The big festivities for the Detroit 300 celebration are this weekend. For the past month or so, it’s been impossible to ignore this anniversary of Detroit due to all the commercials and billboards. While it is refreshing to see people getting geeked about Detroit, all the talk of the proud history of the Motor City makes the absence of auto racing in our area even more glaring. Possibly no more Detroit Grand Prix, strong resistance to a racetrack at the Fairgrounds, poor attendance at the CART race at Michigan International Speedway. It is so odd that around the world everybody associates Detroit with the car; our local economy lives and dies with the Big Three; it’s almost impossible to live here without a car, yet metro Detroiters just don’t seem to dig auto racing. So in the hope that the celebration of Detroit and the automobile — plus the recent lack of professional sports on TV — causes people to give auto racing another chance, this week’s offerings serve as a general, yet slightly offbeat, introduction to this sport.
People claim that racing is boring and not really a sport because anybody can drive a car. Like any sport, the more you watch racing the clearer the strategy, skill and competition become. As for boring, I can only shake my head in confusion. The best rebuttal to this claim can be found in the video store. If racing is so boring, buster, how come so many films are racing-related? Admittedly, many are not very good but they do offer insight into racing culture. The Top Five Racing Movies are as follows: 1. Speedway (1968) Elvis Presley and Nancy Sinatra sing and dance; Elvis drives a stock car and NASCAR heroes Richard Petty, Cale Yarborough and Tiny Lund make cameos. 2. Six Pack (1982) Continuing the absurd theme, suburban cowboy Kenny Rogers attempts to race stock cars and care for a half-dozen orphans. 3. Le Mans (1971) Steve McQueen and race cars — enough said. 4. Stroker Ace (1983) Find out why a local band named themselves after this Burt Reynolds masterpiece. 5. Greased Lightning (1977) Richard Pryor in the story of one of the few black stock car drivers, Wendell Scott.
Generally, in the past, open-wheel racing was considered more sophisticated, urbane and international than the traditionally white, blue-collar, Southern stock car racing. Times have changed and racing is not so regionalized; NASCAR has become more popular than CART and IRL open-wheel racing — indeed, NASCAR is “America’s Motorsport.”
The new biography of NASCAR legend Junior Johnson demonstrates just how American stock car racing really is. Tom Higgins and Steve Waid’s Junior Johnson: Brave in Life ($29.95) traces Johnson’s driving career which began at age 14 driving souped-up Fords hauling moonshine made by his father in the backwoods of North Carolina. Eventually, the Man caught up with Junior and he spent time in the slammer before dedicating himself full-time to racing. After burning up the circuit in the driver’s seat, Junior went on to become a successful team owner. Best of all, in 1982 he received a pardon for his bootlegging crimes from Ronald Reagan.
Cars and girls have been the basis of many a rock ’n’ roll tune, but we don’t normally associate racing and music. Two rare, yet solid, examples of racing-related music involve country legend Marty Robbins and all-girl punk rock band L7. Robbins, famous for his gunfighter ballads and “Smokin’ Cigarettes and Drinkin’ Coffee Blues,” actually raced on the NASCAR circuit in the 1960s — when he wasn’t performing at the Grand Ole Opry. On L7’s Hungry for Stink, listen to the track “Shirley” which is a tribute to legendary drag racer Shirley Muldowney. It includes dialogue from the movie about Muldowney’s life, Heart Like a Wheel (1983).
If you don’t trust me, then at least listen to Latrell Sprewell. The New York Knicks’ premier player — famous for his sweet game, “threatening” cornrows and choking his coach — has his own automotive business, Sprewell Racing. View the wide assortment of shiny, expensive rims and other assorted car parts at www.sprewellracing.com. For $75, shine up your car with a chrome license plate frame embossed with the Sprewell Racing logo.What grabs your attention? E-mail [email protected]