Blame Tony Stewart for hitting what the other drivers managed to avoid. Blame Kevin Ward Jr. for deciding to become a pedestrian on a race track. Blame the speedway for using a haunted house’s lighting system.
But blame the South?
That’s the gist of radio host Colin Cowherd’s characterization of the sad events at Canandaigua Motorsports Park on Saturday night. “It’s really, really part of the South,” the ESPN Radio host opined Monday of NASCAR. “And it’s an eye-for-an-eye culture.” Cowherd imagines that the culture that birthed stock-car racing in America instilled a “settle the score” mentality in the sport and its relatives, which ultimately led to Kevin Ward Jr.’s death underneath a sprint car this weekend.
The birthplace of rock ‘n’ roll, Faulkner, and Coca Cola becomes, in Cowherd’s telling, a land of petty vengeance. Granted, the words “I challenge you, sir, to a duel,” were probably heard more in Virginia than Vermont. Buford Pusser, too, exacted revenge in Dixie. And though Asa Harmon McCoy fought for the Union and some Hatfields for the Confederacy, Appalachia means straight “South” to some Northerners cooped up in a radio studio. It also says something about a “a tooth for a tooth” in that black book, which coincidentally still sells in the Bible Belt. One surmises that all this serves as the–to borrow the first word I glimpse from opening that weighty tome–genesis of Cowherd’s “eye-for-an-eye culture” comment.
Atop Cowherd’s acknowledgement that the deadly race took place away from the NASCAR circuit, a few inconveniences undermine Cowherd’s thesis. The drivers competed less than 100 miles from the Canadian border. Both racers hail from above the Mason-Dixon line. And the spectators cheering them betrayed distinct Empire State accents. Other than that, the South totally caused this tragedy.
Kevin Ward Jr. came from the Adirondacks, not the Ozarks. The twenty-year-old driver called home the tiny town of Port Leyden, New York, which lies on the same latitudinal plane as Toronto. Unlike anyplace in the South–save for some secret meeting teeming with kleagles or some open-air event blaring Lynyrd Skynyrd–whites comprise 99 percent of Port Leyden’s population. The mercury sinks below fifty degrees for the average daily temperature. They may or may not get rural free delivery in Port Leyden, but it’s not Mayberry. Tony Stewart was born and raised in Columbus, Indiana, a destination point for more than a hundred free blacks prior to the Civil War. Indiana may be the closest a Yankee gets to living in the South. But it’s still geographically, and culturally in at least a preponderance of ways, the North.
“The sport has a unique culture that I’m not part of,” Cowherd concedes. “I’m not a gearhead. I’m not from the South. I’m not an eye-for-an-eye guy…. It’s a Southern delicacy. It doesn’t get ratings anywhere outside the South in the major cities.”
Cowherd confuses a direction on the compass for a demographic in a census form. NASCAR surely enjoys more intense fan interest in Birmingham than Boston. But it’s not mainly a Southern thing. It’s primarily, perhaps, a rural thing. In Michigan, New Hampshire, and (as Sunday’s race at Watkins Glen proved) New York, rural Yankees flock to NASCAR, too. Public transportation doesn’t lend itself to dreams of victory-lap glory the way unpoliced rural roads do.
But performing poorly in a geography bee plays as the less serious if more glaring of Cowherd’s errors. He attributes a universal negative impulse–revenge–to a particular culture. Did Hamlet really speak with a drawl? Was Clytemnestra a secret Southern belle? Did Captain Ahab originally set sail from New Orleans, Charleston, or some other Dixieland port of call?
Perhaps a dweller in the Old Confederacy reading here will miss the subtlety of the point and present Mr. Cowherd with dueling pistols to redress the talker’s terrible insult upon his people at fifty paces at dusk. But it’s still silly to blame the South for New Yorker Kevin Ward Jr.’s death under a Hoosier’s wheel in the Finger Lakes region of the Empire State. All serious people know it’s George W. Bush’s fault.