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Let me say at the outset that I knew next to nothing about NASCAR prior to reading this book. I’ve never watched a race on TV for more than a few minutes; I’ve never attended a race in person. With that said, I couldn’t stop reading One Helluva Ride: How NASCAR Swept the Nation (Liz Clarke, Villard Books). It’s a terrific read and a great American story that reads like a novel, as all the best nonfiction should.

Author Liz Clarke has covered NASCAR for many years for newspapers such as the Charlotte Observer, USA Today, and, currently, the Washington Post. She knows her subject - really, really well. And she can turn a phrase so that within a few pages you’re completely sucked in and fascinated by people you never even heard of yesterday.

The story of NASCAR is the American dream come to life. As Clarke writes, ‘from stock-car racing’s beginning, there was something illicit about it - like early rock `n’ roll - that suggested a certain depravity . . . it was a sport at the fringe of the rules.’ From the sport’s beginning with dirt tracks in the deep south where souped up cars raced far away from the prying eyes of local law enforcement and drivers tinkered on their own sedans to compete, to the latter days of multi-million dollar speedways and primetime racing on television, to the sea change as the NASCAR’s original sponsor, cigarette maker RJ Reynolds, steps aside to make way for more family-friendly advertising and an even wider audience on the world stage.

You can see how quickly this all took place from a look at the list of all-time NASCAR champions and their winnings in the back of the book - Red Byron in 1949 pocketed $5800; Jimmie Johnson in 2007 took home over $15 million.

The drama - the pathos - all here. And the cast of characters are sharply drawn, from Dale Earnhardt, the Intimidator (who, ‘with every lap,’ writes Clarke, `evened the score for the guy who was invisible to society…who cleans the gutters, jackhammers the pavement, and services the air conditioner without ever making eye contact’) - to multi-millionaire Junior Johnson, who in his mid-70’s still cooks his own breakfast every weekday morning - to the visionary and imposing Big Bill France (whose family actually owns NASCAR, lock, stock-car and barrel) - to Tim Flock (who ran 9 NASCAR races in the early 50’s accompanied by a rhesus monkey who waved to fans from the car’s window outfitted in a racing uniform and helmet) - to Richard Petty (The King) who learned how to sign autographs without using his wrist so his arm wouldn’t tire out as much) - to Jeff Gordon (’the first NASCAR driver to look like a dream date’) - to a host of Miss Winston’s cozying up to the champions for a kiss and product placement in Victory Lane - and many, many more.

The moments when Clarke relates her own experiences covering this circus cavalcade make the read even more interesting. `My first mistake was wearing a dress,’ she says of the first time she enters the NASCAR garage as a young reporter in Charlotte, North Carolina, knowing nearly nothing about stock-car racing. Riding shotgun with a racecar driver at nearly top speed to see exactly what it was like to perform this sport she wrote about as an observer. Clarke in a remote Italian village covering the 2006 Winter Olympics, making a bet with a colleague that she’d be able to find a place to watch the Daytona 500 live on TV - and winning. Her agonizing moments in the press box between the time of Dale Earnhardt’s fatal crash to the official announcement of his death - a moment that changed the sport irrevocably, forever.

Clarke writes, ‘NASCAR was unlike other sports in so many obvious ways…but it differed in other respects, too. It wasn’t a sport to the drivers and mechanics who worked so hard. It was an all-consuming calling, with the joy and sorrow of life itself.’ And that’s what makes this well-written book so appealing. Because it’s about people who are living life hard and taking it to the limit. And, due to the nature of the sport, death is always as close as the next turn of the wheel, which makes life stand out in vibrant relief.