NASCARTOLOGY, Part One

As sports entertainment goes, America’s major markets (large metropolitan areas) have their home teams. But NASCAR, by virtue of its widespread track circuit – based in the heartlands of middle America – is the sport of choice for much of the rest of the country. And in the past decade, it has become very big business – so big, in fact, that NASCAR Cup races rate complete major network coverage (FOX), NASCAR-related programs fill a very large part of the programming on the Speed Network, and MRN Radio Network covers the races on 650 stations. The nation’s top advertisers know that NASCAR fans are the most loyal brand-conscious consumers among all sport enthusiasts and they have jumped at the opportunity to sponsor vehicles in the Nextel Cup circuit, NASCAR Busch Series, and the NASCAR Craftsman Truck competition.NASCAR is surely the most heavily branded and packaged sports entertainment phenomenon in the world. Cars and drivers are covered with sponsor logos and color schemes in an all-over manner. Because NASCAR is a private family-owned business, there are no unions or disclosures that require open contracts and drivers make secret deals with sponsors. We do not know their salaries, for example. But it costs from ten to 20 million dollars to sponsor a Nextel Cup car for a racing season and there’s no dearth of takers. The heavily researched demographic of brand-conscious NASCAR loyalists is legendary in contemporary marketing.It was Tom Wolfe, whose pivotal 1965 piece on driver Junior Johnson in Esquire magazine, that propelled the rowdy, greasy, dusty, ornery, and down-home world of NASCAR to the pristine reading rooms of the global intelligentsia. Films like Stroker Ace and Days of Thunder dramatized the NASCAR experience and today’s green-to-checkered flag television coverage brings it into our homes in wide-screen, high-definition, and surround-sound.I find myself so thoroughly fascinated by this all-encompassing life-as-media world of NASCAR racing and what it says about us as a culture that I spend a lot of time thinking and writing about it. I have an overarching interest in the union of man and machine. This relationship, which distinguishes us from other species, seems to have a hold on me – especially as regards trying to define what it is about us that seems most significant in contemporary life and culture.I see us as not being separate from our culture/technology since the days before our ancestors climbed down from trees and began their habitation of caves. What this means to me is that for at least the last hundred thousand years, there has not been a human animal that is an entity that can be distinguished from a man/technology entity. We use machines to the degree that they become us and we become them. That’s just how it looks to me. Those thinkers who see us as something different from our technology confound me. It is a popular fiction – but a fiction nonetheless.Taking it as I do that we are a human/technology entity, I prefer activities that acknowledge this fact. I do not have a lot of appreciation for romantic notions of the individual person who stands somehow opposed to technology or to its total embrace. I see such ideas as throwbacks to a mythical time when the contemporary landscape was not a biomechanical entity and the merits of individuals were measured by the effort of their minds and sinews alone. In this context it seems to me that NASCAR racing represents the ultimate presentation of the facts of the matter. The fact that NASCAR is a packaged and marketed total-immersion phenomenon gives me an opportunity to observe, reflect upon, and write about something that typifies what is happening to us as participants, observers, and consumers of a tightly organized postmodern culture.The concepts that most intrigue me about all this have to do with three ideas: we live in a television-mediated world; television trumps life; and our thoughts are primarily composed of concepts which are branded, packaged, and marketed to us. *Pocono 500 Images by Tullio Francesco DeSantis, 2005

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