Driving with the Devil, by Neal Thompson (Paperback, 2007)|
(You can print this review in landscape mode, if you
want a hardcopy)
Mark Lamendola, author of over 6,000 articles.
Nearly 1 in 3 Americans is a NASCAR fan. Autoracing is
now the second most popular sport in the USA, and it's on track (no pun
intended) to take the #1 spot from football. Unlike football, you don't
have to be a genetic accident to play the game. One of racing's
appealing traditions is that an ordinary person--man or woman--can be a
race car driver. And there are no Michael Vicks scandals. These and
other reasons are why it's not just a "guy thing" but has, in fact, a
huge base of female fans.
NASCAR is only one of the autoracing organizations in
the country. But to most Americans, NASCAR is autoracing.
While everybody knows about NASCAR, most people are not
aware of the profound change it has made in racing or in the profound
financial benefits it has for any community that has been awarded the
privilege of hosting a NASCAR track.
My high school is less than a mile from a quarter-mile
oval track (non-NASCAR) that has run stock cars and late model funny
cars for over half a century. I grew up around race cars, and worked pit
crews on that track and at a major drag strip half an hour away. I had
my own highly-modified street racers. My hopped-up Camaro did the
quarter mile in 14 seconds. But my Dodge Charger did it in 12. Its very
modified transmission was set up to shift from first to second when its
very modified 500HP V-8 engine hit 7200 RPM.
Back then, racing was kind of an oddity. It's dirty and
expensive, and you put in a huge amount of money and long hours, just to
race for a comparatively short time on the track (or street). There was
a certain "outlaw" quality to it (especially the street racing) and that
was part of the allure for some racers and spectators. Most people
weren't all that interested.
No longer is autoracing an oddity. NASCAR has changed
everything about racing and, in the process, made it not only mainstream
but culturally iconic.
Today, I live only a few miles from the NASCAR track in
Kansas City. That track is a crown jewel and major attraction in this
area. During a NASCAR event, hotel space within 70 to 90 miles is sold
out--and that "blackout" lasts about a week. As Thompson pointed out,
people don't show up at a NASCAR event for just the race. They show up
for typically a week-long adventure, with a carnival and other
attractions. NASCAR itself rakes in nearly $5 billion a year from just
the television contracts alone. Thompson provided other staggering
figures as well, but I don't remember what they are.
Warren Buffet, known for wise investments, made sure a
Cabela's Sporting Goods (one of his holdings) was built on the NASCAR
complex in KC. People arrive in massive numbers, and shop there. They
buy appliances and other goods at other onsite stores also, during the
NASCAR event. That massive influx of shoppers gives a healthy boost to
the sales tax revenue here.
- NASCAR has become a major element of our
- NASCAR is a huge, huge business.
- Cities beg to host a NASCAR track.
- The appeal isn't racing itself.
So, how did NASCAR come into being and how did its
races become such "must see" events? That's the story that Neal Thompson
exhaustively researched and skillfully told.
- Thompson's backnotes (showing the source for
each quote, fact, or assertion) are 19 pages long, in annoyingly
tiny text. It would easily fill 30 pages if printed in a
normal-sized font. This, to support a 300-page book.
- Thompson listed 50 people he interviewed as
"primary sources." All of these people were key to autoracing or
insiders in some other way.
- The bibliography spans four pages, again in
tiny text. It looks like he consulted about about 80 books.
- There's a list of about 30 articles consulted
for this book.
- Thompson also decided to get information from
films--11 of them.
- Finally, he gleaned information from 14
It would be hard to make a viable claim that this
book is anything but authoritative. And that's a good thing, because
Thompson's story and the official NASCAR line differ.
NASCAR wants to present its events as family fare,
and there's nothing wrong with that. In fact, this approach is one
reason Bill France--the major force behind NASCAR for decades--was able
to change the world of stock car racing so dramatically. But what NASCAR
doesn't want people to think about is the fact that its roots go way
back to the era of Prohibition. That was like today's era of
Prohibition, with a few key differences.
The original Prohibition was against one
particular class of drug, alcohol. Congress, at that time, did not have
the hubris to enact drug bans without Constitutional authority. So, they
passed the 18th Amendment in 1919 to ban the manufacture and sale of
alcohol. This, of course, had the same ill effects as today's
unconstitutional bans on other drugs--outsized profits for the drug
dealers, violent crime, no safety standards in manufacture or
distribution, pointless diversion of limited law enforcement resources,
prison overcrowding (the USA has the highest prison population per
capita in the world), and a huge loss in tax revenue.
In short, that law was so stupid and deleterious
that Congress repealed it by enacting the 21st Amendment in 1933. They
can't do that with today's other drug bans, because those aren't
Constitutional to begin with.
During this period of stupidity, a cottage
industry arose--mostly in the South, where people made their own booze
from corn. They were called moonshiners. Because their liquor was
illegal, they needed to outrun the police when making deliveries and
when conducting other business related to moonshine. The drivers of
those cars became the drivers in the early days of racing. Bill France,
the cofounder of NASCAR who strong-armed everyone else into giving him
complete control of NASCAR, was one of those early racers.
And it's here, with the moonshine runs, that
Thompson begins the real story of NASCAR. We ride along with the crafty
drivers in their modified Ford Model As, then Ford Model Ts, then Ford
V-8s (that was the model name: simply V-8) during Prohibition. We see
how things got even more intense after Prohibition (which simply served
to let the genie out of the bottle, so to speak). Then came World War
II, and we follow some racers through that time--during which autoracing
was suspended to support the war effort.
After WWII, auto production changed. Ford didn't
keep up with the times, and a flood of more advanced automobiles, made
by other companies, began to show up on the racetracks. Dodge (Chrysler)
dominated much of racing throughout the 1960s (Richard Petty drove
Dodges), with stiff competition from Chevrolet.
Information not mentioned in the book
Ford had never optimized its cylinder heads for
airflow. The ports were large, but weren't shaped properly to keep fuel
suspended at high flow rates (the air was too "choppy.). The leader in
cylinder heads, for quite some time, was Chrysler. In later years,
master mechanics could rework Chevy and Dodge heads to precisely match
characteristics all the way through the intake system--so it really
didn't make any difference as long as you ran Chevy or Dodge. But in the
drivetrain it made a big difference.
Chevys blew out rear ends and transmissions, but
the Dodges were overengineered except for having lousy suspensions and
chintzy interiors. On many tracks, you saw Chevys with Ford rear
ends--and the Dodges often used Dodge truck rear ends for the same high
Chrysler excelled in raw power. The first year
Chrysler released the Dodger Charger with a 440 engine, it sponsored
four 440-equipped cars in a race (I don't recall if that was NASCAR).
Those cars took 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th places. The answer to that was to
change the rules so that a 440 would be too big to be legal. In street
races, 440s would leave the vaunted Hemi cars eating their dust--because
you could quickly raise the horsepower with aftermarket parts (not so
with the Hemi). Interestingly, the fastest completely stock car in the
quarter mile was a '72 Chevy Chevelle with a 396 engine and a gear ratio
biased for the quarter mile.
Back to the book
Auto production wasn't the only change. Bill
France changed the management and promotion of racing, allowing NASCAR
to arise above all competitors to become the face of "stock car" racing
to most of America. The myth surrounding the rise of NASCAR is
intriguing, partly because it portrays Bill France in a "larger than
life way." But the myth isn't nearly as interesting as the real story.
And, coincidentally, Bill France actually was
"larger than life." He was 6 feet, 5 inches tall, had a booming voice,
and had a way about him that made folks leery of crossing him. He was
audacious, capricious, and self-serving. Those who had dealings with him
called him a dictator. Red Vogt, the legendary master mechanic who was
the lifelong friend of France, didn't like the way France took things
over. But he was quoted in the book as saying nobody else could do it
and it needed to be done. I don't recall the exact quote, but it's in
So, NASCAR got its start thanks to incredibly bad
public policy. Amazing mechanics gave cars abilities to do things their
designers never dreamed of, and drivers who learned their craft to
outrun police were able to draw those abilities out to put on impressive
That was the start of racing, and Driving with
the Devil shows us the various people and situations that brought it
to where it is today. Which is why we're all familiar with the
announcement that starts each race, "Gentlemen. Start...your...engines!"
This book was so engrossing, I crossed its finish
line much faster than I had anticipated. If you don't rev up your
reading with it, I think you're missing out.