Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Book Review (and Rare Sports Memory): Natural Born Winner

A Book You Can Buy From Me

Book Title: Natural Born Winner: the Jeff Gordon Story

Author: George Mair

Publisher: Ballantine

Date: 1998

Length: 224 pages

ISBN: 0345424190

Quote: "[A]t my age, you're not expected to do all this. It's amazing to me I've gotten this far."

In this paperback, celebrity biographer George Mair turns his attention to NASCAR superstar Jeff Gordon.

Fair disclosure: I've never liked Jeff Gordon. But I think NASCAR fans deserve to know why, and I'm pleased to find Gordon's side of the story in Natural Born Winner.

First, another fair disclosure: I did not inherit the gene that makes it possible to become a Real NASCAR Fan. However, in youth I had a long-term relationship with a fellow whose father worked for a NASCAR sponsor. We watched all the races on TV, except for Bristol, where he went with his father, and Charlotte, where he and I drove down together. We wore NASCAR shirts even at work. We went to some of the publicity events, posed with the cars, met the drivers. And his little sisters were among the 18-to-25-year-old "NASCAR princesses" selected as official hostesses of some of those publicity events. They were chosen because they were sponsors' daughters, not picked at beauty pageants, but they did a lot for a black T-shirt.

Of course these "dates" between the princesses and the racers are pure social networking. Most of the racers are married, and it's supposed to be obvious that the princesses have lots of admirers. In fact, even if they are single and like each other, they're supposed to wait several months before going out on a Real Date. All they have to do is smile at each other while working the crowd.

So why did Jeff Gordon act as if my friend's sister weren't even pretty? Gordon irked a lot of people on the NASCAR circuit, during his first two tours, by acting unfriendly to princesses. As Mair explains, some people wondered whether he might even be "gay." We had a simpler explanation: Gordon liked his own face better than anybody else did. We certainly didn't think Rainbow Boy was anything much, even to look at. Davey Allison had been much more appealing. (But read on.)

Anyway, I personally resented the suggestion that I would root for a driver based on his sex appeal. Not that Davey Allison, Rusty Wallace, and others, including Jeff Gordon, didn't have reasonably nice faces--but when I was sitting next to my own chosen date, what was I supposed to care about some stranger's face on TV? Besides, my date was an Earnhardt fan; we usually wore matching Earnhardt shirts, and although I respect the instinctive intelligence, the control, and the discipline it takes to be as "crazy" a driver as Dale Earnhardt (senior) used to be, the man was a pretty good example of Not My Type.

Well, so we went to Charlotte in 1995, only this time His Daddy had given the prime tickets to other connections, and we were stuck in what was called the back stand...on the far side of the track from the start-and-finish line, with a good view of the second turn.

Earnhardt moved to the head of the pack as usual. Rusty Wallace was in a position to challenge him, as usual. (We liked Wallace too.) A wreck occurred. Caution laps were run. Tires and bits of expendable car shell were cleared from the track. The drivers started to pick up speed again...and suddenly there was a stray tire on the inside of the second turn. Where had it come from? Nobody near us had seen who'd thrown it there, but we knew somebody had to have thrown it there, because we'd seen the track cleared, and nobody had had a chance to lose another tire yet.

People stood up, waved, and shouted to warn Earnhardt...but at Charlotte lots of people stood up, waved, and shouted every time Earnhardt passed by, anyway, so how could he know that this time it was a warning? He hit the tire, hit the wall, messed up "The Intimidator," finished back in the pack with the nice guys like Bobby Hillin, Jimmy Hensley, and a chap who claimed that "Lake Speed" was his real name.

Gordon went on to win the race, and you'll find his memories of how it went in Natural Born Winner, but he doesn't mention the extraordinary incident that prevented Earnhardt from winning it.

Well, it wasn't necessarily Rainbow Warriors who threw that tire there. Mair discusses Bill France's strategy for turning NASCAR into a big-money TV-show sport, too, in this book. And Earnhardt was not only more intelligent than some race fans wanted to believe, but also more generous with money; it's not inconceivable that he might even have agreed to let the race be set up for Gordon to win.

Nevertheless, I have to admit that watching The Twerp Who Snubbed My Prospective Sister-In-Law win that race turned me off NASCAR...always bearing in mind, of course, that sitting beside The Man I Almost Married was my primary motivation for watching races all along.

Earnhardt had won seven Winston Cups, earned millions of dollars, and reached the point where his career needed either retirement or a serious challenge. Earnhardt's races had been circus acts nobody else, not even his partners Rusty Wallace and Mark Martin, could imitate. I wouldn't have minded watching somebody like Morgan Shepherd take over Richard Petty's gentlemen-make-it-look-easy act, myself. I did mind watching Gordon in that role. That cute little baby face made me want to yell, "If at first you don't succeed, CHEAT! CHEAT! CHEAT!", although I have to be wearing an Earnhardt shirt to do anything as redneckish as that.

I can disclose all this now because, as all race fans know, NASCAR and Jeff Gordon got along just fine without my support. And, as Mair mentions, there was a respectable reason why Gordon snubbed all those princesses: he didn't want anybody to find out that he was engaged to one of them, beauty queen Brooke Sealey, before the official time limit was up. (There are pictures of Brooke Sealey Gordon in the book.)

How much cheating and chicanery goes on in the new made-for-TV NASCAR races? I don't know, and probably most race fans don't care. Whenever big money starts being invested in any sport, whether it's gambling or "cleaner" high-priced sponsorships, you know cheating is going to become part of the game. Sponsors know what they're paying for.

Some of it, like the fact that most NASCAR racers are never going to win a Cup, even has to be called clean. Nobody has to wreck or sabotage drivers like Hillin, Hensley, Speed, and the other dozen or so chaps who consistently start halfway back in the pack; everybody just understands that they're being paid to steer one car around the track, stay out of the pile-ups, and not cost their sponsors more than their sponsors are paying for, and if they do occasionally make it into the top ten, that makes little difference. You can't call that unfair. They do take home decent money, they do get to be on TV, and they do have their admirers.

And if I personally am underwhelmed by the new idea that NASCAR champions need to be young, cute, teen-heartthrob material to attract single female fans...well, it's made guys like Gordon, and Kasey Kahne and all those other kids who are burning up the tracks these days, rich and famous, right? To each his or her own.

Teenagers are probably the ones who buy most sports souvenirs, so why argue with it...except to say that, in my NASCAR shirt-wearing days, I also liked the oldest driver, who at that time was Harry Gant. I would have worn his colors, too, if I'd ever found them on a T-shirt. I liked a lot of older books, older records, older entertainers generally, and gave them extra points if my parents had liked them back when they were "new" and "young." There are some young people who like connecting with their elders. Most sports give a clear advantage to athletes who've barely reached their full height, but when it's possible for young and older people to compete equally, I think it's a big marketing mistake to forget how many young people liked Earnhardt more than Gordon.

So, reading Natural Born Winner twenty years after Mair published this declaration of defiance of the middle-aged audience...I have to wonder how even Jeff Gordon likes this book now that he's no longer marketable as "young."

But lots of people liked Gordon, and still do. Mair thought the reason was that he seemed "humble," uttering words like the quote above. And for all I know he may actually have been humble. He was not in a position to see the cheating that I saw take place on his behalf. He couldn't have done it. Maybe he didn't realize the extent to which his championship was handed to him on a platter. He still had to spend a lot of time in blistering-hot cars and killer traffic.

So here is his side of his story: the little boy whose obsession with racing even toy cars was fed by his parents, who started racing before he was old enough to drive on the road and was winning the most lucrative stock car races on earth before he was twenty-five. Mair shares Gordon's memories of the first few races he won, along with brief introductions to NASCAR, Bill France, the other drivers, the Rainbow Warriors (Gordon's pit crew), the fan clubs...there's a short list of customized license plates Gordon's fans paid to have on their cars.

It's worth reading once, whether you like Jeff Gordon, hate him, or can't even claim to understand what NASCAR's all about or why anybody watches it anyway. And if you click here to buy Natural Born Winner from me online, not only do you get a chance to share an advertorial about your favorite book or business, but out of the $5 for the book and $5 for shipping I'll send George Mair $1.

As with the other books discussed on this site this week, local lurkers can also look for their copies at the Mountain Treasures store in Gate City, where they'll cost less than the cost of shipping them through the mail. (It's a thrift store that gets donations one time only, and I've been warned that at least one of the proprietors' relatives is snapping up bargains for resale in a for-profit store, so run don't walk, local folks...the good news is, if you miss your chance to buy the copy I read for one of these review articles, you will still find lots of bargains for sale in aid of a legitimate charity.)