motorsports and american culture

Reviewed by Connie Ann Kirk

30 july 2014       archive

Howell's and Miller's Motorsports and American Culture: From Demolition Derbies to NASCAR is a welcome publication in the small but growing field of motor sports studies. While a bit uneven at times, collections of essays such as this one offering different perspectives on a common theme can be exciting reads because one witnesses on the page scholars in the act of angling approaches to a newer area of study. Books analyzing Emily Dickinson's correspondence, for example, illustrate this. So have early critical collections about the Harry Potter phenomenon in children's literature and popular culture. While each essay here cites earlier writings by other scholarly fans of speed, the editors assert that their collection is possibly the most diverse treatment available so far. That description may be quite apt.

The book's introduction provides a brief orientation about motor sports within American culture and attempts to address the question that inevitably gets asked of those who conduct racy research, "Why study motor sports?" Following that, the book is made up of 12 essays, each by a different author. The essays are grouped into four parts: Part I: "Speed and Spectators: What Motorsports Means to Fans;" Part II: "The Track and Beyond: Motorsports and Community Identity;" Part III: "Fenders and Genders: Motorsports Femininity, and Masculinity;" and Part IV: "Stars of the Road: Spectacular Drivers and Spectacular Feats." Five of the 12 essays are illustrated with black and white photographs. End notes including citation information follow each essay, and the book contains a useful bibliography and index as well as notes about the contributors and editors at the back.

Perhaps predictably in a book published in 2014 that examines how motor sports relate to American culture, half of the essays here are about NASCAR. James Wright's essay opening the volume, "The NASCAR Paradox," suggests that the growing popularity of NASCAR – once a stronghold sport of the American South but now the second most viewed sport across the United States next to football – does not say that the South is becoming more like the rest of the country but instead the shift "reveals a nation becoming more like the South" (4). Taking a historical approach, Dan Pierce's essay, "'What Is Your Racket, Brother?'" traces how Charlotte, North Carolina became the "home" of NASCAR over Atlanta, Georgia – represented by the establishment there of NASCAR'S Hall of Fame in Charlotte – by showing how the latter city purposely rid itself of known bootlegger race car drivers in the mid-twentieth century.

Through a "Soccer Mom" / NASCAR Dad" framework, Patricia Lee Yongue's "'Way Tight' or 'Wicked Loose'" shows how she believes the series reinforces male stereotypes and argues that some male fans enjoy NASCAR because, for them, it may serve as a "force by which traditional American manhood will be reclaimed from diversity" (145). Ehren Helmut Pflugfelder examines nationalism as it relates to international influence arriving in NASCAR in the early twenty-first century along with its effects on fans who "consume" the sport. Jaime Noble Gassmann writes in "The Spectacle of NASCAR" about how NASCAR teams use "enchantment" to create a bond between driver and fan that "promotes the fans' consumption of NASCAR-related products and sponsor-created identities" (150).

Outside of NASCAR, Susan Falls writes about the crash-banging of cars into one another without any suggestion of racing in between at demolition derbies as "creative destruction," a form of "theater" (58). Like Yongue's essay, gender studies also provide John Edwin Mason with a lens through which he looks at motor sports in America. He argues it is one of the few activities where females compete in the same professional series and arenas as men in "Anything but a Novelty": Women, Girls, and Friday Night Drag Racing."

Essays about individual drivers, types of cars, or events include one by Lisa Napoli on Barney Oldfield, an early twentieth-century racer turned celebrity; another by Martha Kreszock, Suzanne Wise, and Margaret Freeman about stock car racer, Louise Smith who competed from 1946 to 1956; and an essay by David N. Lucsko about the history of the American hot rod. The book closes with an essay by Ronald Shook tracing three eras of attempts to set and subsequently break the land speed record on the Bonneville Salt Flats and elsewhere.

Surprises that may make the collection ideal for some readers relishing the unexpected may puzzle others looking for examinations of more "traditional" forms of motor sports – i.e. races of various kinds of cars and motorcycles. Most notably in the unexpected category – acknowledged by the editors themselves in their introduction as a bit of a "stretch" – is Emily Godbey's essay, "Speed and Destruction at the Fair." This piece talks about an exhibition of nineteenth-century locomotives plowing into one another at the 1896 Iowa State Fair, which Godbey argues is an example of Americans' combined feelings of astonishment and terror towards technology, something she calls the "technological sublime" (40). Outlier though it may be, the chapter's consideration of technology and spectacle has, as the editors argue, reverberations with other essays in the book.

The editors acknowledge that the collection represents "beginnings rather than endings" in the study of motor sports and American culture. Among the more notable vacancies is the lack of an essay about the Indianapolis Motor Speedway or its historic event, the Indy 500. Situated in the Midwest heartland as it is, on the same footprint of land with a history reaching back to 1908, that facility still holds the record as the largest sports spectator venue on the planet, seating 250,000 with grounds occupancy of 400,000. Indy warrants inclusion, as do many other subjects, in a book with a title as inclusive as this one. Contrarily, with its heavy emphasis on stock car racing, the book may have benefited from shifting its focus and title to include essays about NASCAR exclusively.

These suggestions aside, this rather eclectic mix of essays does demonstrate a range in current scholars' interests and thinking, and that alone is worthwhile for others researching trackside out there who may look to this book for ideas, approaches, or even just a sense that they are not alone in their speed-driven curiosities. However balanced or not the book is as a collection, this volume suggests a variety of directions and approaches that are bound to stimulate further thinking and exploration of motor sports, speed, gender, popular culture, and technology.

Howell, Mark D. and John D. Miller, eds. Motorsports and American Culture: From Demolition Derbies to NASCAR. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2014. 248 pp. Hardcover, $75.00. ISBN: 978-1-4422-3096-5. eBook, $74.99. ISBN: 978-1-4422-3097-2.

Copyright © 2014 by Connie Ann Kirk

to the top of this page