Race Weekend Central

Converting the Masses

Preaching the gospel to non-believers is a challenging task.

By the time you read this, I will be en route by air to Cincinnati, Ohio for the Midwest Popular Culture Association conference. The event attracts over a thousand scholars, researchers, writers, and graduate students from around the nation and showcases the latest discoveries in popular culture methodology and pedagogy.

I will be there to present a paper on the changing nature of NASCAR Sprint Cup drivers and their efforts to more closely reflect changing attitudes in global society.

From a racing standpoint, this kind of information can be gleaned from daily life. A quick review of current events in NASCAR Nation shows drivers celebrating their marriages, their babies, their charitable causes, and their communities. This is a far cry from the NASCAR of old: the infamous beating and brawling of the 1979 Daytona 500 and stock car racing’s foray into mainstream culture. Gone are the days of Dale Earnhardt snarling and Tim Richmond carousing; today’s NASCAR is a sport about engagements, marriages, pregnancies, tweets, and posts.

Not that today’s NASCAR is free from physical confrontation. The problem is that post-race “fights” are anemic, devoid of true rivalry, and pretty much limited to the final ten events of the season. Because of this, the fights speak more to the officially-imposed pressure of elimination rounds during the Chase than they do of actual feuds between drivers.

Simply put: it’s difficult to be a rough-and-tumble stock car driver when acting on your emotions might jeopardize your image as a good husband and father. This is the angle I’m working in Cincinnati on Saturday before an audience that has gathered to hear about topics in “The Evolving Role of Female Heroes in Popular Culture”.

As you might guess, I will be discussing these changes regarding men in NASCAR as compared to the influence of Danica Patrick on young girls who aspire to careers in professional sports. But I will also speak about the importance of women like Sara Christian and Louise Smith – women who competed in NASCAR during its early, hard-charging and harder-living days.

So how has NASCAR changed in this regard? Danica Patrick is ushering in a new era of race team sponsor come 2016: a non-Fortune 500 company known for its organic, gluten-free, and kosher baked goods. Such news, like American society itself, is a far cry from the years when Christian and Smith campaigned on dirt tracks east of the Mississippi.

And we today are aware of such women in the sport as Lesa France Kennedy, who is just shy of being the queen of NASCAR Nation. Then there’s a woman like Sherry Pollex, who turned her battle with ovarian cancer into a bully pulpit for fund-raising and increased research. The powerful voice of Pollex has been amplified because of her direct connection to NASCAR.

It is a brave new world in which we live….

And I have watched this “brave new world” develop from my place at the podium at popular culture conferences across North America. The first time I ever spoke about NASCAR culture and its role as a reflection of American society was in the spring of 1993. I was a student at Bowling Green State University in Ohio and working on my doctorate in American Culture Studies. My initial plan was to research the plight of stainless steel diners as small towns struggled against suburban sprawl.

That was the topic of my very first conference paper, one I delivered in Toledo, Ohio 25 years ago this year, almost to the day.

Fortunately, way back then, I had a dissertation director who knew of my background in NASCAR. He suggested I focus my attention on the sport of stock car racing and how it affected the evolution of professional sports in the United States.

In other words: how did NASCAR become a force within American popular culture?

That was 24 years ago. Two years later, I stood at a lectern before an audience at the Popular Culture Association’s national conference in New Orleans. Fresh off several months working at various then-Winston Cup events, I shared my observations and my findings with an assembly of curious academics.

And they could not quite make sense of what I told them….

Granted, academia is not the first place you’d go to find NASCAR fans, but one thing I noticed as the years passed was that more and more college-types were recognizing the relevance of NASCAR as a cultural phenomenon. By the time my first book about NASCAR was published in 1997, the tide was turning.

Five years after my first lecture explaining NASCAR, the audiences were larger and more knowledgeable. Some other academics jumped into the fray, pursued their own motorsports interests, and began exploring aspects of what we today call NASCAR Nation.

I guess some heathens were capable of being converted.

So here we are today, nearly a quarter of a century later, still addressing the evolution of this business Brad “Quick Foot” Keselowski refers to as “an entertainment sport, not a fair sport”. Might I take his comment a step further and propose that the Sprint Cup Series is, above all else, “an influential sport”?

At least that’s what I’m going to suggest during my sermon in Cincinnati, Ohio this Saturday.

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