"Who would want to write about NASCAR?" my teenage daughter asked when she noticed Liz Clarke's new book, "One Helluva Ride: How NASCAR Swept the Nation" (Villard Books, $25) on my nightstand.
That same question, I admit, had occurred to me. But in this book, Clarke, a Washington Post sportswriter, offers an eloquent answer. "One Helluva Ride," at turns funny, heartbreaking and insightful, gives readers a history of NASCAR that both hard-core fans and racing curmudgeons will enjoy.
Clarke, who began writing about racing at the Observer in the '90s, sets out to help nonfans understand why people care deeply about a sport that's sometimes dismissed as a series of left turns.
She also wanted to record "almost in a memoir fashion" what she witnessed as NASCAR transformed itself from a Southern phenomenon to a national pastime.
Clarke knew nearly zilch about NASCAR when she got her first assignment. She writes in her introduction: "So I headed to Charlotte Motor Speedway steeled against the prospect of introducing myself to wild, crude, belching men whose only means of making a living, since they clearly lacked basic common sense and a job skill, was going around in circles at 200 miles an hour."
She soon realized that it wasn't about the cars as much as the personalities.
And over time, she grew to know the top drivers up close -- riding with Dale Earnhardt in his truck, watching Richard Petty sign thousands of autographs during a fan open house at the family's racing compound, listening to Junior Johnson describe the day in 1964 when writer Tom Wolfe came calling.
"He weren't a pushy person," Johnson told her. "He was very well dressed, and he stayed that way. That day and every day I seen him thereafter he had on that sorta brown, green suit. All he'd do is keep wiping the sweat off him."
If you never understood the Earnhardt mystique, listen to Clarke: "... Earnhardt would come to represent the people. The hardest working people. With every pass for position, Earnhardt fulfilled the fantasy of every wage earner who dreamed of telling his boss where he could shove it."
You can't understand why Earnhardt's death affected so many people, Clark told me, without knowing what he stood for. "He truly was them escaping their own lives. He got out of the cotton mill."
Clarke often gets asked how she's treated as a woman covering NASCAR. She says she's found the sport more welcoming and accepting than other major sports. In fact, the N.C. legislators she covered as a young reporter in Raleigh made her feel patronized and uncomfortable like she never did at the track.
NASCAR has evolved since Clarke began writing about it. It's slicker, more corporate. (Case in point: Dale Earnhardt Jr. was fined $10,000 in 2004 for saying the s-word in a gleeful moment.)
"I don't feel it's as rippling with colorful personalities," Clarke says. Like the Home Depot that replaced your local hardware store, it offers more, but it's just not the same.
Still, Clarke says, "when you consider this was a family business that started in the dirt 60 years ago, this is a breathtaking, stunning, truly American success story."