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Round and Round They Go 

One Couple’s full year of Nascar

It sounds like a sitcom treatment: New York-based writer and his photographer wife spend life savings on a motor home, decide to follow NASCAR stock-car circus across the country and, during rare down time, live at a Wal-Mart SuperCenter in North Carolina. This being the age of reality TV, though, Jeff MacGregor didn't dream up the scenario, he lived it. Over the course of 10 months, 47,469 miles and, yes, several lengthy stays in the parking lot at Exit 36 in Mooresville, the Sports Illustrated scribe and his photographer-wife, Olya Evanitsky, rumbled across the interstates of America and sought brief respites in lovely Race City USA.

"We lived there, we're not ashamed to say it," MacGregor says in perfect deadpan humor during a recent telephone interview from his New York home. "We lived at Exit 36 and were happy to do so."

Now how many author interviews begin with paeans to Mooresville strip malls and the wonders of Atlanta Bread Company and the AmStar14 movie theater? Until this moment, the answer would have to be none.

Such suffering in the name of the NASCAR arts — i.e., swapping paint — is rewarded in MacGregor's recently published account of the 2002 season, Sunday Money (HarperCollins, 370 pages, $25.95). It is that rarest of creatures: a sports book — on NASCAR, no less — that becomes a prism to look through till the state of the nation emerges. MacGregor's considerable skills are evident in the way he tells the story of an erstwhile backwoods pastime zooming into prime time — and does it with cheeky aplomb, astute observation and relentless verve. He fires the occasional errant verbal pitch, suffers some blown factual tires and overstays his welcome on occasion, but such Petty quibbles do little to detract from a delightful tale told with energy.

First, though, back to the Wal-Mart SuperCenter. "It's a very alien existence," MacGregor says. "And one where you consider the way you're living to be the logical consequence of American consumerism. You just move to the mall."

Such digressions — on consumerism, sexual-dysfunction pharmaceuticals and, say, the similarities between NASCAR fan zones and corporate education seminars — fill Sunday Money. MacGregor can go long stretches without discussing what's happening on the track (much more interesting episodes are playing out in the press box, in the makeshift campgrounds and along the speedway midways) and often does.

That approach makes the carburetor cognoscenti dubious. Witness Speed Channel host Dave Despain's misguided on-air rant about Sunday Money a few weeks ago. Many beyond the NASCAR big top are applauding, including Rolling Stone, Entertainment Weekly and The New York Times Book Review.

MacGregor understands the sometimes depressing, sometimes fascinating secret of NASCAR in its current hyperreality: It's about the marketing, stupid.

Reminded of this fact, the author launches into another round of sociological, though blessedly unacademic, examinations.

"It's not about what (Dale Earnhardt) Junior does on the track on Sunday, it's about the spots on TNT where these guys are sold as the embodiment of American mythology," he says. "All of the things that made NASCAR so attractive during its first 50 years remain part of it, but they're subsumed by all this marketing. It's harder and harder to get close to the experience itself."

If anyone can make such a statement, it's MacGregor, who lived a double life as an insider (Sports Illustrated press credentials don't exactly limit one's access to drivers and executives) and an outsider (he spent many nights on campgrounds at various tracks commingling with the fans who most of the NASCAR press corps only meet for the briefest of moments).

Instead of Travels with Charley, we get Travels with Bubba. And Sunday Money takes in the whole snorting, belching, scarfing, tingling, thrilling, terrifying, inebriating, stultifying kaleidoscope of people and colors and sounds surrounding a day at the races. From fleeced fans to jingoistic pre-race shows, it's all here.

MacGregor proves handy at taking the pulse of a NASCAR crowd, the way grandstands roar to life at the start of the race, become numbed to the noise and buzzing sun during the middle passages and then rouse themselves at the finish. Anyone who has ever attended a race will read MacGregor's assessment and think, yep, that's exactly right.

Determining whether MacGregor's approach matches your taste is simple. Read the following description of NASCAR drivers (deep breath): "Athletes or not, there are the drivers, the clear-eyed heroes, Rushmore-jawed and implacable, giving you the gunfighter squint from the magazine rack at the checkout stand. They glare down from those billboards out on the bypass, stare out from the weekly four-color insert in your local paper, smile back at you from a thousand boxes of three-for-a-buck mac-and-cheese on aisle 7."

If such observation strikes you as overheated and affected, don't go anywhere near Sunday Money. And if the preceding rings true as hot-rod prose in the tradition of Tom Wolfe, better get over to the bookstore.

Wolfe, after all, is the obvious inspiration. In many ways, MacGregor's aim appears to be an expanded version of Wolfe's legendary 1965 Esquire profile of Junior Johnson, the first (and last, until Sunday Money) treatise to capture NASCAR in all its rambunctious mythmaking and commercialism with a wide-angle lens.

With that mission, MacGregor delivers beautiful prose and sharp portraits of the stock-car circuit, from the pit lizard groupies traipsing through the garages to the incessant, braying armies of PR flacks representing the endless teams and corporate sponsors surrounding every NASCAR event.

When MacGregor brushes up against the sport's powerbrokers (as demonstrated in masterly snapshots of Tony Stewart, Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Gordon), he retains enough distance not to get too chummy and lose sight of all the money-grubbing and double-dealing inherent in any entertainment business.

Sunday Money offers few never-knew-that-before moments, though a section on sponsorship pioneer and team owner Carl Kiekhaefer should be mandatory reading for any stock-car junkie. Instead, it focuses on offering incisive anecdotes exploring every facet of NASCARland.

In many cases, Sunday Money cuts to the dark heart lurking beneath the sport. The sex, the jealousies, the boredom, the desperate desire to find communal comfort in a season that never ends and that always sells, sells, sells.

All along, MacGregor crafts terrific thumbnail sketches: "He drives the #30 car this year, the AOL machine, which I, as a longtime dial-up customer, suspect will run only slowly when it runs at all."

As good as that line may be, it hints at MacGregor's biggest handicap, as well: At times, he can't get out of his own way. After a couple hundred pages, a reader begins to lose patience with the constant global assessment of what everything means, despite the author's remarkable accuracy.

It can feel like taking a long plane ride seated next to Robin Williams: What begins as amusement turns into unavoidable, nonstop noise. Kind of like attending a NASCAR race.

Late in the book, for example, a pedantic episode includes phrases such as "our restless frontier habits" and related gobbledygook in the context of exploring NASCAR's newfound appeal.

After dubbing his wife the "Beep" (as in beautiful, brilliant partner, we're told), MacGregor uses the cloying nickname throughout the book. After a dozen mentions or so, Beep carries as much charm as boogity-boogity-boogity. Please, please stop saying that!

A few more problems loom, such as constant misspelling of Robby Gordon's first name, mistaken references to "Phillips 76" as the official gasoline, an erroneous reference to Richard Childress Racing being housed in Huntersville (it's in Welcome) and a botched potshot at NASCAR artist Sam Bass, dubbed the "Thomas Kincade (sic)" of racing.

Still, in all, MacGregor has taken an ambitious — and often entertaining — stab at defining the NASCAR world in all its messy, lunging ambition. He rightly deflates its constant, haughty claim of being the No. 2 TV sport (comparison: average weekly Major League Baseball viewership is more than 30 million while NASCAR's is 6 million) and denounces its PR-powered but wholly ineffective drive for diversity. Is anything, beyond country music, whiter than NASCAR?

He nails the at-track experience in countless ways, from the grumbling "elephants" in the press box to the beer-drenched tailgaters stumbling through the infield.

And anyone who reads the hilarious account of MacGregor's day at the Richard Petty driving school in Orlando will be well rewarded. The Petty school, combined with the 47,000-mile trek across the erstwhile Winston Cup season, inspired this pitch-perfect epiphany of motorsports pedigree: "The difference between F1 and Cup (racing) is the difference between a hot lap and a hot lap dance." Even the, um, Beep must have smiled at that one.

Jeff MacGregor will discuss his NASCAR adventures and sign copies of Sunday Money at Joseph-Beth Booksellers at SouthPark mall May 26 at 7pm.

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