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Days of thunder, up close

A journalist's full-throttle, provocative tour of NASCAR Nation

Sunday Money: Speed! Lust! Madness! Death! A Hot Lap Around America With NASCAR
By Jeff MacGregor
HarperCollins, 370 pp., illustrated, $25.95

Jeff MacGregor is convincing when he celebrates the thrill associated with NASCAR racing: ''It is the feeling of disembodied, concentrated velocity," he writes, ''velocity without consequence, the swift disconnect, speed freedom, you with your foot to the floor outrunning whatever it is that's after you."

Writing like that would make ''Sunday Money" a must for NASCAR's initiated, though probably nobody who enthusiastically follows auto racing in any of its manifestations needs to be told that speed is exciting and dangerous, and exciting in large part because it's dangerous.

Writing like that will also appeal to readers nostalgic for the most energized work of Tom Wolfe and Hunter Thompson, and MacGregor has in mind an achievement as great as anything either of those worthies managed. His decision to spend nearly a year following the 2002 NASCAR circuit may have begun as a determined, clearly defined attempt to explore one of the country's most popular sports and the culture, at once devout and flashy, that has developed around it. In that pursuit he went so far as to attend a driving school for racing wannabes in order to experience the delights of going fast and turning left a lot. But by the time MacGregor and his wife had pulled the motor home (interior: teal) they'd acquired for the adventure into the 10th or 11th stop on the NASCAR tour, his vision had begun to evolve into something more grand and more ominous. MacGregor, who acknowledges early on that people who spend much time living in motor homes are likely to ''go slowly, violently insane," had begun to understand the country itself in terms of the sounds (very loud) and sights (very red, white, and blue) that the rumble and glitter of NASCAR's world provided.

''You could see the next war in it even then, hear it coming a year before we pulled the trigger," he writes. ''There it was, all around you in the honor guards and the booming flyovers, the bellicose benedictions and the defiant music and the thundering fireworks, hat over your heart for the anthem and standing razor-straight no matter how drunk you were."

The most remarkable parts of ''Sunday Money" are riffs like that: long, risky strings of images and impressions that roar along the page, no more likely to encounter a sentence-ending bit of punctuation than Jeff Gordon is to come upon a railroad crossing out of the first turn at Daytona. MacGregor pulls off dozens of these high-energy twists and turns without once scraping the wall. But he's also straight journalist enough to ask tough questions of the sport that blithely advertises itself as the country's most popular game. MacGregor does the math and demonstrates that NASCAR's mathematicians might charitably be called creative.

''Sunday Money" is filled with passages readers will want to share with friends. Anybody who finds his or her way vicariously into one of the loud and unapologetically soused and sentimental neighborhoods of motor homes and pickups parked at the track or at the Wal-Mart down the interstate will come away from the immersion with a favorite character. Maybe it will be the two Dale Jarrett fans who manage to get close enough to their hero to think he should be able to hear them when they begin shouting ''Dale, you the man!" and then, when he fails to dignify their homage by turning their way, descend (or ascend) to ''We made you!" and ''Look up here, you [expletive]!" Maybe it will be Mike and Dean, who park their truck next to MacGregor and his wife at Martinsville, climb under the tent that they've rigged in the truck bed and filled with six cases of beer, and announce their intention to ''sort of lock ourselves in here and nothin' bad can happen to you, right?"

In the epilogue to ''Sunday Money," MacGregor laments the passing of the days he believes many regard as NASCAR's best days, during which a good ol' boy could spend a day at the track for less than $100; days during which the presence of a car made by a Japanese manufacturer would have been unimaginable; days during which NASCAR was stock car racing, rather than ''a business that sells stock car racing." Though he describes the sport's future as ''gleaming," MacGregor also points out that in some ways NASCAR ''has been taken away from the longtime fans" by the suits trying to make it palatable to a wider audience, and that, most ominously, ''team sponsors are leaving faster than they're being replaced."

If he's right, ''Sunday Money" may one day be regarded as an exceptionally literate chronicle of NASCAR's good old days, as well as, of course, the story of the beginning of the bad and fiery end into which the empire seems destined to crash.

Bill Littlefield hosts NPR's ''Only a Game" each Saturday from WBUR in Boston.

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