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July 22, 2002

Media spotlight shines on anthropologist's NASCAR project

By Jennifer McNulty

It's the ultimate in what anthropologists call "participant observer" research: James Todd was discovered by the media one week after beginning fieldwork for his doctoral dissertation on "Southern Culture and Stock Car Racing."

Anthropology graduate student James Todd, center, gets a close look at NASCAR racing.

Todd's unusual research has been written about in everything from Sports Illustrated to the Chronicle of Higher Education.
Photos: George Welty

Since then, Todd, a Ph.D. candidate in anthropology at UCSC, has been the subject of articles in Sports Illustrated, the San Jose Mercury News, the Roanoke Times, the Virginian-Pilot, the Birmingham News, the Charlotte Observer, and the Greenville News.

He's even appeared on a classic rock radio station's drive-time morning show.

"The station was 106.9, "The Fox." It was one of those funny morning shows," he explained. "It wasn't very scholarly."

At the other end of the spectrum, however, is the Chronicle of Higher Education, which has also called.

Why all the fuss? Because it's not often that an academic hits the road in a 15-year-old RV to follow the NASCAR circuit, watching races, eating barbecue, and exploring the appeal of a sport that's long been associated with the South.

As NASCAR sheds its southern roots and "goes national," Todd is traveling along, documenting the transformation of the fastest growing sport in the country.

"I can't believe someone studying PR is getting so much PR doing it," said Todd. But Todd is a novelty, and what's novel makes news, as he has quickly surmised.

"A good chunk of my work is watching the media and the PR people," said Todd. "They write the same story every week--who won the race and what happened. I'm something of a break for them."

So far, the media coverage has been positive, if playful ("Gentleman, start your thesis" and "[Todd] also spends a lot of time convincing people that this is serious study and not just a really cool way to scam a year living a motorhead's dream").

The media results are likely a result of Todd's talent as an interview subject. A personable and articulate spokesman for his project, Todd plays along with the jokes while making a convincing case that NASCAR is ripe for in-depth study.

"I could easily do a very superficial and critical study of masculinity and race, but there's a much more complex landscape out there," he said. "When I start talking about NASCAR and capitalism, regionality, flows of culture, race and class in the U.S., people start to get the idea that I'm taking it very seriously."

Todd's two advisers at UCSC are highly supportive of the project. Anthropology professor Donald Brenneis accompanied Todd to a recent race in California ("He loved it," swears Todd), and Hugh Raffles, associate professor of anthropology, gave the project his full endorsement from the beginning, despite his profession's bias against studies within the United States.

"There's a lot of interest in this as a phenomenon of contemporary capitalism," said Raffles. "This is a highly commoditized, spectacular sport. James is very interested in the marketing of NASCAR and its movement onto a national stage."

Further endorsement came in the form of a $20,000 grant from the Wenner-Gren Foundation, the top anthropology granting body in the country, and $10,000 from the Krach Family Foundation in Los Gatos. Todd used the money to buy a motor home to follow the race circuit. With the RV going through gas at the rate of five miles to the gallon, Todd anticipates taking out student loans to complete his field research.

There's plenty of material to work with, both inside the track and around it. Each of NASCAR's 43 licensed drivers supports a team of 50 to 150 people. But Todd isn't focusing on the drivers or the cars. He's interested in NASCAR as a phenomenon: the fans, the consumerism, the marketing, and the morphing of a sport steeped in the lore of moonshine and rednecks.

Despite the lingering impression that NASCAR is a small, backwoods thing, stock-car racing today claims a fan base of 75 million--up 12 million from last year--or 1 in 4 Americans. It's right behind the NFL in the number of fans in the critical demographic group of men aged 18 to 34. And NASCAR fans do buy: A mile-long convoy of 18-wheelers hauls NASCAR merchandise from race to race, filled with everything from T-shirts and baseball caps to $500 leather jackets. The speedway environment is, as one writer put it, "vibrant with commerce."

Some fans have dedicated entire rooms of their homes--"shrines"--to NASCAR memorabilia.

During the past 15 years, NASCAR's efforts to "go national" have succeeded beyond anyone's wildest dreams. Todd wants to understand how that's happened.

"I hear rumors of people saying 'Why would he want to do that? Why would he want to hang out with rednecks?' But I don't think that's about people not taking me seriously," said Todd. "They're really not taking NASCAR seriously. This is a lot bigger than the Sunday football game."

For the next 20 weeks or so, Todd will be attending NASCAR races every weekend. At the end of the Winston Cup series, he'll begin analyzing his data and hopes to finish his dissertation by May 2004.

The biggest problem Todd has with reporters is that they all want to know the same thing: what he's learned. And the answer is simple. "I don't know yet," he said. "I'm just getting started."

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