Carole Townsend’s website describes her writing style as “a cross between Lewis Grizzard and Erma Bombeck.” While she might have drawn her humor from both sources, Townsend is more polite than Grizzard — and funnier than Bombeck.
The titles of her first two books — “Southern Fried White Trash” was published in 2011 and “Red Lipstick & Clean Underwear” the following year — provide a hint. Then Townsend, a reporter and columnist for the Gwinnett Daily Post east of Atlanta, decided to step outside her comfort zone and try to understand NASCAR by traveling to various tracks in 2013 and talk to fans, drivers, crew members and officials.
“I may as well have packed my suitcase to visit Mars, because I had no idea what I was getting myself into,” she writes.
In a funny, engaging look, the reader is treated to a hands-on adventure in “Magnolias, Sweet Tea, and Exhaust: One Woman’s Journey to Understanding the Phenomenon of NASCAR” (Sports Publishing; hardback; $24.95; 220 pages). Townsend has a keen eye for detail and is a natural people-watcher, which makes for some amusing anecdotes.
The book’s cover shows Townsend getting ready to take a spin around the track at the NASCAR Driving Experience at Atlanta Motor Speedway. While she fretted about her bad knees buckling and her “mom jeans” ripping as she climbed through the car window (no doors in these stock cars), she found a way to poke fun at herself.
“That’s me in the passenger seat, looking like I need to change my underwear,” Townsend wrote on her Facebook page in October.
It was quite a learning experience, and far removed from life in her hometown of Lawrenceville, Georgia. It’s one thing to write about the historic and stately Elisha Winn House in Gwinnett County. It’s quite another to report the sights and sounds that bombard fans on the NASCAR circuit.
For her first race at Daytona International Speedway, Townsend showed up in a crisp white linen suit and high heels, figuring that since Nicole Kidman pulled off that look in the movie “Days of Thunder,” it would work for her.
It didn’t. And her reluctance to use sunscreen was a mistake.
“I walked out of that stadium looking like a soot-covered, medium-rare steak,” Townsend writes.
Compare that to her late-season wardrobe. By then, Townsend, who was following driver Clint Bowyer, was wearing denim shorts and a black tank top with silver lettering that proclaimed she was a “Bowyer Racing Diva” (“You need to pick a driver and stick with him,” Atlanta Motor Speedway president Ed Clark tells her after she flaunted trinkets and apparel from several drivers during her Daytona debut).
“I looked like the stereotypical ‘redneck’ woman, a sweaty faced fan wearing black racing garb, and a tank top to boot,” Townsend writes. “Oh, my mother must be turning in her grave, simply mortified that her heretofore properly behaving, well-dressed daughter had sunk to such a ‘lowly’ place.
“Sorry Mom, but I’m having fun.”
Townsend’s observation skills treat the reader to the wild and weird. A young mother asks a pit crew member to sign her son’s diaper (he obliged). Bristol Motor Speedway “is a lot like a concrete megaphone.” At Talladega, one group of tailgaters creates a grill by using a shopping cart. Two fans stand in front of Townsend and her husband at Talladega and drain beer after beer, then demand things from their “women,” like, “Woman, gimme one o’ them cigarettes.”
“Those are quotes, verbatim,” Townsend writes.
And then there is the food. Townsend writes so descriptively, one can almost smell the barbecue. She writes of a stop in a Greenville, South Carolina, diner and a meal of fried bologna that approaches nirvana, and describes the homey atmosphere where the waitress can confide secrets about her life to her customers — even the ones she had just met — in a knowing whisper.
But tailgating at each of the racing venues was “an education, an experience, and a new gastronomic escapade,” Townsend writes.
The book is full of history and statistics, and Townsend eagerly participates in touring the garages and museums, and doing hands-on activities like simulating a role as a pit crew member.
She takes a tour of the inside of a trailer on a race weekend in Atlanta, “fully loaded and ready for just about any occurrence.” Townsend called the tour, conducted by a transport driver nicknamed “Pickle,” “remarkable.”
Her interviews include observations from NASCAR drivers like Bowyer and David Ragan, pit crew chief Jay Guy, Nationwide driver Johanna Long and team owner Michael Waltrip.
Townsend wanted to find out why NASCAR resonated with its fans. It’s not just the fast cars or drivers, the raucous parties or the sport’s colorful link to bootleggers. There had to be more.
The perspective of Mike Fuori, a Texas meteorologist, provides a clue. To that point, Townsend had been studying NASCAR as a sport. On a Labor Day weekend in Atlanta, she discovered that the NASCAR experience for fans was about love, passion and family — handed down from generation to generation.
“It’s love, pure and simple,” she writes.
“Magnolias, Sweet Tea, and Exhaust” is perfect for those readers who are curious about NASCAR. Veteran stock car followers might find it a little elementary for their tastes, but for the rest of us, Townsend breaks down the sport simply and clearly, and throws in plenty of humor. After all, who would have thought to use a restrictor plate as a makeshift compact mirror, as Townsend does?
Because NASCAR is treated like a religion by many of its fans, Townsend quotes from the stirring words of Nashville preacher Joe Nelms, whose invocation before a race in 2011 went viral on the Internet. The way Nelms ends his prayer is a great way to end Townsend’s book (and this review):
“Boogity, boogity, boogity. Amen.”