Continuing our Sports Authors With Pure Hearts series, we present, honestly, one of our favorite sports books of all time: Sunday Money, a whirlwind, Kerouac-esque look at a year on the NASCAR circuit. Sports Ilustrated, New York Times and New Yorker author Jeff MacGregor, along with his photographer wife, packed in a mobile home and followed NASCAR for a whole year, documenting fans, drivers, the road and the whole culture of a sport that half of us don't understand and the other half worships with frightening passion. But mostly, it's just an amazing book about this weird, scary, beautiful America.
We know we're supposed to be all full of bile and vinegar around here, but we have a hard time even pretending to be cynical about this book: We desperately wish we could write like this. Buy it. Seriously. And then read our interview with McGregor about what "mainstream" sports fans are missing about NASCAR, why Donald Trump hates him and how Deadspin will change the world, yes yes. Full interview after the jump.
You have to be the only Sports Illustrated author with a blurb from Tom Perrotta. We think this book transcends NASCAR, or sportswriting even. It really does feel like a more plugged-in Kerouac at times. We find it amazing that this was your first book. What took you so long?
I blush at your flattery. And if I had an email smiley that did likewise, I'd post it as proof. I have one that winks, quite knowingly by the looks of it, but have yet to figure out how to deploy it. In any case, being neither a saucy, fifty-three year-old divorcee with a taste for jokey forwards in the accounts-receivable department of a Beloit trucking company; nor an IM-savvy junior high school danceline co-captain from San Dimas, I rarely convey the state of my thoughts with emoticons. Except the one that hurls like it just came off a two-week tequila bender in Vegas. I'm using it next month in a book review for the Times of London.
Too late for the short answer here, I guess, but I had another career before I started writing. And the less said about it the better, trust me. From the time I was a little kid, though, I'd always wanted be a writer. It just took me a few years to get around to it.
I think the book feels less like sportswriting because it is less like sportswriting. I just write what I see and what I hear. It's kind of a little big book about America and Americans - that happens to have a NASCAR season as its occasion for telling some stories.
Three years after your tour, how much NASCAR do you watch now?
We still watch at least part of every race in our little household. We made a lot of friends out there, and we're genuinely interested in how they do week in, week out. The truth is, though, that television pales in comparison to being at a race. Real fans know that the only way to make converts out of their friends is to get them out to the track. It's unlike anything in sports. The noise, the heat, the skin, the funnel cakes and binge-drinking are worth wallowing in for a weekend.
How thoughtful and intelligent is the average NASCAR driver, compared to other athletes? That is to say, do they fall closer to the tennis pro who was "home" "schooled" from the age of three up and has no idea how to socialize or interact with anyone who isn't a tennis player, or do they fall closer to, say, Shane Battier?
I think most NASCAR drivers fall right in the middle of the "Professional Athlete Versus Ordinary Mortal" continuum. They're nice guys, most of them, polite and incredibly accessible by the standards of other sports. Not much more or less aware of what's happening in the wider world, certainly. About as well spoken as most other pro sports performers, too. And some of the older guys are straight-up Pure-D colorful if you catch 'em at the right moment. Like when Sterling Marlin throws an M-80 under your minivan. That said, the drawlin' and brawlin' days of stock car racing are behind us. The younger fellas especially are so closely affiliated with their corporate overlords, and so well programmed, that it can be tough to knock them off-message. But then I'm a writer, and like Herr Doktor Heisenberg, change things just by trying to observe them. Maybe it was all naked Yahtzee and Jaegermeister after I walked out of their trailers.
It's a hoot to spend an afternoon with Dale, Jr., I can tell you that.
Of Mr. Battier, sadly, I know nothing.
You make some interesting points about the comparative "popularity" of NASCAR to other sports, particularly baseball. (The argument being that more people actually do watch baseball every week than NASCAR; it's just less concentrated. We're oversimplifying.) Can NASCAR get bigger? Where does it fit in?
The point I try to make in the book is just a warning about NASCAR's optimistic arithmetic. They're still fifth in terms of paid attendance behind the Big Four sports. And when it comes to television ratings, their public math is a relentless kind of self-promotion. My puny rebukes are of course quite useless against them. For all their huckleberry modesty, they're by far the savviest big league in America when it comes to inflating their own numbers and selling themselves. I have yet to see another reporter or writer anywhere question the ratings or attendance figures that NASCAR dishes out with the 'brats and the chicken wings in the media center.
As to how big they might become: The season can't get any longer, so by "growth" we're talking about pumping up the television ratings and expanding into new market areas. This they will clearly continue to do with great success. In the last 10 years they've pushed racing into urban consciousness by bringing tracks to urban areas. That's where most of their new TV eyeballs are coming from, too. Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Dallas/Fort Worth, Chicago, Miami. New York's next, so prepare yourself for the "What The Fuck Are You Lookin' At? 500."
The cost to the sport, though, has been its relationship with hardcore Southern fans and their powerful sense of tradition and possession. That the early temples like Darlington and Rockingham lost races to shinier tracks was a nasty slap in the face to NASCAR's old guard. In the coming world of racing, newly minted fans will understand stock car racing as a television show, rather than a live event, or as part of a particular culture - in much the same way most people think of other big-league sports.
How that fits into our broader culture, I'm not sure. I float a bunch of crackpot theories in the book, but I think foremost among them has to be the return to a simpler time. America is rolling back the clock these days generally, in search of some one-dimensional, Pre-Darwinian innocence. I'd say the clear-eyed, square-jawed heroes imagined and promoted by NASCAR fit quite well into that model. Look what happened the other day with Kurt Busch. People were shocked - shocked! - to hear that a professional athlete might have had a drink with his dinner, or be a boor when pulled over by the cops. Or drive too fast. Seriously, the NASCAR fan base had a lot of trouble wrapping their heads around it. It sounded too much like all the other sports.
Which reflects another attraction of the thing, and it isn't a pretty one. At the Cup level, it's the only remaining professional sport with an all-white field. Call me crazy, but the mythologically uptight, upright white athlete of yesteryear is greatly missed in certain quarters.
What do you think of this whole points and playoff system thing?
The new "playoffs" blow. It's some phony hocus-pocus on behalf of the television networks. In the past racers were rewarded for consistency. Now, with the revisions, luck plays too large a part in the outcome over the last ten races. The whole thing feels inorganic to me, and very theatrical. They'll revise it again in a few years.
What's the blog world like for NASCAR? What's the general tone of mainstream NASCAR blogs?
Earnest. Or "Ernest Goes to Pocono."
They're very straightforward and generally snarkless. Shock damper settings, paint schemes and years-long arguments over who's cooler, Tony or Kasey.
There's one, though, worth visiting, at least as a cultural aside. Gaytona.com. Bring your tap pants.
If someone is a huge sports fan but doesn't watch NASCAR — one of those people you write about who consciously avoids NASCAR — is there any hope for them? Will they just never open their mind? Do you have a recommended prescription?
Some folks will never be convinced. Others need to open their hearts. And their minds. And their wallets. Tickets for these deals aren't cheap. But go to a race. If you're not hooked after a day in the stands, you're never going to get it.
You talk in the book about how a large part of NASCAR'S popularity derives from America's obsession with the automobile. What kind of car do you drive?
My radiant photographer bride and I, despite living in New York, have kept our 1993 Toyota pick-up. 129,000 miles. We never drive it, of course - we might lose our parking space. It's more of a 4x4 rolling storage locker than anything.
How do you think the literary praise for the book changed you as a writer? Do you get more opportunities now?
I have become insufferable, bien sur, and have taken to wearing a beret; which goes wonderfully with my cape and jodhpurs. I've got a two-bottle-a-day absinthe habit. And Updike won't stop calling about his bowling league. Jackass.
Good reviews are swell, but nothing has changed. Like you, I'm a guy who sits in his sweatpants and a Maple Leafs jersey all day typing.
Didn't you get in some sort of fight with Donald Trump?
Yes. Yes I did. I choose to characterize it as our "public feud," although the man wouldn't know me if he fell over me. I'd written a book review for The New York Times that mentioned him, some might say irreverently. He took exception to it and branded me a "loser" in their letters column a week later. He said "some men choose to cast shadows" (him presumably) and that "others choose to live in them" (me, apparently - or really anyone who lives next to one of his tall, surpassingly ugly buildings).
Anyway, I thought about it long and hard and realized he was right. I am a loser. Thus have I applied to Trump Online University in the interest of self-improvement. (My safety school is EBay University - rockin' party school from what I hear.) I think the curriculum's based on "The Apprentice," so I'm hoping to major in "Taking Credit" at Trump U., with a minor in "Assigning Blame."
After I make my first million, I'll buy a pair of matched, gold-inlaid curling irons and challenge him to a duel in Central Park.
Ever think of becoming an ESPN talking head? What do you think of the network? Be honest.
No. I've done ESPN a couple times, and a couple of ways, and didn't feel like it was a good fit. Too much barking in too small a space. Though physically, of course, quite beautiful, I just didn't feel like I had much beyond that to contribute. I like doing Letterman very much, though, because he lets me tell my little anecdotes.
As to ESPN, it will constitute a benign world government by 2035.
Have you been in a motor home since your trip?
Sadly, no. I kind of miss it, too, with its tiny little appliances and lurid upholstery and 40-second showers and so forth. Having done nearly a year in one, though, 300 consecutive nights, I'm pretty sure we're done with RVs. Hang on, let me check with my wife.
Mm-hmm, we're done.
You writing another book? If so, what's it about, and if not, why?
Yes, I am. But I'm not allowed to talk about it yet. Although it's very sexy, and fantastically, life-alteringly important. It'll come out in the spring of 2008. And, like Sunday Money (due out in paperback next May, by the way), it will be a book that no American can afford to be without. If they choose to actually read it, then so much the better.
What do you think of Deadspin? Be mean.
I think when history looks back on us from the great, grave distance of time, and seeks to judge us for who we are and what we've done; when our descendants search for themselves in us, and ask how humanity rose to meet its fate across the ages; and when they hear our voices calling out to them through the howling vastness of the years, they will discover in a single defining cultural moment everything they so desperately seek....
Deadspin is that moment.