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Under the Hood

Dec. 19, 2005
Dec. 19, 2005

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Dec. 19, 2005

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Under the Hood

The year's best books took us deep into the psyches of competitors like Lance, Yao, Belichick--and race car driver Janet Guthrie, who wrote her own profile in courage

Before Danica Patrick finished fourth in the 2005 Indianapolis 500, the best showing by a woman at the Brickyard came in 1978, when Janet Guthrie steered a mediocre car to a ninth-place finish despite having broken her wrist two days earlier. Patrick has since become a star. But following her run, Guthrie was subjected to the same harassment and prejudice that dogged her before the race. Two years later she left the sport. And for the next quarter century, Guthrie recently told SI, "the first thing on my mind was [writing a] book."

This is an article from the Dec. 19, 2005 issue Original Layout

She has finally done that, without a ghostwriter, and the result, A Life at Full Throttle, is a fascinating read that details her entry into the sport in the Northeast the 1960s and also the abuse she endured. Guthrie is not afraid to be frank about her emotions and her quirks. Away from the track she swooned at Tchaikovsky and Tennyson. Before a race she prayed to Athena, goddess of wisdom. But on the track she was a warrior as cold and hard as the steel she drove. While racing, she writes, "your emotional steam, superheated, is harnessed, entirely at the service of your will." After a crash once, her blood pressure checked out normal.

It will be obvious to readers that Guthrie, the daughter of a commercial pilot who taught her how to fly Pipers when she was 15, was born to race. People in her sport, though, did everything they could to thwart her. One columnist wrote that if women could race, drunk drivers ought to be allowed to, also. Richard Petty said that Guthrie was "no lady" because "if she was, she'd be at home." Driver Billy Vukovich said if she ever finished a 500, he'd eat his hat. (Vukovich later admitted he was thinking of having a hat made of chocolate.)

Reliving those experiences for the book was painful for Guthrie. "Sometimes," she says, "it felt like taking an X-acto knife, cutting open your arm, dipping your pen in the wound, and then writing with blood." For her efforts, though, Guthrie turned out an uplifting work that is one of the best books ever written about racing--and establishes her as one of the sport's most eloquent voices.  --Charles Hirshberg

The Brow Beat

Highbrow
Bullfighting isn't for writers intimidated by Hemingway, but Edward Lewine does Papa proud with DEATH AND THE SUN. Part bullfighting primer, part travelogue, it depicts a matador's year in heroic detail.

Lowbrow
They're not the Brownings, but Jose Canseco and ex-wife Jessica (below) can titillate. He exposed baseball's steroid problem in JUICED. Her JUICY is Hollywood Wives on steroids: life as a slugger's spouse.

By the Numbers

397
That's the number of pictures and illustrations in SPORTS ILLUSTRATED's recently published The Football Book, a 294-page, coffee-table-sized celebration of America's Game. It has vivid writing from the magazine's first half century, plus photos that capture the sport's grit and glory.

Go West, Young Man
Yao's life and Chinese strife intersect in an elegant sports bio

THE EXISTENCE of a Chinese man who stands 7'6", has a soft shooting touch, plies his trade on a basketball court in Houston and graces billboards in Beijing would seem to be a cosmic fluke. But in the exhaustively reported Operation Yao Ming: The Chinese Sports Empire, American Big Business, and the Making of an NBA Superstar (excerpted in the Sept. 26 issue of SI), Brook Larmer deftly shows that the emergence of Yao, and Yao Inc., was no accident. Rather it was the inevitable result of careful genetic planning, political and social upheaval, the rise of the global economy--and some very devoted mothering. Larmer vividly depicts the brutal intertwining of sports and revolution in Communist China, but his real achievement is a sharp and compelling portrait of one of the NBA's most mysterious stars.

Pedal Mettle
Two authors winningly pursued the Tour de France champion

THE TITLE SUBJECT wasn't thrilled with it, but that may be all the more reason you'll enjoy Dan Coyle's Lance Armstrong's War. In 2004 Coyle glommed on to four Tour de France contenders, foremost among them one aerobically freakish Texan, whose attempts to keep the author at arm's length failed to prevent Coyle from delivering a literary tour de force: the liveliest, best-written and most deeply reported book on the seven-time Tour winner yet.

Martin Dugard's Chasing Lance is a more straightforward account of Armstrong's victory in the '05 Tour. Dugard is a history buff unable to help himself: His fast-paced account of Armstrong's final race is laced with references to such Gallic icons as De Gaulle, Saint-Exupéry and the Maginot Line, and his descriptions of the Tour's towns are complemented by keen psychological portraits of the riders.

The Most ...

Admirable Trend
DELVING INTO THE MINDS OF GREAT COACHES.
Pulitzer Prize winner David Halberstam cracks one of the NFL's toughest nuts in The Education of a Coach, a rare close-up of the Patriots' Bill Belichick (SI, Oct. 17). Buzz Bissinger lets us manage along with the Cardinals' Tony La Russa (above) in Three Nights in August (SI, March 21). And in The Last Coach: A Life of Paul 'Bear' Bryant, Allen Barra paints a rich portrait of the man in the houndstooth hat.

Annoying Trend
THE RED SOX LIT GLUT.
No fewer than a dozen books on the 2004 World Series hit shelves, ranging from the sublime (Faithful, by Stewart O'Nan and Stephen King) to the ridiculous (Johnny Damon's Idiot) to the repetitive (Reversing the Curse, Curse to Verse). We get it already: They won.

Powerful Examples of Sports as Social Prism
In BEYOND GLORY: JOE LOUIS VS. MAX SCHMELING, AND A WORLD ON THE BRINK, David Margolick's account of the 1938 bout between the black heavyweight champ and Hitler's great white hope, the author reminds us that sports is not always a distraction from reality; sometimes it sharpens our focus on the world. Wayne A. Rozen does the same in AMERICA ON THE ROPES: A PICTORIAL HISTORY OF THE JOHNSON-JEFFRIES FIGHT, a disturbing study of how race became the undercard to a 1910 prizefight.

Absorbing Fish Stories
THE DEVIL'S TEETH, Susan Casey's account of her adventures with shark researchers off the California coast (SI, May 2), is a mesmerizing portrait of scientists living on the edge--and dangerously close to their subjects. With SOWBELLY: THE OBSESSIVE QUEST FOR THE WORLD RECORD LARGEMOUTH BASS, Monte Burke delivers a sort of real-life Moby-Dick, introducing readers to some serious anglers and their white whale: a largemouth bigger than the 22-pound, four-ounce monster caught in Georgia in 1932.

Convincing Reason to Buy a Motor Home
In 2002 SI special contributor Jeff MacGregor hopped behind the wheel of an RV for a seasonlong tour of NASCAR Nation. The result: SUNDAY MONEY, a sharp, witty--and, at times, disturbing--look (SI, April 11) at one of the country's most colorful subcultures.

Intriguing Excuse for Failure
If England crashes out of the 2006 World Cup, it can always fall back on David Winner's well-made argument that the team doesn't play "sexy" enough. In THOSE FEET: A SENSUAL HISTORY OF ENGLISH FOOTBALL, he passionately, and often hilariously, traces England's workmanlike and ineffectual play to Victorian sexual repression.

ILLUSTRATIONTWO PHOTOSSPORTCLASSIC BOOKS (GUTHRIE BOOK COVER); AP (GUTHRIE) PIONEER WOMAN Guthrie was Indy's first female finisher, in '78. THREE PHOTOSALONSO GONZALES/REUTERS/CORBIS (BULLFIGHT); GETTY IMAGES FOR INFORM FITNESS (JESSICA CANSECO); SPORTS ILLUSTRATED IMAGING (THE FOOTBALL BOOK)TEN PHOTOSBILL GREENBLATT/UPI (BISSINGER AND LA RUSSA); COURTESY OF HOUGHTON MIFFLIN (THREE NIGHTS IN AUGUST COVER); CROWN PUBLISHERS (IDIOT COVER); MONTE FRESCO/DAILY MIRROR (SOCCER PLAYERS VINNIE JONES AND PAUL GASCOIGNE); BLOOMSBURY PUB LTD (THOSE FEET COVER); AUTOMEDIA/WIREIMAGE.COM (ARMSTRONG); LITTLE, BROWN & COMPANY (CHASING LANCE COVER); HARPERCOLLINS (LANCE ARMSTRONG'S WAR COVER); GOH CHAI HIN/AFP/GETTY IMAGES (YAO); GOTHAM (OPERATION YAO MING COVER)