The history of NASCAR racing can be traced back to the Prohibition era of the 1920-s and 30’s, when the underground moonshine running business was in full swing. Modern day stock car drivers sprung from the illegal bootleggers that ran whiskey from hidden stills to hundreds of outlets in the Southeast.
These bootleggers preceded the modern-era of auto racing by jetting around under cover of night eluding the police and racing to their next locations. Eventually, competition emerged between the moonshiner’s about who could get to their destination the fastest. Word grew, and crowds gathered on Sunday night’s to watch the bootlegger’s race each other.
By 1938, William H.G. Bill France decided that he would sanction the first race among these drivers. It happened on the sands of historic Daytona Beach. The purse: a bottle of rum, a box of cigars and a case of motor oil. This race was the foundation to what NASCAR has become today.
World War II brought stock car racing a standstill, albeit for a handful of events at Daytona. In 1947, France decided it was time to organize stock car racing by creating a sanctioning body with rules and regulations. At the Ebony Bar located in the Streamline Inn at Daytona Beach, the National Association for Stock Car Racing was born.
NASCAR grew exponentially throughout the 1950’s and 1960’s, but its breakout year was 1970. When the Nixon administration instituted a ban of cigarette advertising on the television and radio, RJ Reynolds Tobacco Company had an ingenious idea of how to continue to market their tobacco products, particularly their Winston brand of cigarettes.
Beginning in 1971, the Grand National Division of NASCAR, became known as the Winston Cup series. The money funneled into the sport by RJR exploded stock car racing into the mainstream media.
Television viewers got their first taste of the excitement of NASCAR in the late 1970’s when flag-to-flag coverage began on the major networks. The appeal of NASCAR is their ability to run on a wide variety of racetracks, from the 2.66-mile superspeedway at Talladega, Alabama to the .75-mile short track at Richmond. Each garners their own special variety of excitement.
Talladega and Daytona are the infamous restrictor plate race tracks. Due to their enormous track size and high banking in the corners, a thin piece of metal is placed on the carburetor on these tracks to artificially reduce speed. With the plates, speeds run about 190 mph in the corners and create close side-by-side racing.
Restrcitor plate racetracks are the wreck fests. Where the racers motor around at top speeds door-to-door in a tight pack of cars, if one small bump goes awry and a car spins in front of the field, a huge multi-car crash will ensue. Those crashes are often referred to as the “big one” collecting 15-20 cars in one fell swoop.
In extreme contrast, are tracks like Martinsville, Bristol and Richmond, short-tracks where Short track racing is the home grown banging sheet metal action that makes NASCAR racing come alive. Tight tracks like Bristol make for some of the most exciting racing of the year.
Cars roar around the .533-mile oval beating and battling for position. Racers race right up on each others bumpers, and often shove the competition out of the way to further their climb to the front. Short track races are filled with wrecks and tempers tantrums. It’s not unheard of to witness a fistfight on pit road between two drivers after the event, and a long line of frustrated people looking to plead their case to NASCAR officials post race.
All-in-all NASCAR races four restrictor plate races, and six short track events, the rest of the schedule is filled in with 26 events at intermediate tracks. There are also three non-point productions, such as the Nextel All-Star race held in Charlotte every year the week before the Memorial Day weekend Coca-Cola 600.
NASCAR, once populated by drivers with a Southern lineage, has seen an influx of new faces. These drivers known as the “young guns” became the rock stars of the sport. Jimmie Johnson, Kevin Harvick, Robby Gordon, Ryan Newman, Kasey Kahne and Greg Biffle are not only brash exciting racers, but handsome and well-spoken, reaching out to younger audiences bridging the gap between NASCAR loyalists and the MTV generation.
“Coming into the series,” said Gordon. “I didn’t expect a lot of things that have happened. I never dreamed of commercials on television or dreamed of the number of fans that follow our sport all over the country and the growth that it’s had, the audiences that come in person.
“I never thought that the sport and the business of the sport would get to this level or go to the level that it’s gone to.”
While the popularity of these drivers is immense, no one is more beloved by the NASCAR nation than Dale Earnhardt, Jr. Junior inherited the millions of loyal fans his father acquired, after Dale Sr.’s untimely death, in a last lap crash at the 2000 Daytona 500.
Earnhardt, Jr. paid his father the ultimate homage this year; by winning the season-opening Daytona 500 six years to the day Dale Earnhardt, Sr. pulled the No. 3 Chevy into victory lane. They are now the only father-son race car driver’s to every both score a win on the 2.5-mile superspeedway.
With emotional race endings like this year’s Daytona 500, NASCAR has become the number two watched sport in America, with over 75 million fans, 30 million of them women.
With the exit of RJ Reynolds Tobacco Company sponsorship at the end of 2003, NASCAR forged a new partnership with Nextel, a wireless service provider, to inherit the title sponsorship of what had been known for thirty some-odd years as The Winston Cup series.
That saw that title sponsor change to the NASCAR Nextel Cup series and opened the door for NASCAR to spread its wings. The limitations on how NASCAR could market its Winston Cup series because of the relation to tobacco often halted the mega-marketing machine of the sport. With Nextel on board, the sky is the limit.
“We love the hard core traditional fan,” said Michael Robichaud, Director of Sports and Entertainment Marketing for Nextel. “We are thrilled to be in business with NASCAR as it grows. It is the simple fact that we have the ability to market our product to 75 million fans.”
That year also brought alterations in how NASCAR determines its season end championship driver. The sanctioning body created a playoff format, where after the 26th race of the season, every driver in the top-10 and any driver within 400 points of the leader will be eligible for the chase for the championship. The current point leader will have his points reset to 5050, with all trailing competitors being reset in descending 5 point increments (i.e. 2nd place = 5045, 3rd place = 5040, etc).
It creates a “Super Bowl” type appeal for fans, and added excitement as NASCAR closes the season. NASCAR hopes it will keep people glued to their couches during a critical TV time when the sport competes with Major League Baseball and the National Football League.
NASCAR won’t stop motoring forward until they surpass the NFL as the most watched sport in the country. Anyone who’s ever been to a NASCAR race knows the appeal. The smell of the asphalt, the whirr of the engines, and the frenetic pace in the garage, race morning is addictive. Adrenaline junkies get their fix, and die hard race fans get their appetite satiated.