My racing problem

So, just when it seemed things couldn’t get much more bizarre and hurtful and flabbergasting, there was this from a dirt track in a wide-place-in-the-road place called Pine Hall, N.C., halfway from Winston-Salem to the Virginia line:

The track owner was offering for sale “Bubba Rope,” a noose fashioned like the one that greeted Bubba Wallace’s NASCAR team last weekend at Talladega Superspeedway. The 311 Speedway, named for the highway along with it rests and not the number of brain cells of which the track owner has possession, was announcing a “Heritage Night,” presumably for the collective mourning for what 311 Speedway surely considers the War of Northern Aggression.

For the hundredth time this month, that topic of race and racing made me want to throw up, then hide in shame. I have fought this nagging feeling that I need to apologize for racing, or at the very least apologize for enjoying it.

There’s something distasteful about every sport I’ve covered and that I enjoy. The greed of baseball. The unbridled violence of the NFL. The seedy recruitment in college hoops. The lack of perspective with college football. But somehow this feels different.

The first race I saw was on a track probably not a lot different from the 311 Speedway. I was in elementary school, and I was mesmerized. Then I remembered listening to NASCAR races on my uncles’ car radios as they’d do the bi-monthly tire-kicking when the family gathered at Grandma’s for lunch. Years later, a co-worker got me a handful of infield passes — including the golden ticket that was a garage pass — for Talladega. Some friends and I slipped into our good-ol-boy togs, loaded up the cooler, darted in to visit Col. Sanders and saw a guy named Lennie Pond win his first and only NASCAR race.

My resume is all piled up with NASCAR. Best I can figure, at 67 races, no writer has covered more Talladega races than I. The Sporting News commissioned me to write a NASCAR book. I wrote dozens of stories for the magazine, including eight or 10 cover stories. I spent two years on the circuit as a PR guy for the Pennzoil team, back in 1993-94. Beyond Talladega, I’ve covered another 100 or so races.

Funny thing. I’m not a car guy. And I know a lot of people think it’s silly to watch cars run around in circles.

But from that first race, there was something mesmerizing about it. I’ve compared Talladega to watching a tight-rope walker. I don’t want him to fall. But when he teeters there for a second, it steals your breath. And I’ve found good stories to tell in NASCAR. Frankly, to shed humility for a moment, I took pride in finding and telling interesting personality stories when so many wallowed in gossip and bored me to tears with their stories on the latest changes in the front valence or the rear spoiler.

The people who read me, responded and with whom I corresponded, I don’t recognize them in the ugly social media posts of the last month. Sure, some of them didn’t like NASCAR’s changes, that it had gotten away from its roots. But I took that to mean that NASCAR had generic cars and generic cars, and no longer had the sort of characters that might, on a whim, steer a rental car into a motel swimming pool or land a Cessna on a city street so they could obtain a fresh bottle of whiskey.

The people from the ugly social media posts, well, I did recognize them. I saw them in the infield of Talladega — and the infield of Pocono, well above the Mason-Dixon line. I saw them in Darlington and Daytona and Atlanta.

I tried to turn a blind eye to them. I’d shake my head in disgust at the overt and the covert racism, but I guess I just wanted the easy way out, and I’d go write about another quirky thing Clint Bowyer said or another vanilla offering from Jimmie Johnson.

I always wanted to be considered a mainstream writer, somebody with such an audience that even a non-racing fan might read my stuff. In fact, I’d get that occasional compliment.

So, was I part of the problem, too? Did I prop up a sport that permitted a haven for racism?

I try to assure myself that NASCAR, finally, is showing some backbone. The heir to the heir of the NASCAR throne was laughingly ineffective, cursed with the genetics that craved the sound of cash registers and afraid to fully enact the Confederate flag band years ago. The leaders outside the family are making strides. They are too late, and they’re still little strides.

I believe the vast majority of drivers and racing media are reasonably progressive, that they want to shun the redneck image. The economic survival of the sport will depend upon that.

But along comes this pinhead with a noose in the Talladega garage. And another pinhead who thinks it’s clever to sell a noose at a wide-place-in-the-road half-mile speedway.

I want to disassociate myself from those people. I want to apologize. It’s an odd quandary, to apologize for enjoying something that also attracts some despicable people who want to drive 190 mph in reverse.

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