A pivotal moment in the saga of the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing came toward the end of the Daytona 500 in 1979, when one driver, Cale Yarborough, had an encounter with another, Donnie Allison. As Yarborough explained it: "He turned left and crashed me. So, hell, I crashed him back."
What made the crashing — and there are varying reports as to who crashed whom — so important was the ensuing brawl. Fighting — or fightin', as the subtitle of Mark Bechtel's book on the national emergence of NASCAR has it — is endemic to the sport, but this was caught on national TV. In fact, it was the first time a NASCAR race had been broadcast in its entirety, and numerous city slickers happened to tune in because an epic snowstorm across the nation kept them homebound.
"For something like (the fight) to happen in stock car racing was a common, ordinary, everyday thing almost," Humpy Wheeler, a legendary promoter of NASCAR, told Bechtel. "But to happen on TV in front of the American public just brought out this hidden culture that we had, where you settle things like a man, with your fists."
Although the fight helped put NASCAR in the American consciousness, good ol' boys have been racing stock cars for generations. Bechtel, an editor at Sports Illustrated, focuses on 1979 and seems to have interviewed all the participants still with us. The book opens with the wedding in North Carolina of Kyle Petty, a third-generation NASCAR driver and a member of the legendary Petty dynasty. The bride, Pattie, was a teacher, and Kyle was a "gangly" recent high school graduate. Kyle's father, Richard Petty, was known as the king of stock car racing. The family was close, though that hadn't prevented Richard's own father, Lee, from crashing him on the track. "Daddy thought I was in the way, so he hit me," Richard recalled.
One of Richard Petty's rivals was the unforgettable Darrell "Jaws" Waltrip, whose car was named Maybelline and who loved to stir up the crowds. When fans hurled obscenities at him, Waltrip insisted to his sponsor, Mountain Dew, that they were shouting "Dew!"
Bechtel paints an excellent portrait of these colorful racers and their Scots-Irish culture, in which rebel flags are not rare. So why on earth were Leonard W. Miller, founder of Miller Racing, and his son, Leonard T. Miller — successful, educated members of the black elite — obsessed with NASCAR racing? It's a question that perplexed their fellow African-Americans, who regarded their quest as "a suicide mission into the country's deepest pockets of racism."
We discover in Leonard T. Miller's moving memoir, Racing While Black, that socially the Millers were in a different league than the other drivers. "At uppity African-American cocktail parties I sometimes attended with my father," Miller writes, "guests couldn't understand why we would invest thousands of dollars into something that could be destroyed in a moment's notice."
Although Miller and his father were anomalies, they loved stock cars as much as the next good ol' boy. "Auto racing is in my blood," writes Miller, who graduated from Morehouse College and is a commercial airline pilot. "I was drawn to the ear-piercing clamor, the cottony trains of exhaust, and the smell of rubber being singed by the asphalt."
His father had fallen in love with cars as a mechanic in the Army at Fort Bragg, where he felt a sense of camaraderie with his fellow soldiers that transcended race. He was inspired by two early black racers, Malcolm Durham, a drag racer, and Wendell Scott, a stock car racer.
Many of the wild men from Bechtel's book reappear here, but we encounter another side of racing. We meet Tom Rice, a black stock car driver with NASCAR aspirations, who always took pains not to sit too close to his white wife, Crystal. Tom and Crystal, an "outstanding mechanic," shared the Millers' dream. Heartbreakingly, the Millers ran out of money to support Rice after he had his best season in 1991 at Old Dominion Speedway.
Much of the book is about the Millers' quest for sponsorship, which was moderately successful. For a while, Miller Racing sported the GM Goodwrench Service Plus logo on its car. Ultimately, however, the sponsorships were not enough for the Millers to attain their dream. Several potential supporters were afraid to ally themselves with a black outfit.
Still, Miller is not bitter, and he gives accolades to his many supporters, black and white. But one can't quite get past the feeling that the Millers may have been just a little too refined for a world of drivers called Jaws and cars named Maybelline.
Charlotte Hays is the co-author of "Some Day You'll Thank Me for This: The Official Southern Ladies' Guide to Being a 'Perfect' Mother."