Tragicruising: My Return to the NASCAR Circuit
Issue #59, February 2002
Racing displays the essence of everyday cruising around in our cars; it purges our desire to cruise by purifying it. We are born into automobiles: after the hospital, a parking lot and a car are often the first spaces we occupy. We begin driving when we are fifteen, and during those adolescent automotive years, the car is our only independent space, our dream of a mobile monad — a dream which is burst when parents or a cop search our cars, splitting us from our metallic shells. But even before we drive — when we're sentenced to ride in our mother's cars, or in my case, to sit around the garage, watching my father fix up old cars while listening to NASCAR — our lives are formed and delineated by automotive horizons. The world is different when we view it through a windshield, soaring by at sixty-five.
From a very early age, I listened to or watched NASCAR races with my father. He grew up near Darlington, South Carolina, where one of the first NASCAR tracks was built. His older brother went to the first race there, and my dad has been going almost all of his life. He was a fan of Lee Petty, watched Richard Petty ("The King of Racing") in his first race, and 200 wins later, watched his last. One night when I was visiting my grandmother, I met an old friend of the family's who said my father had taken him to his first race when he was twelve. He spent the entire weekend puking out the back of the pickup truck. There was an old black and white picture of them sitting on that truck, "Petty's Hell Cats" painted on the door. They drove the pace car at a race Jimmy Carter attended when he was running for President. My dad drove me up to Charlotte to meet the King and his son Kyle when I was five, and to this day, my dad has a shrine to Richard Petty in the living room. Dad seemed to be a mild-mannered suburban father, but when it came to racing, and cars in general, he was hardcore. I, on the other hand, didn't have a mechanical bone in my body or a spatial thought in my brain; I was the most uncoordinated little kid imaginable.
I could watch the races just fine. The drone was perfect for daydreaming, which was my favorite pastime. The trouble came when my dad tried to get me to help him work on the wrecked cars he was constantly buying. I was a complete failure. Not only was I incompetent, but I was bizarrely destructive. One day while Dad was at work, I walked in the kitchen and said, "Mommy, I helped daddy work on car," with a hammer proudly dangling from my small sticky hands. Her jaw dropped when she saw my handiwork: my automotive inadequacy manifest in the frayed holes I punched through the fiberglass body of my father's Corvette.
The German philosopher Martin Heidegger uses the example of a hammer to demonstrate that we never know an object as object until it is broken. We know a hammer in hammering, not in observing. But when it breaks and can't be used, it becomes once again a bare object. I understood something different about automobiles once I had seen one broken by my good intentions, once I had seen the sadness in my father's kind eyes. He was amazingly calm about the whole thing, but I was never asked to help again.
The whole thing seems mythological to me now, a paradigm for all of my automotive relations. The first time I went to get my license, I failed the eye test. The second time, I ran a red light. Finally, after another inexplicable failure, I got a license. Much to my father's disappointment, I wasn't interested in any of the mechanical or aesthetic issues of autos. A skateboarder for years, I had only one motivation to drive: to get to some far-off pool or ditch or ramp to skate. I drove with as little fear as I skated, trying to carve "banks" that occasionally shouldered roads, or racing my friends. I crashed a couple times; fortunately nobody was hurt. Then I started dating and drinking and smoking dope and stuff, and the car became the central locus of experimentation, which was not a good thing. I crashed a couple more cars and got pulled over weekly, almost daily. I was in the Deep South, at the height of George Sr.'s first War on Drugs, and I had long hair. Whenever I got a car impounded, I thought of the day I smashed my father's Corvette and cursed Henry Ford. Cars always felt like monads until I crashed or got searched. Such experiences destroyed the imaginary universe in which I had an invincible steel body that moved at superhuman speeds. It was as if the authority figures I watched on TV stepped out to search my room.
Long before then, however, I had not only lost any interest in the races my father enjoyed so deeply, but tried to pretend that they never interested me, editing my past, just as I had edited out my passionate love for country music. Even in the South, these things were not looked kindly upon by the middle class. Upward mobility was my mother's influence, and when I rebelled against this and its enforced conformity, it all seemed like part of the same parents' culture that I despised. Racing seemed to express the complete demise of all purpose and value, a high-octane decadence which "we" were fighting a super-powered war in Iraq for the right to maintain. All this roaring around going nowhere seemed to express the worst aspects of our culture. I took the same line as Bob Dylan: "Ain't goin' down to no racetrack to see no sports car run/ Don't have a sports car, don't even care to have one/ I can walk any time around the block."
When I was eighteen, I left the South as quickly as the tires on the Volkswagen bus would allow. My girlfriend and I lived in that bus for six very strange months, during which she stripped and I drove us from town to town, until we finally ended up in Albuquerque. It was easier to get around in Albuquerque, and the more I walked, the more I hated cars. The more I studied classical languages, the poorer I got, until I was unable to either pay or justify the cost of insurance. I sold my car. I would have sold a television, if I had one.
Then one Sunday, I found myself listening to a race on the radio as I translated Plato. It was a comforting and oddly cathartic sound. I started tuning in regularly. The Pettys weren't doing well. Kyle had driven poorly for years, and his son Adam had just been killed. When my father told me this, I felt as if one of those cousins you always hear about but never meet had died.
A month or two later, I met the woman who was to be my wife. For our first date, we watched the Bristol race at her place. I would always pull for Kyle, but he would never do any good, so I switched to Rusty Wallace, who won the race. Later that year, my lady and I joined my father and his old Coast Guard buddy to camp out for two days at the Charlotte race. Now this is a tradition.
How, in God's name, did it happen? How did a good self-proclaimed Luddite radical classics student become a born again NASCAR fan? Or as my parents and relatives probably asked, how can a country music-listening, NASCAR-watching kid become a Classicist crazy with no car?
It's only natural that as my father and I got older, neither of us took each other's foibles or the differences between us so seriously. We didn't take ourselves so seriously, either; I no longer needed to distance myself from home. Yet it was a different place when I returned there. I could never return to the days before I had driven, when I liked listening to the races because the reality of driving was a complete fantasy. But the distance I gained by renouncing driving and television gave me a new perspective on both: they illuminated each other, finding perfect correspondence in the telecast of a stock car race. In particular, the in-car cam shots exposed the essence of the world that the windshield created: the illusion of monadism and its accompanying emotions. This illusion, however, is far from a pure simulacrum; it imitates what is best and worst in us.
Every age has its tragic form in which its ideals are ironically displayed. I mean ironically in the Sophoclean sense, in which the ideals are different than we originally take them to be. As Aristotle says, the sight of this spectacle arouses fear and pity in order to purify the ideals. NASCAR is the tragic form of the contemporary world's unknowing search for identity and divinity: when we watch a race, the emotions of fear, pity, ambition, and road rage are aroused and purged. All of our automotive aggressions can be purged in a few short hours.
Once I was no longer bound to the auto, it became easier to see NASCAR races in terms of desire. If I accept Plato's notion that humans are fundamentally imitative, I must ask what the races imitate. What desire do they manifest? It is not speed and power and masculinity and aggression, except superficially. Rather, the races are a modern attempt to mimic the motion of the spheres, to imitate the apparent motions of the sun. To the ancients and medievals, circular motion is the most perfect motion, the closest we can get to immortality. Thus the tragicruising of NASCAR embodies the human desire for immortality and the inevitable failure of this desire.
The death of Dale Earnhardt had, by the standards of racing culture, an immense impact on society, because he roared high, became the driver you either loved or loved to hate, only to crash like Icarus. Drivers, in their super cars, become images of the divine, yet they also occupy the most mundane sphere of our lives. Race cars attempt to create superheroes, yet inevitably they create Clark Kents.
In reality, cars aren't able to mimic the circular motion of immortality. Rather, they are hyperbolized copies of our own circular motions, only our circuits are less obvious than Darlington Speedway's. People ask what the fun is in watching cars go around in circles, but they ignore the circuits they travel. We leave the house, go to the store, pick up the kids, go to the bar, then return home. Or we cruise around the "strip" looking for some sort of gratification and return home. But race cars simply cruise; they drive without destination while we go places. This is one way we can be tragically purged through NASCAR.
Another comes with the countless bright logos on stock cars. Far from promoting consumerism, as sponsors hope, they can purge it. I don't need to drive to the store to buy Miller Lite or STP because the cars contain the secret consumerist message of our daily driving on their shiny surfaces. We drive to purchase, but they drive to drive, so they must literally incorporate the purchase in their surface and thereby delay the need to buy. The moment of consumption — the money shot — comes at the end, when the winner climbs from his car and immediately and obviously drinks a Pepsi. The homecoming, the kiss, and the end of our circuit until next week — tragedy is deferred, and all the drama of driving has been enacted. I purge my desire to purchase by watching products embodied in their pure mobility. The race attempts to mirror not only the cosmos, but also the mythical "free market" of capitalism. Car companies provide the substrata for the phantasmic images of swirling products moving towards a purely symbolic end. A race is a moving and fictional sculpture of our myths on various levels, and the perfect place to watch them intersect.
Race cars are a "hyper-real" version of our everyday driving: they distill the essence of driving and lay bare the pretensions towards divinity we entertain as we drive. It is as if the accelerated spinning of race cars centrifugally purifies the auto experience, purging us of the desire to drive, while taking us through all the mental states of driving, as we watch in a more removed, dramatic, and safe fashion.
I still drive on occasion, and one day I will hopefully own a car again. The years I spent behind the wheel didn't teach me about automobiles and the American desire associated with them. Rather, it was the time I didn't own a car, spent sitting at my desk, reading Plato, and listening to NASCAR. It was the time after the race, talking with my father, his buddy, and my fiancee about the varying strategies of drivers. It was the time spent watching one screen display the nature of another, a negation of a negation, as my friends and I sit around on Sundays and make fun of each other's drivers.
The constant threat of danger supplies racing with its authenticity, but this is not of fundamental importance. The race is not about the lone driver facing the possibility of death; it is about being with others, whether at home, in the stands, or in a car. People don't watch races for wrecks but for symbolic interactions, for the visualization of cultural urges. NASCAR shows existence as a spectacular and bright capitalist contest, but within the context of a downhome community. The track literally sits within a larger community, where people are not competing with one another. Races are only about the lone driver when he dies: when the substratum — the materiality of metal, the body of the driver — erupts through the symbolic order, with as catastrophic a meaning as a crash has for the ordinary driver. Crashes smash the monadological world of the automobile while also constituting it. "It" is the communality of all symbols.
NASCAR is growing in popularity faster than any other sport because of the amount of time we spend driving. It seems ridiculous to want to watch what you do all day, but we watch sitcoms about people at work, or going to school, too. People are obsessed with one another and particularly those who seem to share our own states of consciousness; we need to see our passions and failures writ large. NASCAR, for better or worse, kinetically mirrors all of our symbols and subversions. It has even taught me something about what it means to be able to "walk any time around the block."
Baynard Woods is a student of ancient philosophy and languages who aspires to be a professional horseshoe pitcher.