NASCAR exploded in popularity over the last decade. Even in the Yankee north, large oval tracks draw six-figure-sized crowds to watch logo-splashed cars thunder around the track at speeds approaching 200 mph. In his book Sunday Money Jeff MacGregor followed the 2001 NASCAR circuit in an RV for an entire year, joining the Grateful Dead-like fans who tour the country in pilgrimage to their racing heroes.
MacGregor theorizes that Americans love NASCAR because, A) they love fast cars and, B) they love to drive. He also believes that stock car racing offers an intensified version of people’s own highway experiences, and perhaps just as importantly, when watching the races fans join a large, stable and astoundingly homogenous community (NASCAR fans are overwhelmingly white.)
So, let’s recap: NASCAR is popular in the U.S. because it allows monochromatic people to sit and watch men sit and drive ultra souped up cars in circles with the possibility that said cars may go careening into one another at any second. (Already seems like sitting and crashing are important here). What’s more, NASCAR reflects people’s own daily experience of driving (while seated, it goes without saying), though at slower speeds and with significantly more right hand turns than their NASCAR heroes make.
Then there is running. Okay, runners are multi-hued people who – what, like to go under their own power while maintaining a fully upright posture? And this reflects…uhhh…help me here…this reflects…no, not a clue. Far as I can tell, it reflects nothing in the popular American culture other than itself. Which might, in fact, be the problem. Not to mention the utter lack of bone-crunching crashes or floozies with cigarettes and beer cans following our stars’ exploits in RVs.
Running, it would seem, remains a pre-industrial sport. First of all, just as there is no crying in baseball, there is no sitting in running, a major flaw it in a nation that has fully embraced the couch potato ethic. Then there is the speed issue. Even our very top-end guys are managing no more than 13 mph over distance. Well, no way that’s gonna fly. Not with California drivers whipping by at 90+ mph on an average rush-hour morning up the I-5, and while seven year-old, 160 pound Jimmy Joe is still being wheeled through the mall seated in the reinforced pram by Big Momma (again with the sitting?)
So here’s what we’ve learned. NASCAR is a service economy’s ideal sport. In fact, it’s only a matter of time before the first NASCAR race hits Bangalore, India at the rate those folks are taking over our “Hi, my name is Josh, please hold for the next available representative” phone business. Running, on the other hand, remains an agrarian society’s perfect sport. If NASCAR offers “an intensified version of people’s own highway experiences”, well, duh!, foot racing offers an intensified version of an agrarian society’s own ambling experiences. And where is agriculture still practiced at foot level rather than at the sponsor level for Sunday morning news programs (See Archer, Daniels, Midland Co.)? Right, the old Rift Valley which runs through Kenya, Ethiopia, and Tanzania.
So let’s stop all the wishful thinking, and just be happy with our little 19th century niche in the American sporting firmament. Then again, maybe John Mellencamp and Willie Nelson can sponsor a “Save the American Runner” concert, since we’re heading the way of the old family farm, anyway.
(Toni Reavis has yet to attend a NASCAR event)