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Why NASCAR Drivers Are Smarter Than Novelists

As NASCAR’s big dogs get ready to invade Chicago (the Camping World Truck and Nationwide Series come to town in July, followed shortly by the premier Sprint Cup racers), prepare yourself for all manner of “we-speak.”

No properly media-coached NASCAR driver ever says “I” anymore. It’s always “we,” emphasizing the role of the team, even when the driver is discussing something for which he or she is solely responsible.

“We got out of the groove and cut down a tire.”

“We didn’t expect that 42 car to chop us like that.”

“We had to go to the bathroom.”

This takeover of the royal “we” is understandable, if annoying. NASCAR drivers earn millions as corporate spokespeople, and there’s nothing big businesses like more than crediting the team. When five-time NASCAR champ Jimmie Johnson talks about “us” in Victory Lane, each of the 248,000 folks employed by his sponsor, Lowe’s, basks in the glory. Or at least Lowe’s likes to think they do.

The NASCAR “we” bothers me, though, because driving a racecar is one of the loneliest, most solitary things a person can do. Kind of like writing a novel. I know because I do both.

Caveats first: I’m about as far removed from the NASCAR stars—who earn big bucks not just for driving but for wearing the right sunglasses and sipping the right soft drink—as a racer can be. I’m a pure weekend warrior, an amateur more likely to be found at Blackhawk Farms Raceway than Chicagoland Speedway. I run with the Sports Car Club of America, where the joke goes like this: In NASCAR, the spectators know all the drivers’ names. In SCCA, the drivers know all the spectators’ names.

But I’ve been doing this for a couple of decades, and racing is racing, so this much I can tell you: Once you strap into a race car, with your cocooning helmet and your head restraint and seat that limit both motion and visibility, you are about as alone as a person can be.

That’s part of the challenge. And it’s part of the reason victory is so sweet. A big part.

I know that to a casual viewer, it looks like those millionaires are just spending their Sunday driving around in circles at Chicagoland. But that’s not how it works. Over the course of a race, a driver sifts through untold amounts of information, constantly, making a dozen decisions a second.

It’s not just I’m going to beat that SOB into the next corner come hell or high water. It’s more like this: His tires are 11 laps older (that is, more worn) than mine. And this corner coming up is a lot like Turn One at Kansas, and he always chickens out on the brakes there. And he just signed a new two-year contract, so he may not be as hungry as I am.

The result of all these computations? I’m going to beat that SOB into the next corner come hell or high water.

The sheer number of decisions required during a race would amaze you. And the driver is nearly always responsible for making the right call, regardless of what the team around him says.

Same thing for writing. I’m thrilled and fortunate to have an amazing team around me—editors, copy editors, proofreaders, designers, publicists, and marketing folks. Without them, the books don’t happen—at least not in any satisfying way.

But.

When it comes down to it, writing a book is a matter of one person sitting in a chair, day after grinding day, and doing it. As with auto racing, the quantity of decisions to be made (Character! Setting! Narrator! Plot!) is staggering. Also as with racing, a bad call on any one of these decisions can lead to disaster, although probably not one involving real flames.

For all the similarities between racing and writing, there’s one massive difference: Even with setbacks brought about by today’s rotten economy, NASCAR has exploded in popularity.

Novels? Not so much. The rise of the e-reader is sending hopeful signals about a reading renaissance, but there’s no denying that novel and novelist alike have a far smaller footprint in popular culture than they did a generation ago.

Whether they believe their we-speak or not, pro drivers are setting an example writers would be wise to follow. NASCAR’s stars have embraced the idea that they’re more than athletes; that in fact they’re responsible for the business side, too, and even the most skilled driving won’t be enough without an approachable demeanor and an entrepreneurial attitude.

By contrast, too many authors continue to think the world should worship them for their prose, even as their business model grows shakier by the day. They pine for a time of hefty advances, limited competition, and cocktail-party clout that will never return. They need to snap out of it.

Which is why we’re writing this article. We don’t expect books to sell themselves anymore.

*     *     *     *     *

STEVE ULFELDER  is co-owner of Flatout Motorsports Inc., a Massachusetts company that builds race cars, and winner of the 2011 North Atlantic Roadrace Championship Runoffs. He’s also author of mysteries featuring a washed-up NASCAR star. “Purgatory Chasm” (nominated for the Edgar and Anthony Awards as Best First Novel) and “The Whole Lie” are available everywhere. For more visit www.ulfelder.com.

STORY ART: Main image made in-house with photo by Warren Wimmer/AP Images.

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