In the debate, sponsored by the University of South Carolina’s Institute for Southern Studies, Hardy presented a thoughtful and spirited defense of football, and in the inimitable words of Bear Bryant, “he did his momma proud.” To Hardy’s great credit, he offered me this opportunity to respond to his column from last week, where he outlined his main arguments.
Now, I lived in Alabama long enough to know that I’m not exactly preaching to the choir here, and I understand that there are more diehard football fans in the state than even Baptists. But since Talladega is just down the road, I figured I’d do my best to explain why I firmly believe that NASCAR is the more important sport to the South.
Sixteen years ago, my answer to this question would have been simple, emphatic and a no-brainer; football, no question. As for NASCAR, when I noticed it at all, I was mystified as to how anyone could sit around for three hours and watch a bunch of rednecks make left turns.
Then in August 1994, I went to my first stock-car race, not any old race, but the night race at Bristol Motor Speedway. That first experience was a revelation — not exactly “road to Damascus stuff,” but pretty close — and before the end of the evening, I had become a convert. Thus began a journey that has taken me to tracks large and small all over the region, to the homes and offices of numerous NASCAR legends, and led to an even deeper appreciation of the sport’s essential Southerness and of its historical significance.
I’m not so dumb as to base my response to Hardy on each sport’s relative popularity; there’s no denying that football has more participants and more fans and generates more revenue in the region than stock-car racing. Yet, while football is undeniably the most popular sport in the South, it was a gift to the South, indeed a gift from that most un-Southern of institutions, the Ivy League.
NASCAR, on the other hand, is a gift from the South, an original cultural contribution to the world that should stand proudly alongside such Southern cultural gifts as jazz, the blues, country music, bluegrass, Andy Griffith, Coca-Cola and the moonpie.
As Hardy pointed out, NASCAR did arise in the Piedmont South and is not as important outside that region. That’s true, but it does not diminish stock-car racing’s value to the region, just as the blues being primarily a Mississippi Delta thing does not lessen its significance as an original cultural contribution of which all Southerners can and should be proud.
Like the most important and original cultural contributions of the South, NASCAR emerged from the genius of the Southern working class. All of its early organizers, participants and fans were working-class individuals attracted to the sport as an ultimate expression of freedom in a confining life defined by rural poverty or by the restrictive life of the mill and the milltown.
One of the most important things I found in doing research on my book, Real NASCAR: White Lightning, Red Clay, and Big Bill France, is that the early participants in the sport, far from being ignorant rednecks, were intelligent, creative and amazingly entrepreneurial, despite the many roadblocks that life (and sometimes the law) put in their way.
Junior Johnson provides an excellent example of this fact. One of the great drivers in the sport who received his early training hauling cases of white lightning down the mountain to thirsty customers, Johnson is one of the most imaginative businessmen, mechanics and team owners in the sport’s history. Indeed, I’ve often said that while Junior may never have read a physics book, I firmly believe he could write one.
The ability of individuals like Junior, NASCAR founder Big Bill France and countless others to take the sport from its Piedmont roots to a national, and even international, audience is indicative of the creative agency of people attempting to transcend the limitations of life. It is an example of the finest expression of the human spirit and is a cultural contribution for which all Southerners can be justifiably proud.
There are many more things I could say about NASCAR’s Southern connections and roots — the sport’s deep connections to the illegal liquor business, the country church-like atmosphere at local short tracks, the “in Jesus’ name” prayer delivered at even the major nationally televised races, the sport’s status as the only non-unionized major professional sport, and the intense patriotism, and political conservatism, on display at any race.
Again, I’ll cede the question to Hardy as to which sport is more popular in the South, and even will give a little on its overall influence in the region. I won’t budge, however, on placing stock-car racing/NASCAR in the pantheon of creative and magnificent cultural gifts from the South to the world, a place that football can never claim.
Dan Pierce is professor of history and chair of the department at the University of North Carolina in Asheville and the author of Real NASCAR: White Lightning, Red Clay, and Big Bill France (2010). E-mail: email@example.com.