It’s been an appropriate moment to be reading a book that includes a portrait of the early, controversial days of NASCAR. The stock car racing association has been dealing with some recent controversy involving drivers colluding to affect the outcome of a race. John Havick’s “The Ghosts of NASCAR” (University of Iowa Press, 193 pages, $19.95) reminds us that all sorts of shenanigans have been a part of racing over the years. In one high-profile case — the running of the very first Daytona 500 in 1959 — some shady behavior may well have robbed an Iowan of the victory.
Subtitled “The Harlan Boys and the First Daytona 500,” Havick’s book is primarily about Johnny Beauchamp, and to a lesser extent, gifted mechanic Dale Swanson and driver Tiny Lund. In the 1950s in Iowa, Harlan was a hotbed of racing skill, and Havick takes us onto the tracks and into the garages to witness the development of the sport over that period of time. Toward book’s end, we take a trip to Daytona where Beauchamp was originally named winner of the big race only to have Lee Petty declared the winner three days later. Havick looks into the matter closely, suggesting that the photo finish — which was the focus of most of the chatter surrounding the race — isn’t the most important thing to consider.
Long ago, I spent five years editing an auto racing publication, and it was a pleasure to revisit that world via Havick’s book. “The Ghosts of NASCAR,” despite some clunky passages and a few details that might be unclear to readers with no prior knowledge of the sport, is quite readable. The chapters concerning the Daytona 500 are a bit overwrought (and also a bit convoluted), but Havick is, after all, arguing a point of honor (and history) for an Iowa legend, so it’s probably appropriate that his engine runs a little hot.
What: John Havick reads from “The Ghosts of NASCAR”
Where: Barnes & Noble, 333 Collins Rd. NE, Cedar Rapids
When: 7 p.m. Oct. 10
Extra: Havick will participate in the Iowa City Book Festival on Oct. 12