Stock-Car Racing

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Stock-Car Racing

From February through November there is a stock-car race somewhere in America, with tracks drawing up to 150,000 racing fans, eager to watch their favorite drivers zoom around the oval tracks in cars much like their own automobiles. From humble beginnings in a farmer's field in the mid-1930s, the sport has become so popular nationwide that its television ratings are second only to the National Football League, and top drivers make millions of dollars a year from racing and advertising endorsements. When Jeff Gordon won the opening race of the 1999 season at Daytona Beach, Florida, he collected more than $2.1 million.

The earliest stock-car racers got their training by transporting moonshine whiskey over the dusty roads of Appalachia in the dead of night, outrunning the revenuers by driving flat-out in dangerous conditions. These moonshine runners were a part of a legend, later to be etched in the public mind by a movie, Thunder Road (1958), starring Robert Mitchum. In the mid-1930s, the drivers began arguing about who was fastest, and a race was set up in a quarter-mile dirt track carved out of a farmer's field near Stockbridge, Georgia. Unpublicized, the first race drew about 50 people, but after that thousands began showing up for the race, and the moonshiners began to collect cash prizes that surpassed their pay for nocturnal whiskey runs.

Among these early drivers were the Flock brothers—Tim, Bob, and Fonty—whose uncle owned one of the biggest stills in Georgia, and Junior Johnson, whose father had the largest moonshine operation in Wilkes County, North Carolina. Johnson, a legend in his own time, was featured in 1965 in a famous Esquire article by Tom Wolfe—"The Last American Hero is Junior Johnson-Yes!"—that was made into a movie. Unbeatable on the dirt tracks, Junior had his own special style of accelerating through the turns by cocking his steering wheel hard left and fishtailing the rear end of the car. Other drivers, who slowed their cars on turns and tried catching up on the straightaways, had little chance.

At about the time the Georgia farmer was carving a race track out of a cornfield, an auto mechanic and weekend dirt-track race driver named William Henry "Bill" France was beginning a journey that would eventually make him the pioneer and prime mover of organized stock-car racing. He moved to Daytona Beach, where 25 miles of hard-packed sand, 500 yards wide, had attracted Sir Malcolm Campbell, who made annual visits to attempt new land-speed records with his racing car "Bluebird." In 1935 France watched as Campbell made his last runs at Daytona before moving his operation to the less windy conditions of the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah. To continue attracting speed-minded tourists to Daytona Beach, the city fathers organized beach races, with little success.

In 1938 they recruited the personable France, whose gasoline station was a hangout for drivers and mechanics, to organize the races. A natural promoter, France signed up drivers, gathered prizes from local merchants, and set his race for July 4. Over 4,500 spectators showed up, each paying 50 cents a ticket. France and his financial backers split $200 in profits, and the young promoter started planning a beach race for Labor Day. By the following year, attendance was sharply up and ticket prices had doubled to a dollar. His races were a roaring success, but World War II brought a temporary end to his operation.

When he returned to the Daytona track after the war, France started the National Championship Stock-Car Circuit (NCSCC) to sponsor monthly races, with a winner's fund and a cumulative point system to reward the circuit's champion driver. NCSCC's inaugural year in 1947 was a great success, with Fonty Flock declared national champion. France's next bold step came in December of that year when he invited the most influential members of the stock car clan to a meeting in Daytona. He addressed 35 of his colleagues, urging them to "unite all stock car racing under one set of rules, with national point standings whereby only one driver could be crowned national champion." He urged consistent, enforceable rules concerning the modification of cars, insisting that the races admit only standard cars that could be bought at automobile dealerships. After a brief debate, the group supported such an organization and named France president. The National Association for Stock Car Racing (NASCAR) was incorporated on February 15, 1948, and a technical committee wrote rules to promote fair competition and provide for the safety of drivers and spectators.

Another important figure in stock car racing history is Harold Brasington, who brought to reality his dream of building a 1.25 mile paved speedway in his hometown of Darlington, South Carolina, and hosting the first 500 mile race for stock cars, the South's version of the Indianapolis 500. Bill France, in his second year of sanctioning races with his newly formed NASCAR, was called in to recruit drivers for the inaugural Southern 500 on Labor Day, 1950. Expecting to attract perhaps 5,000 paying customers to his 9,000 seat stadium, Brasington and France were astounded when 25,000 people showed up along with the first traffic jam in Darlington history. Tickets were sold for the infield, and the fans saw Johnny Mantz win the first Southern 500 driving a 1950 Plymouth with an average speed of 76 miles per hour, going the distance without a change of tires. By 1955 the Darlington track, known to racing fans as "the Granddaddy of them all," was attracting a maximum of 75,000 fans to the annual race, and the crowds remain that size every year. Harold Brasington's dream succeeded beyond all expectation.

Another event that boosted NASCAR to national prominence came in 1951 when the Detroit Chamber of Commerce called on Bill France to organize an automobile race as part of the Motor City's 250th anniversary celebration. France chose a one mile dirt racetrack in the Michigan State Fairgrounds and planned a race for stock cars that would run 250 miles, one for each year of the city's age. He also asked all the automobile manufacturers to enter at least one car in the race, and 15 agreed. On August 12, a crowd of 16,500 racing fans filled the track for the Motor City 250, and they saw 59 cars in a close, exciting race, with the lead changing 14 times. The winner was undecided until the last lap, when Tommy Thompson, in a 1951 Chrysler, out-foxed Joe Eubanks in a 1950 Oldsmobile 88.

The Motor City 250 enabled France to make two important breakthroughs: stock car racing, a sport bred in the South, became accepted in the North, and Detroit's auto makers became convinced that this popular sport could be good for a corporation's bottom line. Corporate sponsorships immediately began to bolster NASCAR's profits and winners' purses, and companies like Chevrolet, Ford, Goodyear, and Unocal began partnerships that have enhanced more than 50 years of NASCAR's history. Before these sponsorships, race drivers could hardly earn enough in prizes to keep their cars in tires; in the Motor City race, the first three cars won $5,000, $2,000, and $1,000, with the next seven making a few hundred dollars, and the other 52 cars only $25 or $50. In 1999, winners' purses have escalated so much that the top drivers employ racing teams to build as many as 12 cars a season at a cost of $70,000 each, all meeting NASCAR's exact specifications and assembled with the hope that the driver will gain 2/10 of a second advantage.

To move NASCAR into the modern era, Bill France risked his entire fortune to build the plush Daytona International Speedway, a 2.5 mile oval designed for high speeds with sweeping turns banked at 31 degrees. Fireball Roberts, a popular 1960s driver, said you could "flat-foot it all the way." Lee Petty, father of Richard and winner of the first Daytona 500, said there was not a driver there who was not "scared" of the steeply banked track. "We never had raced on a track like that before." It all added to the mystique of the race, and the fans came in droves. In 1959, there were 42,000, and today the grandstands at Daytona for the annual opening event of the NASCAR season hold over 140,000. This success led to other major tracks, and construction on super speedways in Atlanta, Charlotte, and Hanford, California, started in 1960. In 1969 France lapped the field again with the building of the spectacular Talladega, Alabama, track—2.66 miles long and a lane wider than Daytona—which took the sport to a new level, with cars racing three abreast at higher speeds than ever before. It was at Talladega that Bill Elliott drove the fastest lap in the NASCAR books: 212 miles per hour.

One of the reasons for NASCAR's continued success has been the "consistent, enforceable rules" that France had envisioned for governing the sport. He always believed that it was close, side-by-side racing that drew the fans, and to preserve fair competition NASCAR showed no favoritism. Whether the rule violator was a champion or a rising star, the penalty was consistent. Seven-time Winston Cup champion Richard Petty was caught with an illegal engine in 1983 and fined $35,000. Jeff Gordon was the series leader and eventual Winston Cup champ in 1995 when his team was fined $65,000 for using an unapproved wheel hub. Such strict inspection had begun in the very first "Strictly Stock Car" race in 1949, when Glenn Dunnaway crossed the finish line first but was disqualified when a post-race inspector discovered a wedge had been placed in the rear suspension to stiffen the springs and improve handling, a trick long known by moonshine runners.

In 1999, NASCAR is sanctioning approximately 2,000 events a year in 12 separate divisions at over 100 race tracks across the United States. More than 16 million people attend these events, which are watched by another 150 million on television. The premier series is the Winston Cup, featuring the top drivers and cars that are factory-supported by Chevrolet, Ford, and Pontiac. Second is the Busch Series, Grand National Division, a training ground for Winston Cup drivers of the future. Also popular is the Winston Racing Series of weekly races at more than 100 short tracks, a grassroots level of racing that produces its own national champion.

On February 7, 1999, a stock-car race driver came in second in the ARCA 200 at Daytona after having taken three years off to give birth to two children and start an interior design business. The driver was Shawna Robinson, who walked away from racing in 1995 after five seasons in the Busch Grand National Series, in which she became the first woman to win a NASCAR national series race. From its beginning, stock car racing has changed with the times while continuing to give its fans thrills and surprises.

—Benjamin Griffith

Further Reading:

Bledsoe, Jerry. The World's Number One, Flat-Out, All-Time Great, Stock Car Racing Book. Garden City, New York, Doubleday, 1975.

Hagstrom, Robert G. The NASCAR Way: The Business That Drives the Sport. New York, Wiley, 1998.

Howell, Mark D. From Moonshine to Madison Avenue: A Cultural History of the NASCAR Winston Cup Series. Bowling Green, Ohio, Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1997.