From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. Stock car racing had long been a Southern phenomenon, but 1979 changed everything. A fight at the live, nationally televised Daytona 500 between Bobby Allison and Cale Yarborough helped, especially since monstrous snowstorms over the race's weekend essentially made the East housebound, contributing to big ratings. There was more to NASCAR's rise to legitimacy, according to Bechtel, a senior editor at Sports Illustrated
. From cowboy boots to Smokey and the Bandit
, America was becoming consumed with the South's culture, and NASCAR fell right in line. A fledgling television network called ESPN needed sports programming to fill its schedule, and NASCAR was happy to oblige. Hotshot rookie Dale Earnhardt's fearless driving and working-class appeal landed a legend and the foundation of its future popularity. Throughout, Bechtel uses the 1979 NASCAR season as his backdrop, profiling the motley crew of racers and executives who were at the forefront. What could have been a painful juggling act becomes an illuminating, informative, and entertaining read, as the engaging and droll Bechtel is in complete control from start to finish. 8-page color insert. (Feb.)
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In March 1979, the northern half of the U.S. was blanketed by a heavy snowstorm. In those pre-cable days, there wasn’t much on television, and the nation’s viewers were almost forced to watch the Daytona 500 in between driveway shovelings. Bechtel, a Sports Illustrated editor who covered NASCAR for the magazine for nine years, points to that snowy March day as the beginning of the sport’s appeal to a broader audience. Prior, it had mostly been a southern regional sport. But this isn’t a dry examination of expanding audience metrics; rather, it’s a funny, entertaining look at the outsize personalities and rivalries that fueled NASCAR’s growth. There are profiles of such legendary characters as Richard “King” Petty, Bobby Allison, Cale Yarborough, and Dale Earnhardt, among others. They were either former moonshiners who drove souped-up cars to outrun government agents or direct descendants of those backwoods adventurers. They were clannish, fearless, and refreshingly frank with the media, traits all reflected in Bechtel’s entertaining memoir of that memorable 1979 season. --Wes Lukowsky