the origins of this, your first book. What led you to NASCAR?
a lot of Americans, it snuck up on me. I was a race fan
as a kid, certainly, but had lost track of the sport as
I grew older. I was reawakened to it, as were so many other
folks, by the death of Dale Earnhardt. NASCAR's protests
to the contrary, that sad event, and the remarkable outpouring
of collective grief it caused, brought stock car racing
into the national consciousness in a way it never had been.
the months following the crash, it struck me that, with
the exception of Tom Wolfe's "The Last American Hero
is Junior Johnson. Yes!," a 40-year-old magazine piece,
there was almost no literature about racing. None. There
were plenty of books, certainly, shelf after shelf after
shelf of them, a whole trove, most of which seemed to me
completely dishonest. Too reverential or promotional or
statistical, too dry or colorless to get at the truth of
this wild, riotous, joyful, deadly thing. The whole culture
of this insanely popular sport had gone unexplored.
I mentioned this one day over at Sports Illustrated,
and the editors started talking and the whole thing just
snowballed from there. We'll do a piece about all this.
Two pieces. Three. A series! The next thing I know my wife
and I are living in the Wal-Mart parking lot and showering
at a truck stop. By then a book seemed inevitable.
you consider yourself a NASCAR fan?
But I won't lie; only qualifiedly so. I'm a fan, but not
a fanatic. As with most of the other sports I've covered,
I have an immense general respect for the performers and
their performances, and I love all the gaudy hullabaloo
of the big Sunday Show. But racing itself fires only small
passion in me, and stirs not at all any impulse to argue
spring rates or debate fuel strategies with my family and
conviction and inclination I believe a writer needs to work
from a position of utter neutrality, without prejudice or
preconception, good or bad. You can't go into a story with
a rooting interest in anything. That's impossible, of course,
because we're only human, but it's important to keep some
honest distance on the work, and to write only what you
has "Sunday Money" been touted as "the book
that NASCAR doesn't want you to read"?
think I touched on this a minute ago. It's the idea that
in the past, almost without exception, every book about
stock-car racing, or stock-car racing fans, or stock-car
racing drivers, has been written, perhaps too respectfully,
by motor-sports writers. It's in their own best interest
to toe the line on how the sport is portrayed; just as it
was for baseball writers before Jim Bouton wrote Ball
Four. The problem with toeing the line, of course, is
that you're not telling any kind of truth, you're just promulgating
a public-relations fantasy and promoting the franchise.
controls its property in a way no other professional sport
can, and NASCAR's executives are incredibly sensitive as
to how the sport is portrayed. That's their right, certainly,
but the truth of a thing won't often be found in a sales
brochure. Like it or not this is an honest book, and as
NASCAR moves forward into its gleaming corporate future,
the folks in the corner offices are going to have to learn
that the core truths of their sport can't always be reconciled
with their marketing campaigns.
do you think accounts for NASCAR's growing popularity at
this time in history?
seems to me that racing's always been popular. Go back a
few thousand years to the roaring crowds at the Colosseum,
or the Hippodrome, or the great chariot races in ancient
Alexandria. In fact, I cite Homer's race reporting from
The Iliad in Sunday Money. It makes the point
that the human love of speed and danger and spectacle has
been around a long, long time. And, frankly, it classes
things up a little.
said, I think that our nation's love of automobiles and
overwrought spectacle has something to do with NASCAR's
current rise, certainly, and our endless appetite for new
diversions. As football and baseball and basketball level
off in popularity, it seems natural that something would
come along to compete with them. There's also our peculiar
national habit of hero-making. NASCAR sells, quite pointedly,
a very American kind of oversimplified, square-jawed heroism
every weekend. And there's all that danger, don't forget.
Admit it or not, a big part of the appeal of racing is the
premise that the risk of death is incredibly sexy to some
NASCAR both a red and a blue state phenomenon?
We met ardent NASCAR fans in every corner of the country.
The most devoted fan we know is a woman in New York who
works on Wall Street.
makes a good NASCAR race?
has a different opinion on this. Long runs at high speed.
Or thumpin' and bangin' in the low groove. Lots of "action"
(see Sunday Money, page 136, for the definition of
"action"). Hot sun. Cold beer. Funnel cakes. Turkey
legs. The Swedish Bikini Team.
you plan to ever return to motorhoming?
at gunpoint. (See page 179.)
all the people you met on your NASCAR circuit travels, who
did you find the most fascinating?
the burden he bears and the apparent ease with which he
carries it, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. For being the least likely
daredevil ever, Jeff Gordon. For his demon neuroses and
bent toward on-camera self-destruction, Tony Stewart. The
clear winner, though, would have to be the Dale Earnhardt
impersonator we met at Martinsville. It takes a lot of courage,
or perhaps mental disorder, to dress up as the martyred
savior of the modern age and wander the stands having your
picture taken with the fans. I asked him why he did it.
"It makes them feel good to see him," he said.
"I mean me."
did you decide to structure the book the way you did, as
a series of vignettes and sketchbooks?
seemed to me the best way to convey the kaleidoscopic nature
of a year spent on NASCAR's frantic tour, seeing it the
way the participants do, catching glimpses of that fragmentary
America as you roll across it.
have been the greatest influences on your writing?
are too many to name. A partial list, then: Wolfe, as I
mentioned; Hunter Thompson, Michael Herr, A.J. Liebling,
W.C. Heinz. Benchley. Perelman. Rushdie. Amis. Lorrie Moore.
I've been lucky enough to study at the feet of some real
rabbis, too, like Robert Stone and Roger Angell and Bill
Kennedy and Lee Abbott.