Sunday, October 07, 2007


No, I haven't got a new hobby. But my usual stationary bike at the gym is down for repairs, so I had to use the ones on the 3rd floor that face a wall-sized plasma TV; and it's impossible to ignore it completely because it's so big. (Also one of the reasons I hate TV is that I find it impossible to ignore.) So I found myself this morning cranking away on the bike and looking at what looked like Highway 880 on a good afternoon with the traffic flowing smoothly along - except that the cars were all plastered with advertising, and the road was oval, and no 2 cars had more than one car length between them. Also they were going 190 MPH, or so the closed captioning said. But there they were, bumper to bumper and hubcap to hubcap, 3 lanes wide - nobody changing position, nobody trying to pull forward, nobody doing anything.

This is entertainment? I can see this on the traffic cams, except for the advertising - and, even the Nimitz doesn't get to 190 MPH. Around and around they go, and they never stop or move or change position or whatever.

Interval follows in which I read a couple of Economist leaders, and I look up again and it's worse - they're all in a single line. Still bumper to bumper, still going like bats out of hell - all in one line. I figure, if this goes on, the guy in the front car has it wrapped. (I think the guy in the front car was Dale Earnhardt, Jr., but if so he didn't have it wrapped - see results for Talladega.) It's all very symmetrical and not very interesting.

Back to the Economist, and a couple of articles later I look up to see a car break formation, roll three or four times while flames shoot out of the engine compartment, and fetch up on its roof in the infield. Following this, 2 or 3 other cars (which are now back in multi-lane formation) bash into each other and the wall, kicking up more smoke and dirt. OK, I guess they do change position occasionally. I was impressed when the first driver disentangled himself and walked away from the wreck - now, that's safety equipment!

But I still don't understand what gets so many people so excited about watching a bunch of cars follow each other decorously around an oval track, even if it is at 190 MPH.


  1. Automobile racing has always had an ironic subtext, which is that competition involving a machine invariably makes for an unpredictable and inequitable outcome: I.e., unlike humans--or animals, for that matter, if you like horseracing, or dog-racing--automobiles do not always behave the way they should. Every car is different, just as every driver is, but auto races are always a combination of the driver's skill, the vehicle's efficiency and performance, the skill of the mechanics who service them, and the speed and efficiency of the "pit crews" which service the vehicles during the race. If you've ever wondered how a "race" can be gauged with these periodic interruptions called "pit stops" you're not alone. So the guy leading the race discovers he's burning oil, so he has to go in for an unscheduled pit stop. When he gets in, they discover they have to fix something that takes an extra three and one half minutes, before he can get back in the race. By that time, maybe he's lost 8 laps. While the guy who was second, is now ahead by 6 1/2 laps, but the new leader has yet to make any pit stops, and when he (inevitably) does, then the former leader can slip back in contention.

    So much of the whole affair involves luck, and the stray part (a weak tire rim, a faulty rod, a subtly imbalanced suspension system). Skill, bravery and luck combine to make it all a crapshoot.

    To make it all worse, the starting (pole) positions are determined by a complicated process. In other words, the better drivers almost always get an advantage over lower level qualifiers, which makes overcoming that built-in bias even harder. And then, good drivers (like good jockeys) get hired by better autombile "teams" which have better cars, better engineers (mechanics), and better pit crews (and more money).

    I'm not sure any of it makes any sense. For some reason, people in the American South tend to get more excited about this stuff than others do. You sit in the stands and watch these tiny dots whizz around the track, to the accompaniment of a chorus of screams (a high speed engine makes a characteristic high note--like a giant mosquito on crack--that can break your eardrums, but is music to the afficionado).

    I think Formula One races, with long, wending courses can be mildly diverting, but fixed track affairs, especially the "stock car" ones, are a crashing bore. Except, of course, when someone crashes. Like boxing and wrestling, lots of fans come to see the accidents, which gives them a vicarious, ghoulish thrill. And then there are those wild incidents where pieces of disintegrating machine go flying into the stands and everyone dives under their seats, if they can.

    In Europe, they used to have these very long road races--500 miles, 1000 kilometers, or even longer--which involved incredible endurance on the part of the driver teams. They were also very dangerous, as drivers would take chances on turns and hills that took them right to the edge of the vehicle's capabilities, and beyond (sometimes beyond that--bye-bye).

    What nonsense. Or, one of those sports that is of interest only to the participants.

  2. Anonymous9:51 PM

    Yo, Southern stock car fan Anonymous David here, but I watch on tv only if I have the spare time and Dale, Jr is in contention (he took his crew to see Fahrenheit 9/11, and said everyone should see this movie, so he's my kind of Southerner both in this regard and the fact that he really is down home for real). Who in hell knows why races are so appealing, although for me mostly only in the flesh. Sebring is a great outing if you like getting dirty and watching - and listening to - cars go through all kinds of corners and straight aways like the driver just robbed a bank.

    My first live Daytona 500 was the 1960 race. After the faster cars wrecked, blew engines, or just generally had their days turn to shit, the chicken farmer from North Carolina, Junior Johnson, won in a 1959 Chevrolet. I think you'll appreciate the racing philosophy and strategy he outlined when asked what he did to win. His answer: "I just floored it and turned left for 500 miles." Actually, I think Junior Johnson was the first to figure out drafting.

    My brother was the 125 cc gearbox gokart national champ in 1989. Those are the tiny racers with angry motorcycle engines (used to be chainsaw engines) that, at least in the case of my brother's kart, got like 90 to as much as 120 mph with your ass about six inches off the ground. But then as I pointed out on one of the other blogs, good sense tends to fall on not-so-fallow ground among Southern males, especially but not exclusively when we are younger. My grandmother used to observe that no male has good sense before he's 35. What can I say, except Go, Junior! His engine came unglued at Talladega, by the way. Hopefully the Hendricks Motor Sports engines he'll have next year will stay together.

    Get cooper to respond to this entry. He lives in Charlotte, which is like ground zero for 3400 pound Detroit iron (and now add
    Toyota) going from point A to point A hundreds of times at speeds only 25 mph slower than Indy cars, and making enough noise to actually wake the dead.

    Anonymous David

  3. Anonymous David, I'd love to have cooper respond to this entry but I don't have an email address for him. If you have one maybe you can rattle his cage.

    I'm finding the responses to the post much more interesting than watching the race on TV! Actually, I feel about baseball the way you feel about NASCAR, it's only worth watching if you go to the stadium (and in my case, not all that often either).

    Can we argue that young Southern males are simply subject to unusually strong Darwinian selection pressures, given that their lack of good sense reduces the likelihood that they'll live to reproduce?? ;-)

  4. Anonymous6:44 PM

    Oh, they reproduce. Boy do they reproduce. And the only reason they know anything about Darwin is that their preachers rail against Darwinism. I don't have cooper's e-mail, but I gather dee does. I'll just proxy blogwhore him on FanAp. I am without shame. Besides, he grew up Southern, even though I think he was born in California.

    Anonymous David

  5. Anonymous8:50 PM

    Ah, some of those rabid fans, sitting in their loungers with a jar of peanuts, handy use to drive cars around tracks in races that ran up miles, used up gas, and didn't get them anywheres away from where they'd started. I went to a local race at the fairgrounds once. I don't really remember what the convincing argument was, but it was fun! I don't know why, either. It was quite a bit different then what I'd seen on telly, when I even glanced at the screen. I'm still not impressed with the televised races, but local hot rods driving around in circles is somehow somewhat exciting. Can't explain it at all. Doesn't even seem like me. Life is strange.

  6. Anonymous9:11 PM

    boggart, I think you nailed it. It certainly describes my experience. Of course, I had the added connection of Ray Sloniger working on his stock car (we're talking the 50s, local track - Sunbrock Speedway in Orlando - and guys who built grassroots stock cars out of like pre-war and early post-war coupes and went fender banging on Saturday nights. Ray was a local hero to us 14-year-olds. And then there was George "Crash" Tidd, who was known on occasion to get stopped for speeding while driving his stock car home from the track.

    And this is the god's truth: one of the cars in the '60 Daytona 500, a red '60 Ford (there were actual stock cars with basic modifications for racing from '58s to 60s in the races back then) numbered 8-Ball that drove out of the tunnel and onto US 92 after the race, headed back to Jacksonville, I guess, which is where he was from, with what appeared to be his wife and child in the race car. Apparently a trailer and tow vehicle were not in the family budget. Stock car racing has roots different from any other kind of racing, except maybe dirt-track motorcycle racing, that outpost of Harley Sportster down home going at it.

    Ain't nothin' intellectual or representative of more advanced civilization about it: it just is, and for people who get a kick out of it, it's just fun, especially if you're at the track. Luckily the total carbon footprint of the racers isn't significant, although carbon footprint of all the other aspects of the event is like any other public gathering.

    Thanks for the diversion, hedera. It provided an enjoyable momentary respite before dealing with the next insanity from Bushco, especially the possibility of shit-for-brains Cheney getting away with starting WWIII, a prospect which Bush apparently finds amusing.

    If, indeed, God is responsible for every child, you've got to wonder what he/she/it was thinking with these two loonies.

    Anonymous David

  7. Anonymous9:17 PM

    OK, cooper has clearly refused to rise to this NASCAR commentary moment, and he lives just down the road from Holman-Moody, home of really effing fast Ford engines going way back (I guess they're still at it).

    Anonymous David

  8. Anonymous3:14 PM

    I give up. I am clearly an abject failure as a blog pimp.

    Anonymous David