as well: connections between the “rednecks” and the New Deal coalition that brought modern liberalism to birth. The declining strength of the labor movement in this country correlates with the declining electoral strength of progressive candidates. Perhaps the election will serve as a wake-up call to progressives who have too often played the conservatives game of “culture war” while forgetting bread and butter issues. A new movement, a new populist movement, will likely not come from the Democratic National Committee or liberal think tanks. Instead, we should look for it in this country’s trailer parks, housing projects, or even in the infield of racetracks, where folk place cardboard signs on the travel trailers they don’t need, anymore.