LOUDON, NH—Shock, grief, and the overwhelming sense of loss that has swept the stock car racing community following the death by apparent suicide of writer David Foster Wallace has moved NASCAR to cancel the remainder of its 2008 season in respect for the acclaimed but troubled author of Infinite Jest, A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again, and Brief Interviews With Hideous Men.
In deference to the memory of Wallace, whose writing on alienation, sadness, and corporate sponsorship made him the author of the century in stock car racing circles and whom NASCAR chairman Brian France called "perhaps the greatest American writer to emerge in recent memory, and definitely our most human," officials would not comment on how points, and therefore this year's championship, would be determined.
At least for the moment, drivers found it hard to think about the Sprint Cup.
"All race long on Sunday, I was dealing with the unreality presented me by his absence," said #16 3M Ford Fusion driver Greg Biffle, who won Sunday's Sylvania 300 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, the first race in the Chase For The Cup, and would therefore have had the lead in the championship. "I first read Infinite Jest in 1998 when my gas-can man gave me a copy when I was a rookie in the Craftsman Truck Series, and I was immediately struck dumb by the combination of effortlessness and earnestness of his prose. Here was a writer who loved great, sprawling, brilliantly punctuated sentences that spread in a kind of textual kudzu across the page, yet in every phrase you got a sense of his yearning to relate and convey the importance of every least little thing. It's no exaggeration to say that when I won Rookie of the Year that season it was David Foster Wallace who helped me keep that achievement, and therefore my life, in perspective."
"I'm flooded with feelings of—for lack of a better concept—incongruity," said Jimmie Johnson, the driver of the #48 Lowe's Chevrolet who is known throughout racing for his habit of handing out copies of Wallace's novels to his fans. "David Foster Wallace could comprehend and articulate the sadness in a luxury cruise, a state fair, a presidential campaign, anything. But empathy, humanity, and compassion so strong as to be almost incoherent ran through that same sadness like connective tissue through muscle, affirming the value of the everyday, championing the banal yet true, acknowledging the ironic as it refused to give in to irony."
"And now he's gone," Johnson added. "He's taken himself away. We can't possibly race now."
David Foster Wallace's work came to stock car racing in the mid-1990s, just as the sport began experiencing almost geometric yearly growth. But the literary atmosphere of the sport was moribund, mired in the once-flamboyant but decidedly aging mid-1960s stylings of Tom Wolfe, whose bombastic essays—notably "The Last American Hero Is Junior Johnson. Yes!"—served as the romantic, quasi-elegiac be-all and end-all for NASCAR fans and series participants alike. Racing was ready for new ideas, and when a new generation of young drivers like Jeff Gordon arrived on the scene, sporting new sponsorship deals on their fireproof coveralls and dog-eared copies of Broom Of The System under their arms, an intellectual seed crystal was dropped into the supersaturated solution of American motorsports.
"Suddenly DFW was everywhere," said #88 Amp Energy Chevrolet driver Dale Earnhardt Jr., whose enthusiasm for Wallace is apparent in both his deep solemnity and the Infinite Jest-inspired Great Concavity tattoo on his left shoulder. "My Dad was against him, actually, in part because he was a contrarian and in part because he was a Pynchon fan from way back. But that was okay. It got people reading V and Gravity's Rainbow, and hell, nothing wrong with that. But now, to think we'll never see another novel from Wallace…I can't get my mind around it."
"David himself said that what he knew about racing you could write with a dry Sharpie marker on the lip of a Coke bottle," said NASCAR president Mike Helton, who announced the season cancellation late Monday after prompting from drivers and team owners in a statement that also tentatively suggested naming the 2009 Sprint series the Racing Season Of The Depends Adult Undergarment in referential and reverential tribute to Wallace's work, a proposal currently being considered by Depends manufacturer Kimberly-Clark. "But that doesn't matter to us as readers, as human beings."
"Racing and literature are both huge parts of American life, and I don't think David Foster Wallace would want me to make too much of that, or to pretend that it's any sort of equitable balance," Helton added. "That would be grotesque. But the truth is that whatever cultural deity, entity, energy, or random social flux produced stock car racing also produced the works of David Foster Wallace. And just look them. Look at that."