Speedway to heaven

Muslim pilgrims circle Mecca’s Kaaba; NASCAR drivers circle the Daytona speedway. Beyond imprecise geometry, is there a connection? Sure, both rituals likely seem bizarre to infidels. But more important, both rituals are infused by a sense of the sacred, which often involves a heightened awareness of human mortality.

If such ponderings and juxtapositions don’t strike you as heresy, L.D. Russell’s Godspeed: Racing is My Religion (Continuum International Publishing Group, 2007) is a godsend. And it’s a fast read to boot, with more charms than a chassis full of STP decals.

The book’s subtitle turns out to be a nonironic thesis, as Russell, a lecturer in religious studies at Elon University, admits to an evangelical mission as he proselytizes for his faith in racing. Not just any racing, mind you—he humorously dismisses Formula One machines (“Those aren’t cars. They’re hot dog weenies with wheels.”), and he confesses that drag racing is where he most experiences a sense of the numinous.

But it’s stock-car racing—especially the small-time speedway variety once common in places like Asheville and Durham and Hillsborough—that is the altar before which he does his primary genuflecting.

Readers scandalized by that thought should jump straight to chapter three (“So What’s the Point?”), in which Russell, engaging in Socratic dialogue with a skeptical Duke philosophy professor, takes on all egghead objections and offers wry counters to the usual accusations (i.e., that racing is pointless, polluting, misogynistic, racist, et al.).

Unable to convince the prof that racing is a sport, Russell proceeds to a bigger claim: “Racing is a religion, a cult of true believers with their own rituals, myths, and a system of ethics that rival Confucianism.” His comparison of NASCAR’s rule book to the Bible’s book of Deuteronomy is only more fuel in the tank.

Elsewhere, Russell offers a memorable visit to the now-abandoned Occoneechee Speedway, which is gradually eroding into something resembling ancient ruins, and pays homage to the early days of the sport and its 1950s pioneers, such as Glen “Fireball” Roberts. The crusade of local pastors to shut down the Hillsborough speedway echoes early objections to rock ‘n’ roll. Russell is in his element tracing this battle of the pious moralists versus the speed-addicted heathens.

The historical summaries and analysis of the current state of racing are interesting, but for Russell the thrust of racing religion is experiential. The possibility—indeed, likelihood—of transcendent experience for the fan in the grandstand is what ignites his soul.

“There’s nothing you can do but hold your breath, scream if you can, and pray your heart doesn’t stop,” Russell writes, describing a typical reaction to the roar of engines. “All your worries, all your cares, tomorrow, and yesterday drop away, and you’re caught up in the present moment … you are taken beyond words, beyond even thought, transported to a place of pure feeling.”

Russell has a penchant for unreconstructed Southern vernacular and for dramatic flair, which occasionally roars into overdrive. His comparison of legendary driver Dale Earnhardt to the biblical Job, for example, sounds a bit forced, and some of Russell’s main points and phrases come around the track again like the circling automotive horde.

And there are more serious caution flags: How does the author’s trip to Graceland apply to his subject? It’s a question Russell’s editor must have asked, too, but I’m glad the editor gave the green flag.

As he rides his Honda Shadow motorcycle through thunderstorms and around harrowing mountain curves on his way to Graceland, Russell becomes a kind of un-Easy Rider, a cosmic cowboy who reflects on the meaning of America’s obsession with speed and on the broader connotations of “race.” Elvis’ mansion leaves him nonplussed, but the Civil Rights Memorial in Memphis shakes him to the core. He kneels and weeps upon hearing a recording of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream‚” speech, and, like Paul Simon anticipates being “received” at Graceland, Russell writes that he too has a “place in Dr. King’s promised land.” America, Russell suggests, could be a Winner’s Circle for all.

Despite an eloquent final-chapter meditation on the meaning of Dale Earnhardt’s death in the momentous year of 2001, it’s Russell’s personal journey that gives the book its character. We enter his contradictory existence: He’s an ex-seminarian and former fundamentalist who despises religious hypocrisy and exclusivism; an intellectual who apologizes for using words like “ineffable”; and a sensitive old soul who appreciates the old things, even as he whoops and hollers at a latest-engine NASCAR spectacle. And that strange brew of identity—poured into a strange little book that is equal parts memoir, odyssey, and jeremiad—makes for an intoxicating read.

[Jim Gardner is a freelance writer based in Asheville.]

L.D. Russell reads from his new book Godspeed: Racing is My Religion at Malaprop’s on Friday, Aug. 17. 7 p.m. Free. 254-6734.

A track of their own

It appears that stock-car racing is a hot topic these days, as bestselling author Sharyn McCrumb follows up on her 2005 NASCAR-fueled novel St. Dale with a new story of fast cars and the people who love them. Once Around the Track tells the story of a past-his-prime racer recruited to drive for an all-female NASCAR pit crew sponsored by the female equivalent of Viagra. Early reviews hint that Once Around the Track might be one of McCrumb’s best works. She’ll be reading from the comedic novel at Malaprop’s Bookstore/Cafe (254-6734) on Sunday, Aug. 19, at 3 p.m.

— Steve Shanafelt

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One thought on “Speedway to heaven

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