Author: Fay Mitchell
Sanctioned stock car racing took off with the first race on February 15, 1948, in Daytona Beach. Some say it was born in North Carolina as enterprising mountaineers tried to outrun revenuers (government agents) seeking taxes owed for trading in spirituous drinks, otherwise known as moonshine. There’s a belief that racing has been on a fast track ever since. North Carolina certainly has produced some iconic drivers, Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt among them. The NASCAR Hall of Fame is in Charlotte, and NASCAR’S longest race, the Coca Cola 600, will be May 26 in Charlotte. It will showcase another test of man and machine.
A December 1947 meeting of owners, drivers, mechanics and promoters in Daytona Beach established the governing rules for the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing. NASCAR was born with guaranteed prize money and a national point system to establish a national champion. Seventy years, hundreds of titles and tens of thousands of miles later, it’s time to reflect on the past and future of NASCAR.
There’s something generational about the business. Three prominent family names are France, Petty and Earnhardt. They had a large role in the heyday of NASCAR, when stadiums were filled with more than 100,000 fans watching grown men in fast cars turning left for four or more hours. Perhaps there is some magic to thunderous engines atop treadless tires (to better grip the dry track), or the vibrant colors of the cars and the drivers’ uniforms, each emblazoned with sponsor logos. Maybe the fierce loyalty and fervent cheers for a certain driver, and the comfort of a cold brew on a hot afternoon, all made this an exceptional spectator sport and exceptional spectacle.
But back to the family business. Bill France convened the meeting that established NASCAR, opened the Daytona International Speedway in 1959 and got racing on TV in 1960. He created NASCAR and eventually his sons, Jim and Bill Jr., would take over. Currently heirs Jim France, the surviving son of founder Bill France Sr., and Lesa France Kennedy, daughter of the late Bill France Jr. are primary owners. Lesa’s brother Brian France is chairman and CEO. The family has directed the sport to its greatest heights for 70 years, but now it is witnessing a decline.
For almost as long as NASCAR has existed, the Petty family has been involved. Lee Petty came to NASCAR in 1949 and won the first Grand National championship in 1954. He won again in 1958 and ’59. He won the first Daytona 500 in 1949. When his career ended in 1954 he had won 54 races, finished in the top 10 332 times in 427 starts, and was the dominant driver through the 1950s. He passed the torch to his son, Richard – but not before protesting and taking Richard’s first apparent win in a NASCAR race.
Richard Petty became known as The King. Over his career, which stretched from 1958 to 1992, Petty won 200 races, started in 1,184, had 555 top five finishes and won seven Grand National Championships. He dominated racing through the 1970s and was a top contender through the 1980s. He drew media attention to NASCAR, and appeared in Sports Illustrated and Life magazines. He saw his son Kyle enter the sport before he retired.
Kyle Petty took the family name into the 21st century, racing from 1979 to 2008. He never won championships but as a television personality continues to have an impact on the sport. The Petty name ended in racing when Kyle’s 20-year-old son Adam died in an accident while practicing for a race in 2000.
If there is another family that might be considered tops in racing, it’s the Earnhardts. Dale Earnhardt, Sr. and Dale Jr., were top drivers in the sport. Dale Sr. learned from his father, driver Ralph Earnhardt. Dale was known as The Intimidator for his aggressive driving style. He never shied away from trading paint with a competitor. He began his first season in 1979, won his first Winston Cup a year later, and was a dominant force from then until his tragic end in 2001. He had 76 career wins. A horrific crash into a retaining wall during the final lap of the Daytona 500 is thought to have caused an instant death. NASCAR subsequently instituted more stringent safety rules for gear and racetracks. No drivers have died in a crash since Earnhardt’s demise.
Dale Earnhardt, Jr. did not have as many wins as his father, but was a fan favorite, having won The Most Popular Driver Award 15 times. He won the Daytona 500 twice and retired in 2017 with 26 Winston Cup wins. In 2000, he competed against his father and half-brother in the Pepsi 400 in Michigan. It was only the second time a father had raced against two sons., preceded by Lee Petty’s race against sons Richard and Maurice Petty. Since retiring Dale Jr. has been involved with business undertakings including a production company and restaurant, and is widely followed on social media. But keep watching. Two of his nephews, Bobby Earnhardt and Jeffrey Earnhardt, now drive in NASCAR’s Xfinity series.
As NASCAR turns 70, there is speculation that it may be for sale. The France family is reported to have engaged Goldman Sachs to explore that possibility. NASCAR’s fan base is declining as attendance at races and TV viewership has dramatically dropped. The retirement of popular drivers Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and Jeff Gordon, along with other favorites; the loss of sponsors, including Sprint, Home Depot, and UPS; all contribute to questions about NASCAR’s future. Some say a new fan favorite could add life to the sport. Chase Elliot, son of legendary racer Bill Elliot, at the moment seems to wear that mantle (and he has the coolest name for a race car driver). Others say that selling NASCAR could be its salvation. Think of the sale of Marvel Comics to Disney, or Instagram to Facebook.
Now NASCAR is 70, and like many 70-year-olds, it may be declining. Or with reconditioning like a classic car, maybe it could be shifted into a higher gear. After all, that’s racin’.