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Charles Hirshberg
December 24, 2001
A quick and riveting read about a fast and dangerous sport
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December 24, 2001

Books

A quick and riveting read about a fast and dangerous sport

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DAYTONA: From the Birth of Speed to the Death of the Man in Black
by Ed Hinton/ Warner Books, $29.95

Bullfighting, Ernest Hemingway wrote, is "the only art in which the artist is in danger of death." That's a load of bull, as Hinton's rich history of Daytona proves. Race car drivers, whose art is speed, are so intimate with the Grim Reaper that some of them could probably tell you what brand of beer he drinks. The looming presence of death makes Hinton's book more than simply a riveting sports chronicle.

A riveting book about auto racing is an achievement in itself. Hinton describes races held at Daytona since 1903 (which makes the area the longest-running motor-racing site in the world). However, he generally avoids the sleep-inducing descriptions of who led whom after so many laps and what strategy the winner used to prevail. Instead, for each race he offers a tale.

For instance, his 1956 yarn is about Junior Johnson, who, shortly after a race, is arrested while cleaning his daddy's moonshine still. In 79 Bobby and Donnie Allison brawl in the infield with Cale Yarborough after a wreck—a fight that Donnie never wanted but that nonetheless branded him as a thug for the remainder of his career. In '93 it's Jeff Gordon with his peach-fuzz mustache, standing in the winner's circle with Miss Winston, falling in love with her and then, in storybook style, marrying her the following year.

Hinton's admiration for the drivers is obvious, but he never lets it cloud his judgment. He reports that many of them, from the legendary Victor Hemery to the late Dale Earnhardt, often come across as "a———-." This, he writes, is largely because of the life-and-death nature of their work and the intense focus it requires.

One of Hinton's most moving examples involves Earnhardt, who in 1994 received a letter from the widow of a fan. It was her husband's dying wish, the widow wrote, to have Earnhardt drive the hearse at his funeral. Earnhardt told Hinton, in salty language, that he would do no such thing. Then, very softly, he explained why: "I'll be riding in one of them bitches soon enough."

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