Jackson: "Football. Nothing else in the South can match it. Not even NASCAR." Spring practice, Bethune-Cookman College, 1943, photographed by Gordon Parks, courtesy of the collections of the Library of Congress.
The debate that follows first aired as part of South Carolina ETV's "Take on the South" series, produced for the University of South Carolina Institute for Southern Studies. Daniel S. Pierce and Harvey H. Jackson III have kindly modified their discussion for our pages.
Sixteen years ago my answer to this question would have been simple, emphatic, and a no-brainer: football, no question. While I have the great distinction of being an individual who was cut from the middle school football team twice— when they didn't even ordinarily cut—I grew up steeped in the sport. I played sandlot football every Sunday afternoon in the fall for at least twenty years, had two brothers who excelled at high school football, and one that played at a small college and then coached the sport for thirty years. The first big-time football game I ever attended was the 1969 Sugar Bowl, where the Archie Manningled Ole Miss Rebels defeated my beloved Arkansas Razorbacks. My graduate degrees are from institutions—the University of Alabama and the University of Tennessee— much better known for producing SEC and NCAA championship football teams and NFL ers than historians. As for NASCAR , when I noticed it at all, I was mystified as to how anyone could sit around for three hours and watch a bunch of redneck mouth-breathers make left turns.
Then in August 1994, I went to my first stock car race—not any old race, but the night race at Bristol Motor Speedway. It is hard to describe what I encountered on that summer night. I was astounded by the sight of all the souvenir trailers around the track and the obvious loyalty of the fans, almost all attired in colorful t-shirts and hats, announcing their allegiance to a favorite driver. The strange mixture of smells was equally overwhelming: an olio of carnival food, sweat, exhaust fumes, burning rubber, and high-octane gasoline. Another new experience awaited me when the green flag flew and the decibel level jumped tenfold. I had never heard anything like this assault on my eardrums in my life. Now I understood why people around me were wearing earplugs.
The racing itself was truly a sight to behold and incredibly exciting. While cars at Bristol only average somewhere in the high 120s MPH, they were a blur as they made laps at a little over fifteen seconds. The action on the track was intense, and one of the attractions of Bristol is that there is pretty much a guarantee that someone will wreck, or be wrecked, bringing out the yellow caution flag at least every fifty laps.
As fun and visceral as the racing was, it was almost as fun watching the fans around me. I had been an undergraduate at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and had witnessed extreme fan intensity in the Carmichael Auditorium student section during the Dean Smith era. In my student days in both Alabama and Tennessee I had seen fans foaming at the mouth at any number of football games. I thought I had seen the pinnacle of rabid fandom when I attended a University of Kentucky basketball game in Rupp Arena. I thought I had seen it all, that is, until I went to my first NASCAR race. In particular, I will never forget the guy sitting about five rows in front of us—an unbelievable number of beer cans scattered at his feet before the race even began—who stood up every lap for 500 laps and saluted Dale Earnhardt's car with an extended middle finger.
Pierce: "In August 1994, I went to my first stock car race—not any old race, but the night race at Bristol Motor Speedway. The action on the track was intense, and one of the attractions of Bristol is that there is pretty much a guarantee that someone will wreck, or be...