By Mark Glendenning, Australia
In many ways, NASCAR exists at the complete opposite end of the professional racing spectrum to Formula One. The cars may not be as loud or as fast, but the whole show carries itself with a brash swagger that stands in stark contrast to F1's veil of sophistication.
It has also, hands down, done the best job of marketing itself of any professional series anywhere in the world. All bases are covered, and covered well. On one hand, you can walk into any supermarket in South Carolina and find rows of cereal boxes, confectionary and God-knows-what-else emblazoned with the likeness or race number of one of the Nextel Cup's protagonists.
On the other hand, the series is also capable of producing material like NASCAR 3D, the IMAX cinema extravaganza that stands in my book as one of the best and in F1 territories, one of the most underrated racing films ever made. It has enough substance to keep the well-informed fans happy, yet manages to explain everything thoroughly enough to remain accessible to non-devotees. And it does the whole thing without being remotely condescending. It rocks.
One of the most intriguing things about NASCAR is the way that it embraces, and deliberately cultivates, its past. The manufacturers may hold some powerful cards, but it is the dynasties that matter just look at what happens when a grandstand catches sight of 'King Richard' Petty walking down pitlane. It may be a carefully cultivated operation now, but it sprung from extraordinarily organic beginnings that lend themselves perfectly to being told as oral history.
Which is why it is so good that someone has gone out and attempted to preserve a piece of that. The US is awash with NASCAR books, and when I asked a friend who is involved with the series about this one, all he could tell me was that he hasn't noticed it amongst the other zillion titles competing for a slice of the average fan's disposable income. But he had read another book, 'Amercian Zoom', by the same author and not been particularly impressed.
I haven't read that one so I'll have to trust his judgement, but 'NASCAR Confidential' was a pretty good read. Recognising the value of allowing history to be told through the mouths of those who were there, Golenbock has sat down with an array of folk who have helped to shape some part of the sport, and simply given them the freedom to tell their stories.
By and large, it works well. An awful lot of territory is covered, ranging from the birth of Talledega to the emergence of some young upstart named Jeff Gordon, all told in the first person by someone who helped to make it happen. This is especially valuable in a handful of cases where the interviewee has died prior to the book going into publication, as it gets some important stories onto paper that would otherwise have been lost.
But sometimes, Golenbock goes a little too far in his efforts to write himself out of the story. This feels like a book written for serious enthusiasts, which means that a lot of incidents and people are referred to without explanation. That obviously means that the odd remark or anecdote will fly over the head of a non-expert such as myself, but by reading between the lines (or doing a little extra homework), you can usually fill in the gaps. All the same, it would have been nice if Golenbock had held slightly lower expectations regarding his audience's level of prior knowledge.
My only other quibble is that I find it unfathomable that a book could make so many references to Tim Flock without mentioning even once that for a brief spell he raced with a live monkey in his car (it's a long story). But that probably says more about me than Golenbock. I guess I just like monkeys.
This is clearly not a book for everyone, especially in F1-land, but those looking for something a little different will be well rewarded by checking this out. It sidesteps all of the glam and gloss of the series, and instead goes in search of NASCAR's soul.
A book like this will go a long way to helping anyone who has ever watched a NASCAR race, been vaguely intrigued, but not quite 'got it'. It brings to life a series with a supremely rich history, and does it in an intimate way that makes you feel like you've stumbled into a small bar full of the sport's most historically influential characters.