Kim Chapin has discovered the best way for an author to approach a book on stock-car racing: Simply ease the typewriter into gear and amble into the story. Do not rush. No literary double-clutching; just pull over and stop at this anecdote for a spell, maybe hang a left at the next one—and all the while let it flow in the warm, soft cadences that are the very beat of the sport.
There's not a hurried or a jagged line in Fast as White Lightning (The Dial Press, $12.95), and yet, after seemingly wandering all over the Southern U.S., at the end Chapin winds up with a full, well-rounded stock-car history.
That's right fine, as one of his characters might say, but what's really important is that one need not be an auto-racing nut to enjoy the book. Indeed, one of the perils in subtitling a volume like this "The Story of Stock Car Racing" is that maybe only the most rabid fans will buy it. They will surely enjoy the story, but it certainly deserves a wider audience than that.
Perhaps Dial should have produced a big-city edition, showing a seminaked lady on the jacket instead of stock cars in full cry, and called it Fast as Love's Wild Lust or something like that. Trick them if you must; just get the reader into the book.
There is nobody, race fan or not, who won't enjoy the saga of the late Tiny Lund, a giant of 6'5" and 265 pounds, and a gentle man who could be pushed just so far. Among other earthy tales, Tiny tells of fighting the whole Petty family—now the respected kingpins of stock-car racing—after a Carolina dirt-track race. His car was battered by Lee Petty's all through the race, and Lund complained to Petty afterward. Petty threw a punch, and Lund got angry. "I commenced knocking the——out of him..." Lund said, and then, "Here comes ol' Maurice; Maurice and Dale and Richard. All three of them were together, just like they are now. And ol' Maurice—goddamn. He hit me with a goddamn screwdriver—tried to jab me—and I got him down across his old man. And here comes Richard. He had a pop bottle and I got him down across 'em."
A pal named Speedy Thompson tried to help Lund, but "he'd been frog hunting and [had] shot a hole through his toe and he was on a cane and one of 'em hit him in the goddamned toe and he went hobbling off holding his foot." And then. "Something hit me in the back of the head and man, I seen butterflies and everything. It was ol' Liz Petty, Lee's wife. She had a pocketbook. I don't know what she had in it, but she was going pow, pow, pow, just wearing my damned head out. And this broke things up. I got up and said, I can't lick the whole goddamned Petty family.' To which Buck Baker came up and said, 'Goddamn if you wadn't doing a purty damned good job of it.' "
Forgive the language. Stock-car racers swear, sure, but they swear more or less gently, as a matter of speech rhythm and emphasis; they don't use the stark, hard-edged curses so popular in conversation and print today. Chapin puts it all down exactly the way he hears it, and the explicit language is important to the flow of the text.
Reading Chapin, you realize that stock-car racing is perhaps more than a major U.S. sport; it's theater, and a way of life distinctly unlike others. The late Fireball Roberts, a top-notch driver, pegged it clearly when he said, "There are fifty places you can finish in a race...and you'll hit all of them sooner or later. In this game, you don't win thirty-seven straight fights. It just doesn't happen that way. There are no unbeaten seasons in auto racing." Driver Bobby Allison says, "Boy, do I want to win. Not only do I want to win, I don't want to finish second. Second is great. Second pays a lot of money. But it's losing. First is winning, and second through last is losing." Exactly. For all of their whimsy and pretend-hayseed charm, stock-car racers are realistic.
The racing machinery gets more sophisticated, but the men live in a sort of old-fashioned world whose special raffishness stirs nostalgia. Chapin's book should be read the same way it seems to have been written—easy. One should amble through it, pausing to kick a tire now and then.