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NASCAR Notions
Xenophobia 500

Nationalism rising

I’m writing this as Cheryl and I are watching our first Daytona 500 from start to—assuming we make it through the next 114 laps—finish. It would also be the first NASCAR race we’ve ever watched entire even though we’ve lived upwind of the Daytona Speedway going on seven years. It’s like being a Florida resident and never making it to Disney (although we finally surrendered to Disney’s lure this winter). One of these days we’ll make it to the race track. It has to be one of those pilgrimage things, although it will be more out of cultural obligation than pure enthusiasm. Stillalthough I should make this clear: I admire the drivers’ skill, their athleticism, their astounding endurance, and I can see why these races can be absorbing. It won’t be the last time I watch by any means. Nevertheless, two myths I’ve never bought into: That Nascar has anything whatsoever to do with “stock cars,” and that Nascar has traveled a long way out of its good ol’ boy southern mentality of heritage racism. It has spread its tracks all over the North, Midwest and West.

“Just as Southern-style politics migrated to the rest of the country during the Republican resurgence of the late 1980s and 1990s, so has Nascar’s reactionary mindset: It’s not the rest of the country that modulated southern chauvinism; it’s southern chauvinism that constipated the rest of the country.”

But just as Southern-style politics has migrated to all those regions during the Republican resurgence of the late 1980s and 1990s, so has Nascar’s reactionary mindset: It’s not the rest of the country that modulated southern chauvinism; it’s southern chauvinism that constipated the rest of the country. Some moderating appearances are inevitable. Nascar has its more varied fan base. It’s drawn its share of Asians and liberals in California, the occasional black in the Midwest or Daytona, a few Sunbelt Hispanics. It makes sure that blacks are peppered all over the television commercials. But what the Toyota flap proved was that the odious, the racist, the xenophobic and the sheer ignorant is still very much part of the Nascar language. As Michael Yaki noted in the Times on Saturday, the word “chink” has been “flying fast and furious in many Nascar-related forums and chat rooms. It offends me so much I cannot even abbreviate it here. One person wrote that ‘we don’t need any foreign nameplate in Nascar.’ Others have taken up the ‘if you love them so much go live in Japan’ theme and, curiously, wondered that if the Iraqis built a car would drivers of Japanese cars ‘become fans of the terrorists?’” His most salient point is one that could be made regarding so many aspects of American culture nowadays: “Nationalism and pride in one’s country can be admirable traits. Nationalism, however, is the razor’s edge in the American psyche, where just a push turns it into xenophobia. Nascar, like so many professional sports before it, may soon be faced with a situation where deliberate ignorance of simmering prejudice is not an option.” The problem is that Nascar hasn’t taken an uncompromising—that is, public, relentless and unmistakable—stance against the simmering prejudice, because it’s trying to play both sides of the fence: appeal to the large fan base’s base xenophobic and racist instincts while at the same time marketing the sport, for all the obvious profits the expansions would rake in, to Japan and Latin America by “opening” it to the likes of Juan Pablo Montoya, the Formula One champion from Colombia, and Toyota. But how is it that Toyota’s entry into Nascar is taking place in February 2007, when it should have taken place years ago? And why only Toyota? What on earth, if not prejudice disguised as tradition, not to mention fear, is keeping French or Italian or German cars from entering the fray? (As if it takes much guessing which car would win when a BMW and a GM product face off. One answer is in the stock tables.) I am rooting for Montoya and Toyota driver Michael Waltrip, naturally (it’s the immigrant in me) although both of them are currently having a ménage à trios with last place. Then again, speaking of German ironies: Kurt Busch, currently in first place, is driving a Dodge—owned not so much by Chrysler as Germany’s Daimler. But don’t tell that to the fans, to whom ignorance, when it comes to Nascar’s eugenics, is full-throttle bliss.

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