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Too late to be bad: Jeremy Mayfield and NASCAR history 

Former NASCAR driver Jeremy Mayfield was in trouble again last week, charged with possession of stolen property. Not too many people were surprised. Mayfield has, as they say, a "history."

The new charges — which Mayfield says are the result of the DA being in cahoots with NASCAR — came just three months after a raid on Mayfield's home, in which police reportedly found a small amount of methamphetamine. Earlier, Mayfield sued NASCAR after the racing organization suspended him indefinitely for testing positive for meth. That led to a public pissing contest with his stepmother, who claimed she'd seen Mayfield smoking meth many times; Mayfield then called her a "gold-digging whore."

I admit that at the time, "trailer park" came to mind, even though I hate that term because it insults a lot of good people.

When I heard of Mayfield's new woes last week, however, my first thought was that it's too bad he wasn't around 50 or 60 years ago, when guys like him ruled stock car racing. If NASCAR's gritty, wide-open early days are any indication, Mayfield would have been a protected star then, instead of being treated like a left-handed leper by a nervous, defensive industry.

Up until the late 1970s or so, stock car racing radiated a gritty, working-class, even dangerous vibe. And lest anyone forget — or in NASCAR's case, lest they deny it — the sport was practically joined at the hip with purveyors of illegal substances; in the old days, it was untaxed liquor.

Even though NASCAR has a case of the vapors over Mayfield's rowdy, allegedly substance-abusing ways (and before that, his banging-and-bumping driving style), he has more in common with stock car racing's early drivers — in terms of cultural background and in-your-face style — than NASCAR's current crop of pretty boys in fast cars.

I realize that at times I tend to romanticize the South's white working class, which is the background of much of my father's side of the family, so I decided to ask some people who know NASCAR intimately.

My cousin Paul is a racing fan who has run a successful independent garage in South Carolina for years. I called him and told him my theory about Mayfield and the early stock car drivers. "All I know about Mayfield is what I see on TV," Paul said, "but I'll tell you this: you couldn't pay me to go to a NASCAR race today." Why is that? "They're boring as hell. There's no danger anymore. Racing today has been ruined" (pronounced 'rurnt').

I also called Daniel S. Pierce of UNC-Asheville, author of Real NASCAR: White Lightning, Red Clay, and Big Bill France, a must-read for anyone curious how stock car racing's deepest roots sprang from the Piedmont South. Pierce agreed that Mayfield's main racing problem might be that he's 50 or more years too late.

"NASCAR just won't, and can't tolerate [rowdy behavior by drivers] anymore," explained Pierce. "They're hypersensitive because they're fearful of alienating their multi-million dollar sponsors like Sprint, Home Depot, and on and on — that really drives the sport now. That's why the drivers today are so careful about their image — and when you're not careful, like Kurt Busch last year, you lose your ride and have to go with a lesser team ...

"Look at NASCAR's formative history and the critical ties to illegal liquor and wild guys like drivers Curtis Turner or Fonty Flock, and you see the difference between then and today's racing," said Pierce.

In the late 1940s, "drivers like Bill France [future NASCAR founder] started promoting races in the Carolinas," Pierce said. "He knew all the bootleggers who built and raced cars, and he connected with bootleggers who built racetracks like North Wilkesboro, Hickory, and the old Charlotte track. All the important people in stock car racing's early days — promoters, drivers, track owners, mechanics, car owners — were tied in to illegal liquor."

Hasn't the France family always denied bootlegging was anything more than a fringe element? "Sure," said Pierce, "but Bill France partnered with those guys. It would be really strange if he didn't know where their money was coming from."

How would Mayfield have fit in back in the day? "Let me just say," replied Pierce, "that whatever [illegal substance] problems Mayfield may have, it would probably pale in comparison to some of the outlaw types who drew big crowds to races in the sport's formative years. The attraction was both that they were great race car drivers, and that some of them were outrageous characters who lived out on the fringe."

Meanwhile, Jeremy Mayfield must have days when he wonders what happened to the sweaty, hell-for-leather sport he thought he was getting into.

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