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Book Review of: Driving with The Devil

Southern Moonshine, Detroit Wheels, and the Birth of NASCAR

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Review of Driving with the Devil, by Neal Thompson (Paperback, 2007)

(You can print this review in landscape mode, if you want a hardcopy)

Reviewer: Mark Lamendola, author of over 6,000 articles.

Nearly 1 in 3 Americans is a NASCAR fan. Autoracing is now the second most popular sport in the USA, and it's on track (no pun intended) to take the #1 spot from football. Unlike football, you don't have to be a genetic accident to play the game. One of racing's appealing traditions is that an ordinary person--man or woman--can be a race car driver. And there are no Michael Vicks scandals. These and other reasons are why it's not just a "guy thing" but has, in fact, a huge base of female fans.

NASCAR is only one of the autoracing organizations in the country. But to most Americans, NASCAR is autoracing.

While everybody knows about NASCAR, most people are not aware of the profound change it has made in racing or in the profound financial benefits it has for any community that has been awarded the privilege of hosting a NASCAR track.

My high school is less than a mile from a quarter-mile oval track (non-NASCAR) that has run stock cars and late model funny cars for over half a century. I grew up around race cars, and worked pit crews on that track and at a major drag strip half an hour away. I had my own highly-modified street racers. My hopped-up Camaro did the quarter mile in 14 seconds. But my Dodge Charger did it in 12. Its very modified transmission was set up to shift from first to second when its very modified 500HP V-8 engine hit 7200 RPM.

Back then, racing was kind of an oddity. It's dirty and expensive, and you put in a huge amount of money and long hours, just to race for a comparatively short time on the track (or street). There was a certain "outlaw" quality to it (especially the street racing) and that was part of the allure for some racers and spectators. Most people weren't all that interested.

No longer is autoracing an oddity. NASCAR has changed everything about racing and, in the process, made it not only mainstream but culturally iconic.

Today, I live only a few miles from the NASCAR track in Kansas City. That track is a crown jewel and major attraction in this area. During a NASCAR event, hotel space within 70 to 90 miles is sold out--and that "blackout" lasts about a week. As Thompson pointed out, people don't show up at a NASCAR event for just the race. They show up for typically a week-long adventure, with a carnival and other attractions. NASCAR itself rakes in nearly $5 billion a year from just the television contracts alone. Thompson provided other staggering figures as well, but I don't remember what they are.

Warren Buffet, known for wise investments, made sure a Cabela's Sporting Goods (one of his holdings) was built on the NASCAR complex in KC. People arrive in massive numbers, and shop there. They buy appliances and other goods at other onsite stores also, during the NASCAR event. That massive influx of shoppers gives a healthy boost to the sales tax revenue here.

In short:

  • NASCAR has become a major element of our culture.
  • NASCAR is a huge, huge business.
  • Cities beg to host a NASCAR track.
  • The appeal isn't racing itself.

So, how did NASCAR come into being and how did its races become such "must see" events? That's the story that Neal Thompson exhaustively researched and skillfully told.

The research

  • Thompson's backnotes (showing the source for each quote, fact, or assertion) are 19 pages long, in annoyingly tiny text. It would easily fill 30 pages if printed in a normal-sized font. This, to support a 300-page book.
  • Thompson listed 50 people he interviewed as "primary sources." All of these people were key to autoracing or insiders in some other way.
  • The bibliography spans four pages, again in tiny text. It looks like he consulted about about 80 books.
  • There's a list of about 30 articles consulted for this book.
  • Thompson also decided to get information from films--11 of them.
  • Finally, he gleaned information from 14 Websites.

It would be hard to make a viable claim that this book is anything but authoritative. And that's a good thing, because Thompson's story and the official NASCAR line differ.

The start

NASCAR wants to present its events as family fare, and there's nothing wrong with that. In fact, this approach is one reason Bill France--the major force behind NASCAR for decades--was able to change the world of stock car racing so dramatically. But what NASCAR doesn't want people to think about is the fact that its roots go way back to the era of Prohibition. That was like today's era of Prohibition, with a few key differences.

The original Prohibition was against one particular class of drug, alcohol. Congress, at that time, did not have the hubris to enact drug bans without Constitutional authority. So, they passed the 18th Amendment in 1919 to ban the manufacture and sale of alcohol. This, of course, had the same ill effects as today's unconstitutional bans on other drugs--outsized profits for the drug dealers, violent crime, no safety standards in manufacture or distribution, pointless diversion of limited law enforcement resources, prison overcrowding (the USA has the highest prison population per capita in the world), and a huge loss in tax revenue.

In short, that law was so stupid and deleterious that Congress repealed it by enacting the 21st Amendment in 1933. They can't do that with today's other drug bans, because those aren't Constitutional to begin with.

During this period of stupidity, a cottage industry arose--mostly in the South, where people made their own booze from corn. They were called moonshiners. Because their liquor was illegal, they needed to outrun the police when making deliveries and when conducting other business related to moonshine. The drivers of those cars became the drivers in the early days of racing. Bill France, the cofounder of NASCAR who strong-armed everyone else into giving him complete control of NASCAR, was one of those early racers.

And it's here, with the moonshine runs, that Thompson begins the real story of NASCAR. We ride along with the crafty drivers in their modified Ford Model As, then Ford Model Ts, then Ford V-8s (that was the model name: simply V-8) during Prohibition. We see how things got even more intense after Prohibition (which simply served to let the genie out of the bottle, so to speak). Then came World War II, and we follow some racers through that time--during which autoracing was suspended to support the war effort.

After WWII, auto production changed. Ford didn't keep up with the times, and a flood of more advanced automobiles, made by other companies, began to show up on the racetracks. Dodge (Chrysler) dominated much of racing throughout the 1960s (Richard Petty drove Dodges), with stiff competition from Chevrolet.

Information not mentioned in the book

Ford had never optimized its cylinder heads for airflow. The ports were large, but weren't shaped properly to keep fuel suspended at high flow rates (the air was too "choppy.). The leader in cylinder heads, for quite some time, was Chrysler. In later years, master mechanics could rework Chevy and Dodge heads to precisely match characteristics all the way through the intake system--so it really didn't make any difference as long as you ran Chevy or Dodge. But in the drivetrain it made a big difference.

Chevys blew out rear ends and transmissions, but the Dodges were overengineered except for having lousy suspensions and chintzy interiors. On many tracks, you saw Chevys with Ford rear ends--and the Dodges often used Dodge truck rear ends for the same high durability.

Chrysler excelled in raw power. The first year Chrysler released the Dodger Charger with a 440 engine, it sponsored four 440-equipped cars in a race (I don't recall if that was NASCAR). Those cars took 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th places. The answer to that was to change the rules so that a 440 would be too big to be legal. In street races, 440s would leave the vaunted Hemi cars eating their dust--because you could quickly raise the horsepower with aftermarket parts (not so with the Hemi). Interestingly, the fastest completely stock car in the quarter mile was a '72 Chevy Chevelle with a 396 engine and a gear ratio biased for the quarter mile.

Back to the book

Auto production wasn't the only change. Bill France changed the management and promotion of racing, allowing NASCAR to arise above all competitors to become the face of "stock car" racing to most of America. The myth surrounding the rise of NASCAR is intriguing, partly because it portrays Bill France in a "larger than life way." But the myth isn't nearly as interesting as the real story.

And, coincidentally, Bill France actually was "larger than life." He was 6 feet, 5 inches tall, had a booming voice, and had a way about him that made folks leery of crossing him. He was audacious, capricious, and self-serving. Those who had dealings with him called him a dictator. Red Vogt, the legendary master mechanic who was the lifelong friend of France, didn't like the way France took things over. But he was quoted in the book as saying nobody else could do it and it needed to be done. I don't recall the exact quote, but it's in there.

So, NASCAR got its start thanks to incredibly bad public policy. Amazing mechanics gave cars abilities to do things their designers never dreamed of, and drivers who learned their craft to outrun police were able to draw those abilities out to put on impressive races.

That was the start of racing, and Driving with the Devil shows us the various people and situations that brought it to where it is today. Which is why we're all familiar with the announcement that starts each race, "Gentlemen. Start...your...engines!"

This book was so engrossing, I crossed its finish line much faster than I had anticipated. If you don't rev up your reading with it, I think you're missing out.



About these reviews

You may be wondering why the reviews here are any different from the hundreds of "reviews" posted online. Notice the quotation marks?

I've been reviewing books for sites like Amazon for many years now, and it dismays me that Amazon found it necessary to post a minimum word count for reviews. It further dismays me that it's only 20 words. If that's all you have to say about a book, why bother?

And why waste everyone else's time with such drivel? As a reader of such reviews, I feel like I am being told that I do not matter. The flippancy of people who write these terse "reviews" is insulting to the authors also, I would suspect.

This sound bite blathering taking the place of any actual communication is increasingly a problem in our mindless, blog-posting Webosphere. Sadly, Google rewards such pointlessness as "content" so we just get more if this inanity.

My reviews, contrary to current (non) standards, actually tell you about the book. I always got an "A" on a book review I did as a kid (that's how I remember it anyhow, and it's my story so I'm sticking to it). A book review contains certain elements and has a logical structure. It informs the reader about the book.

A book review may also tell the reader whether the reviewer liked it, but revealing a reviewer's personal taste is not necessary for an informative book review.

About your reviewer

  • Books are a passion of mine. I read dozens of them each year, plus I listen to audio books.
  • Most of my "reading diet" consists of nonfiction. I think life is too short to use your limited reading time on material that has little or no substance. That leads into my next point...
  • In 1990, I stopped watching television. I have not missed it. At all.
  • I was first published as a preteen. I wrote an essay, and my teacher submitted it to the local paper.
  • For six years, I worked as an editor for a trade publication. I left that job in 2002, and still do freelance editing and authoring for that publication (and for other publications).
  • No book has emerged from my mind onto the best-seller list. So maybe I'm presumptuous in judging the work of others. Then again, I do more describing than judging in my reviews. And I have so many articles now published that I stopped counting them at 6,000. When did I stop? Probably 20,000 articles ago! (It's been a while).
  • I have an engineering degree and an MBA, among other "quant" degrees. That helps explain my methodical approach toward reviews.
  • You probably don't know anybody who has made a perfect or near perfect score on a test of Standard Written English. I have. So, a credential for whatever it's worth.

About reading style

No, I do not "speed read" through these. That said, I do read at a fast rate. But, in contrast to speed reading, I read everything when I read a book for review.

Speed reading is a specialized type of reading that requires skipping text as you go. Using this technique, I've been able to consistently "max out" a speed reading machine at 2080 words per minute with 80% comprehension. This method is great if you are out to show how fast you can read. But I didn't use it in graduate school and I don't use it now. I think it takes the joy out of reading, and that pleasure is a big part of why I read.

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