Describe the origins of this, your first book. What led you to NASCAR?

Like 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.

In 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.

So 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.

Do you consider yourself a NASCAR fan?

Yes. 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 friends.

By 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 see.

Why has "Sunday Money" been touted as "the book that NASCAR doesn't want you to read"?

I 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.

NASCAR 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.

What do you think accounts for NASCAR's growing popularity at this time in history?

It 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.

That 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 folks.

Is NASCAR both a red and a blue state phenomenon?

Undoubtedly. 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.

What makes a good NASCAR race?

Everyone 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.

Do you plan to ever return to motorhoming?

Only at gunpoint. (See page 179.)

Of all the people you met on your NASCAR circuit travels, who did you find the most fascinating?

For 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."

Why did you decide to structure the book the way you did, as a series of vignettes and sketchbooks?

It 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.

Who have been the greatest influences on your writing?

There 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.




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