GWEN IFILL: The National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing, NASCAR, is big business. TV ratings are up more than 30 percent over last year, crowds are huge, and by most accounts, the owners, drivers, and sponsors are raking in big profits from a sport that has suddenly gone mainstream. Dale Earnhardt, Jr., the son of perhaps the most famous stockcar driver ever, explains the sport's appeal this way: "The sounds, the speed, the danger, going to a race is like going to the biggest damn circus in the world, or a rock-n-roll festival. It's like sensory overload."
That description and others like it can be found in G. Wayne Miller's new book, "Men and Speed: A Wild Ride Through NASCAR's Breakout Season." Mr. Miller is also a staff writer at the Providence Journal. He joins us now. Welcome.
G. WAYNE MILLER: Thank you. Glad to be here.
GWEN IFILL: Before you wrote this book, I'm given to understand you had never actually been to a NASCAR race before. What made you decide to do this?
G. WAYNE MILLER: Well, I had not been to any kind of automobile race whatsoever. I had no interest it, but I began to hear, and then increasingly began to hear a lot about NASCAR. I often tell the story, we live in a little town, and Dale Earnhardt's image appeared on the Coke machine one month. And so I started looking into it because I realized clearly something big was going on here. So I guess I came at from the perspective of it being a cultural phenomenon, and that was my initial intrigue into the subject.
GWEN IFILL: So you decided to climb inside the 2001 season with a team of racers who are owned by Jack Roush, --
G. WAYNE MILLER: Right.
GWEN IFILL: -- this character who populates your... who is the main character in your book in these four racecar drivers. Why 2001? Why was that the breakout season?
G. WAYNE MILLER: Well, it was a breakout season because NASCAR, which had grown and grown and grown and not really had gone mainstream, had just won this nearly $3 billion national TV contract. And that contract was going to start in the year 2001. Some new raceways had opened up during that year. And this really was going to be the coming-out year when NASCAR would take its place with baseball and football and basketball as one of the big sports.
GWEN IFILL: But NASCAR is pretty different from those sports in lots of important ways.
G. WAYNE MILLER: Yes, it certainly is. I mean, certainly in its origins. It grew up in the southern part of the country, and initially and for many years was really just a white male sport. But that has all changed. So 2001 was going to be the coming- out year. And on the very first day of the coming-out year, the biggest star in the history of stock car racing died, and that would be, of course, Dale Earnhardt.
GWEN IFILL: Tell us a little bit about that. That was something which caught everyone's attention whether we were NASCAR fans or not. And it got a lot of coverage not only how he died but then how NASCAR dealt with his death.
G. WAYNE MILLER: Yeah. I'm sure that is the first time NASCAR ever made the front page of the New York Times for two straight days, and it was a cover piece for Time magazine. What happened after Earnhardt died was an enormous safety controversy, and there were people, including some of the people whom I write about, who felt that if NASCAR had been more strident in demanding certain features in the cars and in terms of head protection, that Earnhardt might not have died.
I mean, that whole issue had been on the table prior to that. Earnhardt died, and then in many respects NASCAR sort of bungled. I mean, they had a public relations nightmare is what I call it. They didn't respond properly. They wouldn't answer questions. Behind the scenes a lot was going on, and to make a long story short, by the end of the year they had responded properly and the safety of drivers was much improved by the end of the year. But it was a very rocky few months there after Earnhardt died, and they were criticized left and right, and I think justifiably so.
GWEN IFILL: Including by some of the drivers who you profile in this book.
G. WAYNE MILLER: Yes, including by a number of drivers. Jeff Burton was perhaps leading the charge. And he is one of the people I write about in Men and Speed. Jeff is an unusual man. And this was one of the surprises in doing this book. I guess I had sort of the stereotypical image that a racecar driver is kind of this dumb guy who chews tobacco and maybe drinks whiskey and gets in a car and drives in circle. And there are some like that.
But at this level you have more people like Jeff Burton who is a very analytical man, he's philosophically inclined, smart guy, funny guy, totally surprised me. And he had latched on because he is a smart guy early to the safety issue, and had made it one of his... in fact, his cause prior to Earnhardt dying. So he was livid when Earnhardt died and also a bit scared.
GWEN IFILL: You know, you don't hear a lot about these guys being scared even though what, to me, what they do is one of the scariest sports imaginable.
G. WAYNE MILLER: Right.
GWEN IFILL: I was wondering as I was reading this book, what makes someone do this? And I was struck by a section that you write in which you got behind the wheel of a modified car on a highway on a long trip, and got a little taste of the speed yourself. Could you read just that section in the book I highlighted for you?
G. WAYNE MILLER: Yes, I'd love to. And it was actually one of the glorious days of my life. (Laughs) I used to be embarrassed to admit that, but I'm no longer embarrassed to admit it. It was a car that could go in zero to 60 in like four seconds and just this amazing machine. I've never driven anything like it. Volvo Sedans in my family. And this is that passage that you underlined.
"I was totally in the zone now: Knuckles white, sweat on my forehead, the flutter in my chest, a narcotic pounding. I could see with a clarity I had never before experienced and my reflexes were dangerously sharp, but sound had virtually ceased, as if they had dropped the soundtrack out of the movie. I think Jack said something about showing no mercy now, but I didn't need Jack to light the way. I punched the pedal to the floor, and we finally smoked the Firebird. The speedometer read 120, or so Jack later informed me."
GWEN IFILL: 120 on an actual public road. This is not a track.
G. WAYNE MILLER: And this was during... yes, this was during rush-hour traffic going into Lexington, Kentucky. It was an insane, illegal, stupid thing to do, but few things in my life have felt better. ( Laughs ) I have to admit it. That gave me an insight into why these guys do it.
GWEN IFILL: And do they consider this just a necessary evil, it's a trade-off, it's worth it?
G. WAYNE MILLER: Yes. Yes, I mean, they're willing to take that risk in pursuit of that feeling that I had.
GWEN IFILL: Jeff Burton, who you just alluded to, one of the things he also said was... he also said he didn't think that big wrecks were necessary to have good races. Is that what, however, draws people to these races, the prospect of a big wreck?
G. WAYNE MILLER: There's no question that is a major attraction for a lot of fans and probably most fans. It's like going to a circus and watching a high wire act. You know, if you watch the high wire act with a safety net, it's not quite as thrilling as if they don't have the net. So yes, fans go for that. I don't think anyone wants somebody to die or even get seriously injured, but there are a lot of wrecks in NASCAR racing, more so with certain tracks than others, but no race passes without a wreck. And there's a certain heart- stopping moment when a car goes into the wall, fiery and flaming, and with that screeching, horrible sound, and then it all goes silent. You wait to see if the webbing comes down and the driver is going to crawl out or are they going to have to call an ambulance.
GWEN IFILL: How do families cope with this? They travel with them to many of these races.
G. WAYNE MILLER: Families cope with it in different ways. In the case of Kim Burton, she has become more unnerved by it as she's become older and become a mother. The risk to her I think is more onerous than it used to be. Her justification is, you know, this is what my husband likes to do and what he's going to do. It has given us a good lifestyle. And hopefully we're going to be lucky. You know, they all have... they all rely on luck to get them through.
GWEN IFILL: So there is also a lot of money to be made.
G. WAYNE MILLER: There is a lot of money.
GWEN IFILL: NASCAR as a sport has turned the corner. Bill France and his family who basically owned NASCAR. They founded it and they control it completely.
G. WAYNE MILLER: That's right.
GWEN IFILL: What is the future for the sport, financially as a business, as well as a popular pastime?
G. WAYNE MILLER: Well, in terms of the France family, both Dale and his brother, who is executive vice president, Jim, are listed on Forbes as billionaires, so their future I think is quite bright if you look at it monetarily. The sport continues to grow in terms of the Nielsen's this year. I do think at some point, though, there will be a saturation. I don't think there is an unlimited growth market opportunity for the sport.
They have no intention of going international for a variety of reasons, so they're really contained on this continent. And at some point they'll peak, and that will probably be sooner rather than later. But then I think they'll maintain that very high level of interest and awareness. The figures they quote is that they have now 75 million fans. And that was an internal study and so take it with a grain of salt, but the Nielsen's, as you mentioned earlier, which don't lie, have shown a tremendous increase.
GWEN IFILL: Well, thank you, Wayne Miller, for taking us inside a place I know I wouldn't ordinarily go.
G. WAYNE MILLER: ( Laughs )
GWEN IFILL: Thanks a lot.
G. WAYNE MILLER: Thank you very much for having me.