In This Chapter
- Getting the lowdown on NASCAR past and present
- Scooping the best driver
- Looking into racing techniques
- Following NASCAR races
- Going big time with sponsors and television
Most people don’t know what it’s like to dunk a basketball or hit a 100 mph fastball 500 feet for a home run, but almost everyone knows how to drive a car – and that familiarity is the appeal of NASCAR and stock-car racing. Whether they admit it or not, lots of people speed down the highway and daydream about winning the Daytona 500. That daydreamer could be a 17-year-old high school student who just got a driver’s license, a 35-year-old orthodontist, or a 70-year-old retired teacher. Driving is nearly universal.
NASCAR’s allure has grown in recent years because of its tremendous television exposure; the drivers’ accessibility to their fans; and close, competitive racing. In 2003, nearly 7 million fans went to see the NASCAR Cup Series races, which is quadruple the attendance in 1980. And more than 280 million viewers tuned into NASCAR Cup Series events on television in 2003, making NASCAR one of the most popular sports to watch on TV, second only to the NFL.
Here are a few more stats that show how NASCAR has grown from an originally Southern-based sport to a truly national phenomenon:
- #1 sport in brand loyalty of fans
- #2 rated sport on television
- Over $2 billion in licensed sales
- 75 million fans
The first NASCAR race
In February 1948, two months after NASCAR was founded, more than 14,000 people showed up at a race course just south of Daytona Beach. The 150-mile event was held on a unique track that was half on the beach and half on the highway behind the sand, making it interesting for drivers and spectators alike, particularly when the tide came in and the beach narrowed. Red Byron, a driver from Anniston, Alabama, whose left leg was injured when his bomber was shot down in World War II, won that first NASCAR-sanctioned race, enhancing his reputation as one of NASCAR’s greatest early drivers. It also made him the answer to a common NASCAR trivia question: “Who won the first NASCAR race?”
Red Byron also won NASCAR’s first Strictly Stock championship. This series – the forerunner of today’s NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series, debuted in 1949 and was limited to full-sized American production, or “stock” cars. The first Strictly Stock race was held in June 1949, and anyone with a car was eligible to race. And I mean anyone – people who had never raced before made trip to the .75-mile dirt track in Charlotte, North Carolina, to see how they could do. All they needed was a car and a fair amount of guts.
The cars were plain vehicles like Buicks, Fords, and Lincolns, not like today’s race cars, which are built from the ground up by multi-million-dollar teams and tuned specifically for racing. If drivers wanted to race back then, they could drive family car right onto the track! Of course, if driver crashed and destroyed his car, he could be stranded. Hitchhiking home was not out of the realm of possibility.
If you’re one of the sport’s new fans, this chapter gives you NASCAR in a nutshell, including enough details about its history, cars, drivers, teams, races, and statistic to make you sound like a veteran. If you’re an old hand, you can brush up on what’s new, as the sport is constantly evolving.
From Back Roads to the Big Time
A few decades ago , stock-car races weren’t the professionally run events that they are now, even though many organizations – including the United Stock Car Association, the Stock Car Auto Racing Society, and the National Championship Stock Car Circuit – sanctioned races. The schedule wasn’t organized; instead, random races were held and there, sprinkled throughout the southeastern United States wherever tracks were available (some were well-built, but most were pretty shoddy). Drivers didn’t race in each event, so fans had no idea which of their favorites would show up until they got to the track. Worse, some race promoters were less than honest, running off with the ticket receipt and race purses, never to be seen again.
Bill France, Sr., a tall, dynamic stock-car driver and race promoter, thought this was an unprofessional way to run a sport and was determined to set a standard for drivers and track owners. He decided to devote his energy to establishing one preeminent stock-car racing sanctioning body – NASCAR (National Association for Stock Car Racing) – that would oversee different series. A racing series, such as the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series, is similar to a baseball league, featuring a group of drivers who compete in a set number of events and follow rules determined by sanctioning body. At the end of the season, the sanctioning body in charge of making the rules, running the events, and making sure competitors follow the rules, crowns a series champion. That’s exactly what France, also known as “Big Bill”, created with his brainchild – NASCAR. In the beginning, France had several goals:
- Racetracks that were safe for the drivers, and track owners who repaired their facilities between races. If a car crashed into or through a guard rail, it would have to be repaired by the track owner before the next race.
- Rules that wouldn’t change from week to week or race to race. Before NASCAR was organized, different rules, which drove drivers distraction. Some even had quirky on-track rules, made up the morning of a race by a promoter seeking to make things more exciting. Because of these inconsistencies, drivers didn’t know what to expect when they showed up at a racetrack. These days, rules still occasionally change but are often studied for a period of months before being implemented.
- A set schedule allowing the same drivers to compete against one another each week. This way, a single national champion recognized by all could be crowned at the end of the year.
- A uniform point system to calculate which driver performed the best throughout the season. Drivers would earn points according to how they finished in a race, with the winner receiving the most points and the last-place driver getting the least. With a points system like that, the series could crown a definitive champion instead of having many “national champions” crowned at different tracks or in different, smaller series. Having just one national champion made winning the title something special.
An insurance and benevolent fund: This was meant to give the drivers something to fall back on in case they got hurt or couldn’t compete due to injuries.
France’s goals were realized and today NASCAR sanctions several racing series. The top one is the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series, and I spend most of the book talking about this series. I give you a quick rundown on the NASCAR Busch Series, the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series, and several NASCAR touring series in Chapter 3.