Intimate Collisions: Identity, Community, and Place in the Kansas Dirt-Track Auto Racing Sphere
Marston, Steve Booth
University of Kansas
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Dirt-track auto racing, spread across the U.S. and concentrated in the nation’s Heartland, is largely unexplored territory within the cultural studies field. In turn, this project addresses contemporary Kansas-centered auto racing as a cultural sphere composed of spaces, objects, and practices derived from the “action” on the dirt oval. Participant-observation ethnography comprised the bulk of research, conducted over three years in garages, museums, and other spaces in which racing-related practice took place. Research and analysis were driven by an identity-based inquiry: How do participants construct senses of self in relation to the Kansas dirt-track racing community? On one hand, I trace processes of reproduction within the racing sphere. Identity ideologies and organizations have long reflected male dominance of competitive spaces, as well as the ubiquity of Whiteness among participants in general. Gendered organization appeared to result, in part, from the patrilineal routes through which men socialized boys into mechanical and operational familiarity with race cars. As a result, locally hegemonic masculinity was constructed around automotive-mechanical competency, competitiveness, and “rugged” engagement with speed and objects that threaten bodily harm. On the other hand, I address the ways in which racing practice entails reformulations of dominant cultural structures. When articulating the appeal of dirt-track racing, participants emphasized variety and disruption, especially in regards to “exciting” on-track “action,” which was contrasted against the mass culture of corporatized NASCAR. Furthermore, drivers embraced the opportunity to enact industrial productivity through their small-group racing operations; in doing so, they exercised power and sovereignty not typically present in their predominantly working-class occupations. As a whole, contextualized within a culturally shifting Kansas, participants converged within the racing sphere to find a sense of localistic community, thus engaging in “intimate collisions” both on and around the track.
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