texasmonthly.com: Why write this story now?
Michael Hall: I’ve never been much of a race-car fan, but I got interested in racing in Texas after I met A.J. Foyt at a Christmas party in 2004, did some research on his wild and woolly life, and tried and failed to get him to be the subject of a feature. By then I knew all this stuff about racing in Texas, from Foyt to the Labonte brothers from Corpus Christi and the Texas Motor Speedway up in Fort Worth, one of the biggest sports arenas on the planet. And, of course, anyone with eyes has seen all the ubiquitous NASCAR people and logos over the past five years. So when I found out that the TMS hosted the Dickies 500 race in November, I thought, “I might not be a fan, but a lot of my fellow citizens are and, perhaps, I should go see what it’s all about.”
texasmonthly.com: This story is full of strange and unlikely facts, like driver Kim Crosby landing a sponsorship deal with Boudreaux’s Butt Paste. How did you conduct your research for this story?
MH: I was entering a whole new world so I felt I had to try to understand it on a fundamental level, things like tires and engines, and on more arcane levels too, things like strategy and butt paste. I read three books and trolled the Internet for stories on NASCAR, drivers, the business end, etc. Of course, NASCAR is so huge that now there are millions of stories, blogs, and chat rooms devoted to it.
texasmonthly.com: Two things about your story caught my eye. First, the race itself doesn’t begin until about the last quarter of the story. Second, the text is full of corporate names. Were these features deliberate?
MH: On my third day at the track, I hit upon the idea of structuring the story of the day of the race chronologically and I started keeping track of details by time. After the race was done, I realized I should just structure the whole story that way. I knew I would have to break out of the “in the present” timeline of race day to go back in the past for history and context, and the more I did that, the more I realized that the race would begin later and later in the story. I was worried that this would be too much of a delay, but my editor, Jake “The Intimater” Silverstein thought it worked to the story’s advantage, and so we got all history and asides done by race time so it would zip by faster. The story is full of corporate names because NASCAR is full of them. You can’t go anywhere in the world of NASCAR without being inundated by them. This was weird to me but normal to NASCAR people.
texasmonthly.com: Is there anything sad about NASCAR culture?
MH: Sure, but I think there is a skewed sadness at the heart of our entire sports culture that comes, ultimately, from all of us citizens sitting around and watching grown men play games—and drive cars. I mean, think about it: There is something inherently weird and sad about watching other people play games. And look at what we’re watching—the unbelievable violence of football that we rationalize any number of ways; the unbelievable cheating in baseball over the past decade that we rationalize in any number of ways; the unbelievable burning of hundreds of thousands of gallons of fuel in car racing that we rationalize in any number of ways.
texasmonthly.com: Who is your ideal audience for this story?
MH: I hope it reaches people like me, people who basically don’t “get” NASCAR but want to—who want to understand why so many of their fellow citizens go to the races and watch them on TV. And not just rednecks and Bubbas either. As I found in my reporting, most NASCAR fans are middle-class suburbanites. It is a true American sport.
texasmonthly.com: As a Texas football fan, do you see NASCAR fandom as fundamentally different from football fandom?
MH: First off, I’m a football fan who lives in Texas; I’m not a fan of any team that plays in Texas. But yes, it is very different. In football, you are a fan of a team—everything is subsumed to that loyalty. Cowboys fans hated Terrell Owens when he played for the Eagles, they love him now (mostly). In NASCAR, no one really cares about teams. It’s all about the drivers.
texasmonthly.com: What was it like to drive a race car around the Texas Motor Speedway?
MH: It was kind of like playing a big, loud, hot, smelly video game—and I mean that in a good way. I was really nervous for the first minute, but then, once I realized my co-pilot Steve was going to save me from myself if I did something stupid, I had a lot of fun steering and accelerating. I was so focused that all I could see was the road through the windshield—just like a TV screen. And then I had to keep the car within certain markers and I tried to go as fast as I could. It was a lot of fun.