Alas, NASCAR still awaits its Bible. While baseball drowns in the flood of pallid offerings streaming from its egghead devotees, stock car racing lacks the pretentious fan base it will require before reams of affectionate prose are penned in its honor.
And this is a shame, for present in NASCAR are the four elements essential to dramatic sportswriting: 1) simple, country-bred protagonists buffeted by raw emotion; 2) a corrupt power structure that pulls all the strings; 3) ancient, venomous grudge matches, and, most importantly, 4.) youth meeting death in a violent, fiery spectacle. This last is rare in baseball writing, so it can only help NASCAR’s cause. Blessed with these marvelous tools, it should be a snap for a writer, even working in nonfiction, to create the gripping account of the auto-racing circuit that we’ve all been waiting for. Sadly, Shaun Assael’s Wide Open: Days and Nights on the NASCAR Tour is not it. George Plimpton can emit a mincing sigh of relief: NASCAR’s Paper Lion remains unwritten.
Since NASCAR is the fastest-growing sport in America (a few weeks ago, the Las Vegas 400 sold 100,000 tickets in a single day, the cheapest of which were $50), no doubt the country is teeming with writers hoping to cash in. Assael is a staff writer at the newly minted ESPN Magazine, and frankly his work in this book does not bode well for the periodical. In Wide Open, Assael somehow takes a sport that blazes by at lightning speeds and slows it to a meandering Sunday drive. A NASCAR book should accelerate through its action, tear through the corners of its story, and leave its readers with whiplash. Assael settles for start-and-stop plotting and puzzling, tangential cul-de-sacs. Yes, we want a trip through NASCAR’s history, but we don’t want long, boring excursions into the personal traumas of NASCAR’s founding fathers. And while it’s terribly sad that NASCAR legend Junior Johnson treated his wife badly, it doesn’t warrant a full chapter in the book.
Assael’s central plan is to follow three NASCAR drivers through the 1996 Winston Cup tour, stopping at each speedway and delving into NASCAR’s storied past along the way. This sounds terrific, until we learn that 1) Assael has picked three drivers devoid of personality and glitter, and 2) NASCAR’s storied past is best left to a good storyteller. The three drivers are: Brett Bodine, a mediocre driver who has just bought his team and is still learning how to manage the business end; Bobby Hamilton, a perennial contender looking for his breakthrough year; and Dave Marcis, the proverbial wily veteran hanging on by his wits, struggling to stay afloat in a sea of young bucks. I’ve just told you everything you’ll learn about these men in the course of Wide Open’s 335 pages (which include several notably unspectacular action photos). Assael never digs past the easy tropes he lets these drivers fall into. And the drivers aren’t even that good. Where are NASCAR’s stars? Dale Earnhardt and Jeff Gordon are the two most compelling figures in racing today, but they barely factor in the book. Gordon, the clean-cut media darling and 1997 champion, rates just a few passing mentions. Earnhardt, the true fan’s favorite, hovers on the periphery of the story, edging promisingly into its rearview mirror only to disappear before anything interesting happens.
Even more frustrating is Assael’s utter inability to convey the wonder of the sport itself. NASCAR is fascinating in countless ways, prime among them the fact that it takes something we all do regularly (i.e., drive) and recasts it as an edge-of-your-seat death match. Imagine taking your Ford Taurus from D.C. to New York and back again in about three and a half hours total, including stops for gas and new tires, all the while in thick, aggressive traffic. This is exactly what NASCAR racers do, some of them in, that’s right, Ford Tauruses (albeit highly souped-up models). Imagine changing all four tires on your car in less than seven seconds. This is what NASCAR pit crews do. And the sport’s subtle strategy is often missed in the distraction of noisy engines and flaming wrecks. NASCAR is chess at 160 mph: A single-car pass is planned and executed over 15 or more laps. Race teams agonize over when to take a pit stop, hoping a quickly expiring tank of gas will last out the race.
And then there’s the crass sponsorship. Some fans decry the recent sprouting of Nike Swooshes all over uniforms in every sport. NASCAR has long moved past these dainty moral qualms. Drivers and cars are plastered with ads for everything from Skittles to Skoal. Big bad tobacco finds a rare safe haven at speedways across AmericaNASCAR’s not afraid to take its money. In this sense, NASCAR truly is the sport of the future. It has moved past the quaint regional affiliations of other pro sports. (We all know it’s only a matter of time before we’re rooting for the Nissan Celtics and the Pepsi Lakers.) The pit crews’ synchronized, machinelike work and matching full-body jumpsuits achieve a fascistic beauty. NASCAR has melded extreme speed and violence to a degree that other sports can only wish for. And Middle America loves it, which means that soon you will, too. You’ll have to.
Unfortunately, none of this makes it into Wide Open. Assael never gets to the heart of NASCAR’s brazen corporatism. His descriptions of racing action ignore strategy and don’t bring to the page the incomparable excitement of watching all those tons of steel flying around at ungodly speeds. Granted, this was clearly not a labor of love for Assael. He often repeats himself nearly verbatim (Page 63: “Crew chief Mike Beam left, ripping a gaping hole in a ship that was rapidly taking on water”; Page 69: “Crew chief Mike Beam defected with all but two of his pit crew, ripping a hole in the operation’s hull”). Mildly intriguing characters disappear suddenly, never to be heard from again. Assael’s dilettantish approach to NASCAR history does not come off as selectiveit just seems lazy.
The title jargon, “wide open,” refers to what drivers say when they’ve floored the accelerator in an all-out fury of speed. In fact, they say “wide fucking open.” Like its title, Wide Open has been purged of NASCAR’s spirit, verve, and back-country flair.CP