Setting his sights on the NASCAR phenomenon, Thompson (Light This Candle, 2004) focuses on the sordid origins of the sport, this country’s second most popular, behind only football.
It’s a provocative premise. As the author reminds us, stock-car racing was invented by moonshiners who first conceived of souping up Ford V-8s in order to elude Prohibition-era law-enforcers as they hauled corn whiskey from mountain stills in the hills of northern Georgia down into the cities of the deeper South. Dodging hairpin curves and wily cops, these moonshiners, in Thompson’s view, exemplify American ingenuity and self-reliance, qualities he suggests continue to make NASCAR so extremely widespread. Controversial NASCAR founder Bill France worked hard to distance the sport from its shady origins, striving to organize and legitimize a pastime seen as low-class, criminal and distinctly Southern. Recounting those disjointed early efforts, the author warmly reveals his admiration for pioneer drivers such as Lloyd Seay, Roy Hall and Red Byron, mechanic Red Vogt and, above all, for the races themselves. Unfortunately, Thompson’s transparent affection for his subjects prevents him from objectively assessing NASCAR’s legend-enshrouded figures. He displays all the skill of a seasoned journalist in his pacing and savvy storytelling, but his awestruck worship of his subjects, voiced in purplish prose, betrays a “homer” mindset. Swept up in the frenzy of the adrenaline-charged races he narrates, the author often interpolates thoughts and emotions to which he cannot be privy. This is a shame, because his grasp of the sport’s history is abundant and presentation of anecdotes exceedingly interesting.
Reverential attitude at odds with its gritty premise—but all of which NASCAR fans will lap up.