A recent Gallup poll revealed that a full 28% of Americans are tried-and-true race fans. 38% of that total are women; 53% work in professional, managerial, or skilled labor positions. The median yearly total of a family of race fans is above $50,000.
Truly NASCAR history has evolved to a point where racing is no longer a sport just for Southern "rednecks". It has grown from its Southeastern roots to places nationwide. Winston Cup races are now held in New Hampshire, Michigan, California, Arizona, New York, Pennsylvania, Indiana, Texas and Nevada. There is even an exhibition race to be held in Suzuka, Japan, at the end of the 1996 Winston Cup schedule, called the NASCAR Suzuka Thunder Special 100.
However, racing on the whole wasn't always able to boast the success one sees today. Racing struggled for several years, from both its "redneck" brand, and earlier than that, the law.
NASCAR history can trace its roots back to 1794. Of course, that's a whole century before the invention of the automobile, but it was the year of the Whiskey Rebellion. This was a protest of a federal tax on whiskey by frontier farmers. Instead of being subject to the tax, many frontiersmen built secret stills, manufactured, and delivered their product in secret. Not often mentioned, but this is the true origin of NASCAR history.
During the Prohibition era of the 1920's and early 30's, the undercover business of whiskey, or "moonshine", running began to boom. More of a problem than secret manufacture of moonshine was the secret transportation of it. The common term for moonshine runners was "bootleggers". Bootleggers were "men who illegally ran whiskey from hidden stills to hundreds of markets across the Southeast. These men were the real Dukes of Hazzard, only there was nothing funny about their business. Driving at high speeds at night, often with the police in pursuit, was dangerous. The penalty for losing the race was jail or loss of livelihood." (1)
As bootlegging boomed, the drivers began to race among themselves to see who had the fastest cars. Bootleggers raced on Sunday afternoons and then used the same car to haul moonshine Sunday night. Inevitably, people came to see the races, and racing moonshine cars became extremely popular in the backroads of the South. Bootlegging continued even after the end of the Prohibition era, because of the huge tax placed on whiskey upon repeal of the Volstead Act in 1933.
In the summer of 1938 a man named William H.G. "Bill" France organized a race on the wide, firm sands of Daytona Beach, Florida. The winner recieved such items as a bottle of rum, a box of cigars, and a case of motor oil (precursors to present-day sponsor involvement in the sport) - NASCAR history had begun. France was a visionary; he realized for stock car racing to grow, an official organization had to exist to list champions, keep statistics, and memorialize records and record-holders.
The outbreak of World War II brought stock car racing to a halt. The drivers went to war and the production of new cars ceased. At the end of the war, some drivers came back and ran occasional, haphazard races at places like the beach at Daytona.
By 1947, Bill France realized it was high time for a national sanctioning body to govern stock car racing. On December 12 of that year he gathered promoters from the Southeast, Northeast, and Midwest to the Ebony Bar atop the Streamline Inn as Daytona. Over the next three days rules were drawn and specifications agreed upon. The name of the organization would by NASCAR- the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing.
The first "true" NASCAR race, in the division that would lead to the present-day WInston Cup Series, was held at the Charlotte (N.C.) Fairgrounds on June 19, 1949. The division of NASCAR in which this race was held, at that time, was called the "Strictly Stock" division. "The 'Strictly Stock' division was open to competitiors who drove full-sized, American made passenger cars, with complete bodies, hoods, fenders, bumpers, and grilles- all parts were required to be listed in the manufacturer's catalog for each model."
The winner of that race was Glenn Dunnaway in a '47 Ford. After the race, however, inspectors found an illegal part in the shocks of his car. The car had been used for bootlegging earlier that week, and the illegal shock wedge was used often to increase speed of bootlegging cars. Dunnaway's car owner sued, but the NASCAR lawyer kept repeating the word "bootlegger" over and over in court, and NASCAR won the case. Jim Roper, driving a '49 Lincoln, went down as the winner of the first ever NASCAR race. At the end of the season Red Byron became NASCAR's first ever national champion. [Jim Roper recently waved the green flag at the Texas 500 in April 1998.]
On September 4, 1950, the concept of the "superspeedway" became a reality at Darlington, South Carolina. The first Southern 500 was held that day, on a track larger, wider, and faster than any stock car driver had ever seen before. Johnny Mantz won in a 1950 Plymouth. This event, which is now a Labor Day tradition, helped bring people to the sport which previously had no interest in it. [Darlington is incidentally one of the smaller tracks on the Winston Cup circuit].
Through the 1950's NASCAR began to flourish. Corporate sponsors, such as Pure Oil and Champion Sparkplugs took an active role in the sport. Even the major automobile manufacturers, such as Ford, Chevrolet, and Chrysler gave "factory backing" to individual drivers-- the drivers would recieve money from a manufacturer to drive its product. A common motto for these automobile manufacturers was "Win on Sunday, sell on Monday". The car companies realized the potential of racing to sell cars. In the 1950's, NASCAR held races in such places as Municipal Stadium [later JFK Stadium] in Philadelphia and Soldier Field in Chicago. [Richard Petty's first race that counts in his 1,185 starts was held clear out of the U.S.- in Toronto, Canada.]
NASCAR faced its first major crisis when all of the automobile manufacturers pulled out of racing in May 1957 following an incident at the Martinsville (Va.) Speedway where five people-including an 8 year old boy- were hurt from flying debris from a crash. Bill France, however, managed to keep the organization functioning by convincing promoters to increase prize monies. Two other factors, perhaps coincidental, served to keep NASCAR alive.
The first was the appearance of NASCAR's first superstar, Glenn "Fireball" Roberts in 1958. Roberts got his nickname from the fierce fastball he threw while playing baseball at Florida State. He won 32 races in his career.
Ironically, what eventually caused Roberts' death was a different type of fireball. During the 1964 World 600 at Charlotte (N.C.) Motor Speedway, Junior Johnson and Ned Jarrett crashed on the back straightaway. Roberts swerved to avoid the cars, flipped, and broke the car's fuel tank open. The car burst into flames, and Jarrett ran to pull him out of the fire.
"Jarrett finally did pull him out, burning his own hands, and once he got him out, he began tearing off Roberts' clothing. Roberts, still conscious, helped. After the rescue squad finished attending to Rpberts, the racer was taken to Charlotte Memorial Hospital. He was burned over 80% of his body." (3) Roberts died a little over a month after the crash, on July 2, 1964.
The second factor that helped bring NASCAR through its first lean years was the opening of the Daytona International Speedway in 1959. The track had been a dream of Bill France for many years. France risked almost everything he had on building the track over a plot of swampland four miles away from the ocean. Many people thought France was going to lose it all and thought the track was going to be a failure.
However, the first Daytona 500 proved his critics all wrong. The race had recieved a great deal of hype in the weeks leading up to it; even Walter Cronkite came to cover it. Any spectator could see every part of the 2.5 mile track (almost twice as long as any other track raced on to that time) from any seat in the grandstand. Nobody had ever seen the speeds and fierce competition that were showcased in the first Daytona 500 in 1959. In fact, after five hundred miles of racing, it took a photo finish and 61 hours to determine that Lee Petty's Oldsmobile beat Johnny Beauchamp's Ford by a fraction of a car length. The photo taken at the finish line is one of the most famous photos in racing history.
All of the automobile manufacturers agreed to return to NASCAR racing between 1962 and 1964. By the mid 60's, NASCAR's rules had changed from a stock car having to be "stock" to a stock car being anything but "stock". The cars became heavily modified, mostly for safety, in everything except body outline.
In 1964, Chrysler returned to racing and brought with it the 426 cubic inch hemispherical engine, or simply the "hemi". This engine was so powerful that Chrysler began to dominate NASCAR racing, so much so that the level of competition came to suffer extremely. Before the 1965 season Bill France outlawed the hemi, and Chrysler pulled out of racing again to protest France's decision. France allowed a modified version of the hemi to return in 1966, and Chrysler re-entered NASCAR again.
The manufacturers once again pulled out of racing in the late 1960's. Many racing historians agree that it was the accomplishments of one man that kept NASCAR strong. That man is know as the "King", Richard Petty.
Richard is the son of Lee Petty, winner of the first Daytona 500 in 1959. He started out in the long-defunct convertible division of NASCAR, and quickly moved up to the Grand National division (which the Strictly Stock division was renamed in 1950). Richard owns much of the records in NASCAR's record book; many will probably never be broken. Some of these include: most wins (200), pole positions (127), races won from the pole (61), races entered (1,185), most wins in a season (27), and most consecutive wins (10 in 1967). Richard ended his career in 1992 with the illustrious "fan appreciation tour". His career spanned 35 years, and he racked up seven NASCAR championships and seven Daytona 500 victories, in 1964, '66, '71, '73, '74, '79, and '81.
Petty became a superstar in the late 1960's, and his heartfelt appreciation for all of his fans (he has willingly signed every autograph presented to him by any fan), as well as his racing exploits carried NASCAR from a time of crisis to a time of prosperity.
In 1970, soon after the Nixon administration signed a bill banning cigarette manufacturers from advertising on television or radio, the R.J. Reynolds tobacco company talked to Bill France to see if the company could put their advertising dollars into sponsoring an elite division of NASCAR racing. France happily agreed, and beginning in the 1971 season, the top division of NASCAR would be known by its present name, the Winston Cup Series. The money pumped into NASCAR by R.J. Reynolds (makers of Winston cigarettes-hence the name) would no longer make squabbles over factory backing an issue in NASCAR. [Junior Johnson, former moonshiner, 1960 Daytona 500 champion, and 6 time Winston Cup champion owner, was instrumental in pulling the RJR deal together.
Also in 1970, the ABC television network began to televise racing segments on "Wide World of Sports". It was in these accomplishments that large corporations, like Coca-Cola, Gatorade, Coppertone, and STP began to see potential benefit by being financially involved in racing.
The OPEC gas crisis in 1974 spawned another crisis for NASCAR. Gas prices and rationing became huge issues, and many people felt racing wasted precious gas. So NASCAR cut back the number of miles in most races by 10%; therefore the Daytona 500 was only 450 miles that year.
Through the 1970's, despite the '74 gas crisis, racing continued to grow. One race that undoubtedly brought more companies into racing was the 1976 Daytona 500. The final laps of the race were broadcast on ABC.
Before that race, NASCAR inspectors found extra lines of nitrous oxide (an illegal high-tech fuel) in many cars. When the special gasoline was taken away, the cars were much slower. Richard Petty and David Pearson were left with the two fastest cars.
On the last lap of the race, the two drivers were fighting for the lead. Coming out of the fourth turn heading for the checkered flag, the cars collided and went spinning in the infield grass. While the engine in Petty's Dodge died, Pearson managed to keep his Mercury running. Petty stopped about a hundred yards short of the finish line, and Pearson- whose car had stopped spinning farther away- jammed his transmission into gear and won the race at about twenty miles per hour, while Petty was desperately trying to get his car started. [Some of Petty's pit crew ran onto the infield to try to push his car across the line- it was a lost cause.]