O’Neill Observes: The most American of endeavors, for better or worse

By Jeremy O’Neill
Executive Staff

Over President’s Day weekend I found myself in an unlikely place for a person whose hometown is affectionately referred to as the “People’s Republic of Berkeley”: Daytona Beach, Florida, for the 62nd running of NASCAR’s Daytona 500, an event that brands itself as “The Great American Race.”

President Donald Trump attended and was welcomed with applause from around the stadium. The race began with Darius Rucker singing “Wagon Wheel,” a song penned by two early 20th century African American blues singers, a Jewish poet/singer-songwriter, and Ketch Secor, Sewanee’s Stowe artist-in-residence. Finally, chants of “USA, USA” followed the president as he took a lap around the track in his armored Cadillac and proclaimed “God bless our troops, God bless America.”

Sports have always had nationalistic undertones, with athletic competitions often used as a means for expressing pride in one’s country or superiority over others. NASCAR is not a sport that often sees itself on the front page of the news, and has been relegated socially to a niche pastime for those in the rural south. Despite this narrow sphere of influence, I would have to argue that no sport represents the current state of America better than racing, for worse and for better. 

The National Association of Stock Car Auto Racing, known as NASCAR for short, has its roots in rural appalachia during prohibition, as eager moonshine makers modified their understated vehicles with large engines so they could outrun the police and the tax collectors. (I guess the irony of the sport’s beginnings was lost on the many supporters in “Police Lives Matter” shirts…) When prohibition was over, the bootleggers needed something to do with their fast cars, so naturally they started racing to see whose was the fastest. 

So, NASCAR is a sport that, like this country, was born out of rebellion and not wanting to pay taxes, and oddly enough continues to be representative of American society in more ways than it would care to admit. A prime example would be seating for spectators: stadiums around tracks are split into levels, with the most expensive seats being on the top of the stadium as they offer a view of the whole track and the noise is less deafening.

These levels are occupied by journalists and those who either own cars in the race or at least have enough money to sit in the nicer sections. Much like in Shakespeare’s theaters, the area closest to the track is dirtier, louder, and has more of the eccentric personalities. It is this stratification of society that seems to be representative of America as a whole, with the wealthy literally looking down upon those less fortunate and less educated. 

Another point of irony would be the international nature of this activity that seems to waste the planet’s resources for the purpose of expressing that America is the greatest country in the world. NASCAR has seen many drivers from outside of this country find success, such as Columbia’s Juan Pablo Montoya, Australia’s Marcos Ambrose, and Mexico’s Daniel Suárez.

The crowd of predominantly “America-first” thinkers cheered wildly as Denny Hamlin piloted his #11 car to victory amidst a massive last lap crash. What was not necessarily emphasized, however, was the name on his car, an anglicized spelling of the last name of great Japanese engineer Kiichiro Toyoda. One can’t get much more American than winning the Daytona 500 in a Japanese car. 

I end on a more sombre note, but one that I believe is particularly relevant today. On the last lap of the race, a massive crash sent Ryan Newman’s number six car into the air, and after his vehicles was almost completely destroyed, Newman was airlifted to a hospital in critical condition. He survived with non-life threatening injuries, but he, like many athletes in all sports, realize that they are putting their lives on the line. Why take the risk? In pursuit of the American Dream. Whether or not it is real or just a concept, it is something millions have pursued, and are willing to die for.

Every day, people cross the Rio Grande looking for the American Dream. And many people die trying. But they are told that they are “illegal” or “unwelcome,” while athletes who risk their lives following the dream of getting rich on exceptional talent and exceptional risk are regarded as heroes. Is there any difference between the bravery of these two individuals? If there is, I can’t see it. Athletes take risks and are willing to make the ultimate sacrifice, but what we don’t realize or appreciate is how many others do the same, just for the privilege of being called “American.”

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