Stock Car Racing

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Stock car racing evokes many different images—from the "redneck" sport, to one of the most lucrative motor sports industries in the world. One of the most well known stock car racing businesses, NASCAR (the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing), has become the largest organization within one of the largest spectator sports in America. The history of NASCAR is a storied one with many more twists and turns that can be found on a standard NASCAR oval racetrack.

The History of NASCAR

NASCAR began its storied past in the prohibition era of American history, when the production, distribution, and consumption of alcohol was prohibited. Many industrious individuals began to produce and distribute contraband whiskey, and the infamous bootlegger was born. A bootlegger was an individual who illegally transported and distributed moonshine or other contraband material across the Southeast. In order to outwit and outrun the authorities, often times bootleggers would modify their cars to not only to carry large amounts of contraband, but also to go very fast while maintaining their stock appearance. As more and more bootleggers began the dangerous trade, it became inevitable that some of them would start to races each other. Although racing is nothing new to humans, this new form of racing was new to motorsports. Since bootleggers often had fast cars to outrun the law, egos were on the line as to who among them had the fastest cars. Furthermore, many bootleggers would race on Sunday afternoon, and then use the same car to make illegal distribution runs later that night. Often times, these races would draw large crowds of spectators, so it is difficult to determine when exactly watching stock car racing for recreation really began.

It might be expected that once the Volstead Act of 1933 repealed the whiskey ban, that bootlegging might suffer. This was not the case, since there was a large tax placed on whiskey; this meant that bootlegging continued to thrive, as did the independent races. In the summer of 1938, driver and race organizer Bill France organized what is considered the first NASCAR-type race (although the group itself wouldn't exist for another ten years). The race was held at the famous track on Daytona Beach, Florida, with the winner receiving prizes such as a bottle of rum and a box of cigars. France, through foresight, realized that in order for this fledgling sport to grow, it had to become better organized, with one body maintaining records and a list of champions.

Stock car racing was put on hold during World War II. In 1947, France organized the first meeting that formally brought into being present-day NASCAR. At the meeting, France and his associates established the ground rules and the specifications governing the sport. In 1948, France and NASCAR ran a 52-race series of what were known as Modified cars, which were different from true stock cars. Thus, the first official NASCAR stock car race is recognized as the race held at the Charlotte (North Carolina) Fairgrounds on 19 June 1949. To compete in this race, cars had to be "strictly stock," meaning that they had to be full-sized American cars with no body modifications, and parts used in the car had to be listed in the manufacturers catalogue for that model year. This is what is meant when a race car is called a "stock car."

The next evolution in NASCAR came about with the construction of the first superspeedway in Darlington, South Carolina. The superspeedways allowed cars to go faster than they had previously due to their long straightaways and high-banked turns. Many ups and downs were experience by NASCAR during the 1950s and 1960s, but in the 1960s NASCAR changed its rules with respect to the meaning of "stock," and race cars quickly evolved past standard stock automobiles.

Again, NASCAR had difficulties during the late 1960s, but prevailed with the emergence of its first superstar, Richard Petty. Many observers believe that Petty almost single-handedly saved NASCAR, and he would go on to set many NASCAR records during his thirty-year-plus career (including most career victories, 200). New fans were exposed to NASCAR in the 1970s when ABC began to televise auto racing segments that included NASCAR on such programs as the Wide World of Sports. In 1979, the entire Daytona 500 was televised by CBS and was watched by nearly 20 million spectators. During the 1980s, corporations began to see that the marketing value in NASCAR, and corporate sponsorship took off.

The Business of NASCAR

NASCAR, along with auto racing in general, is one of the fastest-growing spectator sports in the United States. NASCAR runs about ninety races each year, in twenty-five states, through three racing circuits: the Busch, Craftsman Truck, and its signature Nextel Cup Series (formerly the Winston Cup). The Nextel Cup, featuring popular drivers like Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr., and Dale Jarrett, draws more than 7 million race fans each year. NBC, FOX, and Turner Broadcasting have taken note, paying $2.4 billion for broadcast rights until 2006. Since its founding in 1948, NASCAR has been, and, as of the early 2000s, is still privately owned by the France family. NASCAR claimed to have over 75 million fans, with estimated sales in 2002 of over $3 billion. Sponsorships from companies selling everything from engine parts to soft drinks have played a major role in this amazing growth. More than 75 percent of NASCAR fans are in the eighteen to fifty-four age bracket and, according to research data, about 40 percent will switch to a product if it becomes a NASCAR sponsor.

In 2004, NASCAR traded cigarettes for cell phones when wireless communications giant Nextel replaced R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. (RJR) as the title sponsor of NASCAR's premier series. A 1998 master settlement of state lawsuits against the tobacco industry had limited RJR in marketing its NASCAR sponsorship. Earlier court rulings forbade RJR from advertising Winston, its top cigarette brand, on radio or television, and the company also could not market to minors. Those limitations, and the uncertain business climate in the tobacco industry, led RJR in early 2003 to give NASCAR permission to look for another title sponsor. RJR had been with NASCAR for thirty-one years, signing on in 1972 to take over what was then called the Grand National Series. Various reports have valued the marketing deal between NASCAR and Nextel at as much as $700 million over ten years. At a minimum, it is the largest sponsorship deal in the history of sports.

NASCAR races are the second-most watched televised sport, behind NFL football. Companies have long sought NASCAR's reach; it has more Fortune 500 company sponsors than any other sport. And when it comes to fans loyal to their sport's sponsors, NASCAR fans are a marketer's dream. NASCAR fans are almost twice as likely as baseball and basketball fans to buy a sponsor's product over a nonsponsor's product. On the television side, ratings of NASCAR broadcasts have tripled since 1990, while other sports like hockey, baseball, and basketball have seen ratings plummet.

Although the Nextel Cup is the premier NASCAR series, it also oversees two additional racing series: the Craftsman Truck Series and the Busch Racing Series. Both are conisdered to be "feeder" series for the Nextel Cup, with the best Busch and Craftsman drivers earning a chance to race in the Nextel series. Together, the three series have allowed NASCAR to broaden its share of the racing market. Many of the drivers achieve incredible popularity, with race fans idolizing them and immortalizing them after death. This was perhaps never as true as it was in 2001, when legendary driver Dale Earnhardt Sr. was killed on the last lap of the Daytona 500 race. Since his death, Earnhardt's ardent fans carry on his memory, and memorabilia featuring his name and likeness is still popular.

Another component of NASCAR is the automobile manufacturers. Although the relationship between NASCAR and the manufacturers has not always been amenable, there exists, as of 2003, a good relationship between NASCAR and the manufacturers. Chevrolet, Ford, and Dodge, who produce all the Nextel Cup cars, use NASCAR to test new technology, and all three realize that the old adage "race on Sunday, sell on Monday" is still true—if a driver wins the Sunday NASCAR race driving a Chevrolet, Chevy dealers across the country can expect to see a sales bump on Monday (with the same true for Ford and Dodge, or course). In addition, the automakers compete each year for the manufacturers championship, earning points throughout the year based on their brand's race-day performance.

Although to the lay individual, NASCAR racing might seem simple, many rules govern the racing including restrictions on engine size and car weight. The cars also have to maintain the basic shape of production automobiles to qualify to race in a NASCAR event. Without downplaying the complexities of NASCAR racing, the basic premise of each race is that drivers race for a predetermined length, for example 250 miles or 500 miles, and the driver who completes the race the fastest wins.


From its humble beginnings during the prohibition era, stock car racing has changed with the times, while continuing to provide fans with thrilling races and surprises. One of the reasons for NASCAR's continued success has been the consistent manner in which the France family has enforced the rules. They have always believed that close, side-by-side racing is what attracts the fans, and to preserve fair competition, NASCAR has shown no favoritism throughout the years. This is evident in the application of consistent penalties, whether the rule violator was a champion or a rising star. An interesting past full of colorful characters and events, a lucrative television contract, and a willingness to consistently govern and monitor all aspects of current-day operations has positioned NASCAR at the forefront of sport entertainment for the foreseeable future. Additionally, the NASCAR fans are some of the most loyal in the industry, making NASCAR, and stock car racing as a whole, a viable entertainment as well as business venture for the future.

See also: Automobiles and Leisure, Auto Racing, Drag Racing, Open Wheel Racing, Prohibition and Temperance, Sports Car Racing


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T. Jason Davis and Daniel Hedrick