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Hugh Pyper

Life sometimes outpaces imagination. One example of this occurred on my only visit to Mount Rushmore, sadly on a day so foggy that the Presidents' heads, and indeed the whole mountain, were invisible from the viewpoint. As I made do with a trip to the gift shop, I had what I thought was the satirical thought that a lot of money could be made from cuddly toy versions of the Presidents. I came out the proud owner of a stuffed plush Teddy Roosevelt. 

Something similar has occurred in my researches into the Bible and Culture. Having become intrigued by the surprisingly explicit role of the Bible in World Wrestling Entertainment, I fell to wondering about its role in that other sporting and commercial phenomenon of contemporary America, NASCAR (National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing) . This led to various forays into the Internet. As a result, I am now the proud owner of the latest release from Zondervan Bibles: The Holy Bible: Stock Car Racing Edition, published in October 2009. It contains the complete New International Version translation in red-letter format, interleaved with parables and testimonies from the world of NASCAR in twelve four-page full-color articles distributed throughout the text. 

The existence of such an edition, which I will from now on refer to as the SCR version, is testimony to a synergy of marketing between one of America’s major sporting and cultural institutions, on the one hand and, on the other, evangelical Christianity, in particular Motor Racing Outreach (MRO), an organization devoted to bringing the gospel to the racing community [1]. The point is made succinctly in the explanation of the role of MRO that is provided in the SCR version: "The thrill and excitement of the race and a sense of belonging draw people to NASCAR. MRO believes the same will draw men and women to Jesus Christ."

NASCAR has a vested interest in portraying itself as a family affair, rooted in core American values, with respect for the Bible a cultural given. Evangelical Christians and Bible salesmen see an opportunity for mission and outreach in the millions of loyal followers of NASCAR. What is interesting is that this image represents a more or less deliberate rewriting of the history of NASCAR, sometimes to the annoyance of its original supporters. It also reveals what aspects of the biblical message the sponsors of this Bible wish to get across and what analogies they find in the world of NASCAR to help in this. At the same time, the use of traditionally Christian language and concepts by NASCAR fans as they account for its importance to their lives and sense of communal identity is another element in this symbiosis between what might seem unlikely partners, seen from the outside.

For those who may not be clear what NASCAR is, I will offer a brief overview, before going on to look in more detail at the complex interdependence of sport, Christianity and nationalism in the identity of the NASCAR fans. After a brief examination of the SCR Bible itself and how it reflects and reinforces this identity, I shall conclude with some final remarks on the significance of this for biblical scholars. 

The NASCAR Nation

NASCAR involves teams who race cars that are highly modified (but still recognizable versions of those available on the general market from major manufacturers) around a track sometimes for three and a half hours at a time.   This is no obscure hobby. Nearly five million people attended NASCAR race meetings in the United States in 2007, while around two hundred and fifty million watched the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series on television. It also made more than two billion dollars in licensed sales and attracted billions more in corporate sponsorship, being known for the brand loyalty of its fans. 

What is the reason for this phenomenal success?   Mark Martin in NASCAR for Dummies [2] puts it down very simply to the fact that driving is a skill that the majority of Americans share. In a way that is not true for many sports that demand specialist training or unfamiliar equipment, in essence NASCAR remains something that almost anyone in the crowd could envisage themselves doing. The reality is of course rather different; training, team membership and very expensive equipment are essential for any good racer, but the identification is there. Unlike Formula One, for instance, the cars remain outwardly recognizable as the cars the spectators themselves drive, despite the far-reaching modifications they undergo.

We can unpack this further. For most Americans, a car is both a ubiquitous necessity and a site of fantasy. The young boy who dreams of his first car dreams of independence and mobility: in a word, freedom. Furthermore, although driving is a skill that most people have, it has had to be acquired and publicly acknowledged. This is one test the majority of the population have had to sit and have passed. Proverbially, no one thinks he or she is a bad driver.   Again, everyone knows the frustrations of sitting in a traffic jam and the minor triumph of stealing a march on other drivers by spotting a quick way through.   Stock car racing buys into these common experiences and fantasies; it simply heightens them and allows the crowd to live them vicariously while feeling that with a bit of practice, they could do this too. 

At the same time, driving is the most dangerous activity most people indulge in on a regular basis, and few people have not either experienced or witnessed potentially life-threatening situations on the road. It is also while driving that the average citizen is most likely to run foul of the law but may also indulge the risky thrill of edging over the speed limit or taking a chance on a changing traffic light. Although this is now downplayed by NASCAR's current promoters, the pioneers of stock car racing were bootleggers, using their skills as drivers and mechanics to outrun the excise men as they transported moonshine from the Appalachian foothills into Atlanta.[3]   Their criminality was romanticized through association with the atavistic resentment among the thrawn Scots-Irish settlers of the Carolinas of the imposition after the Civil War of what to many was seen as "Yankee law" and the values of the Puritan north.   They became symbols of the remnants of Southern resistance.

The stereotype of a NASCAR fan is that he—and the pronoun is deliberate—is the epitome of the Southern white working-class. This is no longer the case.   The engagement with corporate America in sponsorship has driven and been driven by a widening fan base and the spread of NASCAR beyond its Southern home territory.   Indeed, its spread has been taken as a key indicator of what some political commentators have called the "Southernization" of the United States, especially during the Bush years. [4]

This is a contentious topic and beyond the scope of this article, but any such process is double-edged.   As Southern values become more widespread, they inevitably lose their local distinctiveness. The rise of NASCAR in the North comes at the expense of the repression of its bootlegging past and the promotion of its American, rather than its Southern, appeal and relevance.   "NASCAR is America," asserts Jim Wright, a professor of sociology who has analyzed his own obsession with the sport and applies his professional analytic skills to his fellow fans.[5] 

In that process, the Bible is an important symbol in that it signifies both the South, as in the phrase "the Bible Belt", but also the whole nation, in the "biblical values" that underpin what it is to be American.   Indeed, part of the unease that underlies analyses of the "Southernization" of the US is over the place of the Bible in American public life.   On the one hand, there are those who are anxious over the encroachment of a particular interpretation of biblical values, stereotypically associated with the South, into the political decisions of the nation. On the other hand, there are those who are anxious over the encroachment of the Federal State into areas of decision-making where the Bible has traditionally been the benchmark for communal values. 

Tense though this is, what it means is that the Bible can function to some extent as a marker of Southernness that has purchase beyond the South. As NASCAR's management seeks the commercial opportunities afforded by an expansion across the whole of the US and seeks to attract major national sponsorship, the Bible, carefully handled, is a useful ally. Theological or denominational disputes are kept out of the picture, so that it is presented as a unifying symbol of shared communal values and the shared aspirations of the American way of life.

NASCAR Hermeneutics

What we find in the presentation of the Bible in the SCR version is an emphasis on the connection between the life of the reader and, ostensibly, the text. Each of the four-page inserts starts with a slogan from NASCAR that is then linked to questions about the reader's self-understanding with references to relevant biblical passages. The fourth page is given over to a testimony by or about a leading figure in NASCAR.

The headings of the twelve inserts give a flavor of their tone

1.       Why do we race?

2.       Gentlemen, start your engines

3.       Staying on Track

4.       Flags

5.       Let’s Get This Party Started

6.       Spotters

7.       War Wagon

8.       Unseen Strength

9.       Hand Signals

10.   Let’s Go

11.   Position Players

12.   Caution

The message seems to be that life is a risky but rewarding race where we all need help, but where we can all be winners if we take courage and rely on friends and family. With a bit of guidance, we can keep on track and even come back from seemingly catastrophic crashes using the ordinary resources of the community. The social schema of the NASCAR race becomes the metaphorical frame within which the Bible can be read. 

Space does not allow the analysis of all the inserts, but one particular trope that is distinctive to NASCAR is the metaphorical use of the "Spotter." In NASCAR terms, the spotter is a member of the driver’s team who is perched high up in the stand and linked by radio to the driver. Because of the congestion of the race and the restricted vision of the driver due to the safety equipment required, the spotter is vital in alerting the driver to upcoming danger and also to opportunities to slip ahead of his rivals. 

The metaphorical application is clear. The insert on the spotter asks, "Do you have a spotter, a friend who can provide biblical counsel in a moment of crisis?" and "On the other side of the coin, do you have the biblical perspective to help a friend who can't see beyond his or her circumstances to get the bigger picture?" In the wider NASCAR world, "Jesus is my spotter" is a slogan that adorns tee shirts, mugs and baseball caps and is the title of a well-known NASCAR gospel song. That sense of individual guidance through a difficult race, with the promise of an eternal victory party at the end, underlies the hermeneutic and the peculiar mix of independence and dependence that is the ideal held out for the spiritual and social life of the NASCAR fan.

The Relevant Irrelevance

In the end, however, what is most striking about the SCR version is how little interaction there is between the inserts and the text. The full-color glossy inserts contrast with the plain printed texts and tend to be the points at which the Bible falls open. The distribution of the articles appears to be random and mechanical, spaced equally throughout the Old and New Testaments. Although the inserts include some, but surprisingly few, biblical references, they seldom urge the reader to refer to wider passages in the Bible and certainly give no advice on how to tackle the more difficult texts that surround them. 

Of course, there are some intriguing, but apparently accidental, juxtapositions. Why should a section on "War Wagon" be inserted in the middle of Song of Songs 5:6? One could apply some ingenuity, but to no great purpose, in justifying such things; in this case, could we make anything of a link to Songs 6:12: "Before I realized it, my desire set me among the royal chariots of my people"? Mind you, biblical scholars might take pause at the thought of the ingenuity that may be expended on biblical texts to make sense of what may in the end be accidental or random juxtapositions in the assembly of biblical books themselves. 

What this version represents, almost in spite of itself, then, is the relevance of the Bible as symbol in the continuing debate over the nature of American identity, and the irrelevance of much of the Bible as text in that debate. Just as the NASCAR driver can rely on his spotter and does not need to see the road or his rivals, so the biblical reader can rely on a few moral slogans to see him through and need not worry himself about his limited view of the intricacies of the race. 

As biblical scholars, this may remind us of the potential significance of the text we study as a commercial and political entity, but it also shows the insignificance on the wider scale of much of the scholarship we are proud of.   How biblical scholarship can best emulate NASCAR’s success in attracting major sponsorship without losing its distinctiveness and independence is a question that is more and more pressing. It may be that NASCAR can provide both an example and a warning in this regard.

Hugh Pyper, University of Sheffield

Notes

[1] Founded in 1988, this organization now has a wide ministry to fans and to drivers and their families, including religious services and Bible studies at race meetings. Besides the Stock Car Racing Bible, its website, to be found at http://www.go2mro.com, lists a number of publications that offer devotional material tailored to race fans with titles such as When the Thunder Rolls, Whoever Gets to Heaven First Wins, and Going the Distance: Building Strong Relationships.

[2] Mark Martin with Beth Tuschak and Mike Ford, NASCAR for Dummies (3rd edition; Hoboken: Wiley Publishing, 2009). The fact that this guide has reached three editions is testimony in itself to the wide and growing interest in the sport.

[3] This half-forgotten story is retold in Neal Thompson's Driving with the Devil: Southern Moonshine, Detroit Wheels, and the Birth of NASCAR (New York: Three Rivers Press, 2006).

[4] See on this J.I.Newman and M.D. Giardina, "NASCAR and the 'Southernization'of America: Spectatorship, Subjectivity and the Confederation of Identity,” Cultural Studies <=> Critical Methodologies 8 (2008): 479, published online at http://csc.sagepub.com/cgi/content/abstract/8/4/479 on August 8, 2008.

[5] Jim Wright, Fixin' to Git: One Fan's Love Affair with NASCAR's Winston Cup (Durham: Duke University Press, 2002). Those of an academic bent who find the devotion to NASCAR rather baffling may find some clues to its attraction in this book.

 
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