by Weston Cutter
It’s always this way, right? The books you don’t expect to care much about end up being righteously distracting and time-consuming and etc.? Maybe 2 months ago I got, all within several days of each other, the upcoming Ander Monson (the nonfiction, not the poetry), and the new Ted Conover, and the new Tony Hoagland, any of which would’ve been week-making books in any context, and yet the book I kept tracking back to, picking up and hauling ass through, was one called He Crashed Me So I Crashed Him Back. A book about, I’m not joking, Nascar.
On the one hand, it could be entirely possible that I enjoyed He Crashed Me so much because of its novelty, because I know next to nothing about Nascar and so was simply enraptured by the foreign world I’d till then not bothered glimpsing. I suppose it’s possible I ended up enjoying the book so much, too, because the time period covered in the book correlates closely to the date of my birth, and I’m as self-obsessed as anyone, and so I just got buzzed off thinking what the world was like when I was just arriving in it.
Of course it’s none of that: what it is is that there’s a guy named Mark Bechtel and he’s written a book that’s sympathetically gorgeous (the story pivots around the 1979 Nascar season, which happens to be the year in which, to use the supporting-material-ish claim, Everything Changed in the World of Nascar. Maybe surprisingly, maybe not, Nascar’s emergence as a national-interest story and/or sport came at the juncture of some elegantly complex coincidences, not least of which was a monumental snowstorm that kept people indoors and a legenday race being filmed life, and a new Republican president who had more cowboy-ish charm than any president in recent memory.
But it’s not, ultimately, the endlessly interesting corroborating color-commentary picture-completing notes which Bechtel includes which make the book such a thrill (though they’re phenomenal, phenomenal details—dude goes into music [Willie, Waylon], talks the history of Daytona [driving on sand], references the cultural touchstones that also happened to bubble up simultaneously with Nascar [Dukes of Hazzard real obviously], everything). No, the book’s a thrill for that oldest reason: the folks involved. And the reader gets absolutely everybody–the Allison brothers, Darrell Waltrip (and, eventually, later, his brother Michael), big Bill French (he’s the old granddaddy, the guy who literally organized Nascar) and his son, Bill jr. There’s Carl Yarborough, who Bechtel does an amazing job of making the most decently endearing cantankerous prick around (it’s impossible not to love the guy; he’s one of those characters who, were this a novel, would be the reason people sped quickly through the novel in the first place).
Plus of course the reason ’79 was such a big deal was that it was the meeting of the King, Richard Petty (who would, that year, win the Nascar title after some time in the wilderness), and the upstart rookie, Dale Earnhardt. I’m as media-saturated as everybody, and I spent monumental hours getting daily doses of television commercials as a kid, and so I’d always know Petty just as a dude who made some spray-and-wash thing for cars; about Earnhardt, I knew just that he was #3, that he died in a crash, and that most of the folks who drove around with a small #3 decal on their rear windows were folks I likely wouldn’t be having a beer with anytime soon.
And, of course, both men were/are far more than that—were/are riveting, fascinating people, were wildly, wildly talented men (talented in all sorts of ways, not least of which is the way in which the King and Earnhardt built teams around themselves; given the hugely hen-pecky and territorial and mercenery behind-the-scenes folks at Nascar, anyone getting a functioning team together feels like a small miracle in this book). They’re both, absolutely, the “feudin’, fightin’, good ol’ boys” of the book’s subtitle. There’s tons to say about these two racers—about their styles and their backgrounds, about how the dynamic between the two made a fascinating and engaging book not just possible but made said book feel sort of inevitably magnetic—but skip my words and get to the real ones–get to the book.
Because this, then, is the real magic of books: now I want to have a beer with those folks who love Nascar, those who’ve affixed small #3 decals to their rear windows. I still don’t think I could sit understand a Nascar race as I watched it—I know the driver who crosses the line first wins, but the mechanics and skill involved still elude me, even just as a theoretical understanding of them, elude me—but I’m a hell of a lot more interested in all of it, and I’m engaged, and I’m now, like so many other Americans, tuned in to this event, this sport, this thing. Even if you’d like nothing more than to spend the rest of your life without wasting a single calorie of concern on Nascar, you still owe it to yourself and to Mark Bechtel to read this book. It’s magic.
Further, if you end up getting so taken by Bechtel’s fantastic tale that you’re suddenly bound and determined to go out and see ever Nascar race you can, you need to pick up the just-released The Ultimate NASCAR Insider’s Track Guide by Liz Allison. Why must you pick this book up? Because there’s literally no question I can think of about the actual physical event of going to a Nascar race that isn’t answered within its pages. Want pizza in Daytona? Want a massage in Bristol? Want to know where to take your ailing dog while in Long Pond, Pennsylvania? All these answers: in this book. The resourcefulness of this book seems just about limitless.