cover image Wheels: A Season on NASCAR's Winston Cup Circuit

Wheels: A Season on NASCAR's Winston Cup Circuit

Paul Hemphill / Author Simon & Schuster $25 (352p) ISBN 978-0-

The 1996 season of the National Assoction for Stock Car Auto Racing was the 48th in NASCAR history and Hemphill (Long Gone) covers it winningly from early January at Daytona Beach in Florida to December at the Waldorf-Astoria in Manhattan. This type of racing was an outgrowth of daring young drivers outrunning county sheriffs and federal revenuers to get moonshine to big cities in the South during Prohibition--or so the story goes. The advent of larger tracks, bigger audiences (attendance of 100,000 was not uncommon), more TV coverage and faster cars changed the sport in a half century, so that rich, multi-team organizations replaced the fiercely independent good ol' boys who had been the pioneers, although the spectators stayed the same, according to Hemphill: white, racist, ostentatiously patriotic but waving the Confederate flag, fundamentalist Protestants, hell-raising drinkers and womanizers. The 1996 season was foreseen as a contest between the old guard Dale Earnhardt and Jeff Gordon, a young star on the rise, but anticlimactically neither won top honors. That distinction went to the virtually unknown Terry Labonte. The 31-race season is relentless, as Hemphill shows so breathtakingly, yet one begins to understand the racers' motives when at the award banquet Labonte (the emcee mispronounced it lobotomy) was awarded $1,942,500. (June)