Sunday, February 24, 2013

The Rise of NASCAR

With the Daytona 500 today, it is an appropriate time to analyze the meteoric growth of NASCAR over the last three decades.  As late as the mid-1980s, open wheel racing (Indy cars) reigned supreme over stock cars (NASCAR) and the Indianapolis 500—not Daytona— was the most popular race in the country.  Mario Andretti and A.J. Foyt, not Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt, Sr., were the most famous drivers in the nation.  In the last 30 years, though, stock car racing has surpassed open wheel racing, evolving from a regional sport based in the rural South to a national phenomenon with fanatical supporters across America.

According to legend, NASCAR’s rise began with the dramatic conclusion to the 1979 Daytona 500, which was the first to air live on network television.  A major snowstorm on the East Coast left many trapped inside and some viewers who would not normally have watched tuned in out of curiosity.  Following the conclusion of the race, won by Petty, drivers Cale Yarborough and Bobby and Donnie Alison got into a fistfight over a last lap crash, bringing new attention to this sport.  Just as 1958’s “Greatest Game Ever Played” between the Baltimore Colts and the New York Giants spurred football to new heights, the ’79 Daytona launched NASCAR. See

Over the next two decades, led by charismatic drivers such as Earnhardt, Darrell Waltrip, and Jeff Gordon, NASCAR became one of the most popular sports in the country, with ratings only surpassed by the NFL.  Like football, auto racing’s ratings were augmented by its once-a-week format, but that does not diminish the sport’s incredible rise.  Meanwhile, internecine disputes in Indy car racing split the sport into rival camps and many top drivers did not race in the Indianapolis 500 for several years, leaving the auto racing market to NASCAR alone.

NASCAR’s growth also reflected the rise of the South during the time.  As the region’s population expanded, so did its influence on American culture.  Other traditionally southern phenomenon, like country music, developed crossover appeal.  Since the Reagan era, the political conservatism and religiosity of the region has often seemed more reflective of the country than the liberalism and relative secularism of New England.  By the 1990s, some discussed the “Southernization of America,” as Arkansas’ Bill Clinton, Georgia’s Newt Gingrich, and Mississippi’s Trent Lott, served as President, Speaker of the House, and Senate Majority Leader, respectively (Applebome, Dixie Rising). 

Dale Earnhardt, Sr.’s death in a crash during the 2001 Daytona 500 precipitated Princess Di-style mourning below the Mason-Dixon line.  At the same time, some in the North scratched their heads over the emotional reaction.  I’ll never forget where I was when I found out that “The Intimidator” had died: the Upper West Side of Manhattan.  The local news declared “tragedy strikes as a legend dies at Daytona.”  Though I can count on my hands the number of NASCAR races I’ve watched, as a sports fan I immediately blurted out, “Oh my G-D, did Dale Earnhardt die?”  My Manhattan friends seemed totally nonplussed and refused to even let me watch the sports segment to find out what had happened.  It was a reflection of the cultural chasm that still exists, as NASCAR is very popular across a broad swath of the nation, except for a few bastions of blue America.  As a perceptive friend of mine said later, the circumstances surrounding Earnhardt’s death were unbelievable, the equivalent of Michael Jordan dying during Game 7 of the NBA Finals.

Paradoxically, the period following Earnhardt’s crash may have been the sport’s peak.  In 2004, “NASCAR dads” replaced “soccer moms” as the swing voters fawned over by presidential candidates and the national media alike.  President George W. Bush campaigned for re-election at the 2004 Daytona 500, opening the race by declaring, “Gentlemen, start your engines!”

While “The Intimdator’s” death brought new attention to the sport, it also sparked a greater awareness of its dangers.  NASCAR instituted new safety guidelines that have helped prevent any deaths since 2001, though some have suggested these measures have reduced the excitement of the races.  Over the last decade, the sport’s popularity has declined as attendance has slipped and television ratings have come back to earth a bit.

It is not just the new safety measures, however, that have caused the sport to plateau.  NASCAR began as a working-class sport in the rural South, but the sports’ leadership pushed to attract a more upscale demographic.  Races at some of the older tracks have been abandoned in favor of larger venues, alienating some of the sports’ traditional fans, often called “gearheads.”  Since Earnhardt, Sr.’s death, no driver has emerged to replace him as someone that fans either love or hate.  Jimmie Johnson has dominated the sport in (old) Tigeresque fashion in recent years, winning five consecutive championships between 2006-2010.  But he doesn’t seem to elicit strong emotions either way from the “gearheads.”

As the 2013 race commences, NASCAR could be on the verge of a resurgence.  After moving from Indy cars to stock cars, Danica Patrick won the pole position for this year’s event and her celebrity may bring unprecedented interested in the “Great American Race.” Regardless, NASCAR has come a long way since its early days of moonshine and dirt tracks.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

"The Americans," Episode 4, "In Control"

In this week’s episode, “In Control,” the action revolves around John Hinckley’s unsuccessful attempt on President Ronald Reagan’s life on March 30, 1981, which was the last time an assassin fired a shot at a U.S. president.  Elizabeth and the Soviet embassy massively overreact, seeing Secretary of State Al Haig’s infamous press conference where he declared, “I’m in control” in the confused moments after the shooting as a precursor to a coup and a U.S. first strike.  Meanwhile, the FBI checks to see if the would-be assassin has any links to the Russians.

Hinckley shot Reagan as he left the Washington Hilton after giving a speech to organized labor.  In the midst of the fusillade of gunfire, a Secret Service agent pushed the president into a limousine and Reagan was hit by a bullet as it ricochet off the car and into his chest.  Though the president thought he had broken a rib, the agent ordered the motorcade to George Washington University hospital when Reagan began to cough up blood.  At the hospital, Reagan entered under his own power, only to fall to his knees inside.  Doctors discovered a bullet wound and prepared the president for emergency surgery.  Reagan earned plaudits for his humor and composure under trying circumstances, famously telling Nancy “Honey, I forgot to duck” and the surgical team that “he hoped they were all Republicans.” “Today we’re all Republicans,” responded the doctors.

Vice President George H. W. Bush was on a flight to Texas and there was confusion in Washington surrounding the president’s condition.  Fearing that the government was sending a mixed message during a period of international turmoil, Haig addressed the press, declaring:

Constitutionally, gentlemen, you have the President, the Vice President, and the Secretary of State in that order, and should the President decide he wants to transfer the helm to the Vice President, he will do so. He has not done that. As of now, I am in control here, in the White House, pending return of the Vice President and in close touch with him. If something came up, I would check with him, of course.

With this statement, Haig seemed to misunderstand the succession procedure proscribed by the 25th amendment, where the speaker of the House was third in line and the secretary of state was fifth.  He later claimed he was talking about where authority in the government laid, not presidential succession.  Though Haig had held the government together as President Nixon’s chief of staff in the difficult final days of Watergate, this moment became the defining moment of his career.

In the “Americans,” Haig’s bizarre comments are interpreted as an attempt by the military or hawkish elements of the government to mount a coup, rather than as a career-destroying gaffe.  Hearing bits and pieces from their bug at Secretary of Defense Weinberger’s house, Elizabeth believes an attack on the Soviet Union may be imminent.  Philip cautions they should wait to alert Moscow until they have definitive proof.  In fact, while American officials were concerned that Soviet subs were slightly closer than usual to the U.S. coast that day, there was no talk of an attack (Allen, “The Atlantic,” April 2001).

Another real-life detail that was accurately repeated in the episode was that the media erroneously reported the death of White House press secretary James Brady.  Though wounded severely, Brady survived, albeit with permanent brain damage.  He and his wife Sarah become strong advocates for gun control, and the “Brady bill,” which President Clinton signed in 1993 and mandated background checks for individuals purchasing guns, bears their name.  Some have compared former Arizona congresswoman Gabby Giffords, who suffered similar wounds in a 2011 shooting and recently testified in favor of gun control before Congress, to Brady.

By the episode’s conclusion, Stan, the FBI agent who conveniently lives across the street from Elizabeth and Philip, has discovered that the Russians had nothing to do with the shooting.  He informs them that Hinckley was a nut who though the shooting would impress an actress (Jodie Foster).  As a result, Elizabeth seems to have newfound respect for her husband’s restraint.

Though he lost a great deal of blood and was much closer to death than understood at the time, Reagan recovered from his wound.  Today, the attempt is largely forgotten because the “Gipper” survived, but it was likely a trying day for many Americans, with memories of the Kennedy assassination less than two decades earlier still fresh. Indeed, the previous 20 years had witnessed a series of political assassinations and assassination attempts, including the murders of Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X.  In addition, a crazed gunman shot presidential candidate George Wallace in 1972, paralyzing him for the rest of his life; there were two unsuccessful attempts to shoot President Gerald Ford.

Hinckley was found not guilty by reason of insanity and confined to a mental hospital and the shooting had a significant impact on the Reagan presidency. In the short term, the nation rallied behind the him and his recovery, helping him build the public support necessary to pass the large tax cut that was the central element of his economic program.  In the long term, according to Reagan biographer Edmund Morris, it reinforced Reagan’s religiosity as well as his sense of destiny. (PBS’ American Experience, “Reagan”)

Richard Allen, “The Day Reagan Was Shot,” April 2001
PBS American Experience, “Reagan”

Saturday, February 16, 2013

"The Americans," Episode 3, "Gregory"

In the episode, we discover that Elizabeth has engaged in a long-standing affair with Gregory, an African-American man she recruited into the KGB in the 1960s.  He tells Philip that she recruited him at an SCLC meeting in Chicago during Martin Luther King’s campaign in the Second City.  SCLC stands for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, King’s organization of Southern ministers.  Having defeated de jure segregation in the South with the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965, King and SCLC left their traditional base in the south in 1966 and moved north to Chicago to battle the problem of de facto segregation. 

The Chicago campaign focused on opening up housing for blacks outside of the city’s ghetto neighborhoods on the south and west side.  Lacking a clear enemy like Bull Connor in Birmingham or Jim Clark in Selma, King was outmaneuvered by Mayor Richard J. Daley and couldn’t generate the same national support he had in campaigns in the Deep South.   Eventually, King negotiated a symbolic agreement with Daley regarding housing and left in defeat.  After seeing the intense bigotry of working-class whites in the North, he became much more pessimistic about the possibility of overcoming racism in America.

The Gregory character also illustrates how American racism made communism attractive to a small number of blacks.  In the 1930s, the American Communist Party gained prestige in the African American community because of its strong defense of the Scottsboro Boys, a group of black teenagers accused of raping white women on a train in Alabama.  At various times, prominent black Americans joined the party, including Paul Robeson, Bayard Rustin, and W.E.B. Du Bois.   Some, like Rustin, left because they didn’t believe the party’s commitment to racial justice was genuine.

With her relationship with Philip now resembling more of a real marriage, Elizabeth ended the affair with Gregory.  Meanwhile, the KGB moved closer to getting their hands on the plans for “Star Wars.” 

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

"The Americans," Episode 2, "The Clock"

In the second episode of “The Americans,” Elizabeth and Phillip, the two Soviet spies living the life of an all-American family in the D.C. suburbs, engage in a risky plot to bug the Secretary of Defense.  In doing so, they discover the early stirrings of President Reagan’s “Star Wars” program, which some believe contributed to the end of the Cold War.

In a piece of skullduggery worthy of a John Le Carre novel, the agents poison the son of Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger’s maid.  They then give her an ultimatum to bug his house in return for the antidote.  A primary architect of the Reagan defense buildup, Weinberger served as Defense Secretary from 1981 to 1987.  The KGB wants to eavesdrop on Weinberger’s upcoming meeting with British Defense Minister John Nott.

Despite the threat to her son’s life, the maid is reluctant to plant the bug.  Not trusting Elizabeth and Philip, she says she puts her faith in God and asks if Philip is afraid of him/her.  Philip replies no, revealing the Cold War divide between the state-sponsored atheism of the USSR and the deep religiosity of many Americans.

Once the maid places the bug in a clock, the final scene of the episode reveals the discussion between Weinberger and his British counterpart.  The two cabinet officers note the close relationship between President Reagan and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.  Both were leaders of the right in their respective countries and many see the victory of Thatcher’s Conservative Party over the Labor Party in 1979 as a precursor to the Republican Reagan’s defeat of Democrat Jimmy Carter in 1980.

Following this exchange, the British Defense Minister expresses his support for Reagan’s proposed anti-ballistic missile shield, the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), which would become popularly known as “Star Wars.” Inspired by his acting career in Hollywood, Reagan proposed a shield in space that would be able to shoot down Soviet nuclear weapons, rendering their considerable arsenal irrelevant.  Though a military hawk, Reagan was deeply disturbed by the doctrine of mutually assured destruction (MAD) that had governed American nuclear policy since the 1950s.  With his desire to end the threat of nuclear holocaust, the “Gipper” shared common cause with his domestic opponents in the burgeoning nuclear freeze movement.

In reality, however, Reagan did not propose SDI until 1983 and I don’t believe he was discussing it with the European allies in 1981.  In fact, when he made his speech announcing “Star Wars,” many NATO members feared Regan’s break with the longstanding MAD policy.

Still, some credit “Star Wars” with accelerating the end of the U.S./Soviet conflict.  Though most Western scientists thought the missile shield unfeasible, many Russian military leaders believed that it was not beyond American capabilities.  Having seen the tremendous accomplishments of American science in the Manhattan Project and the Apollo space program, some supported Mikhail Gorbachev’s reforms in the mid-1980s as part of an effort to modernize Soviet technology to compete with the US.  Gorbachev made American abandonment of SDI a major demand during arms control negotiations between the superpowers, notably at the 1986 summit in Reykjavik, Iceland, when the two leaders flirted with getting rid of their nuclear arsenals, much to the chagrin of Reagan’s advisers.

After the first two episodes, the espionage elements of the show are considerably more interesting than the family life of the main characters.  So far, though, there is more than enough to keep me interested.