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Culture of competition: NASCAR's popularity in the South
Fans take in a race at Atlanta Motor Speedway

Born of bootleggers and cultivated on tracks dug by its pioneers, stock car racing was raised in, and flourished in the South.

Thanks to William Henry Getty France gathering 35 men in the Ebony Bar above the Streamline Hotel in Daytona Beach to standardize rules, a point system and payouts for stock car racing, NASCAR was born here, too.

And because of the roots of the sports’ legends (Richard Petty from North Carolina, David Pearson and Bobby Allison from South Carolina and Darrell Waltrip from Kentucky) the sport is deeply associated with the South.

"Part of the reason that southerners identify with stock car racing is that it’s southern," said Monte Dutton, who has covered NASCAR full-time at The Gaston (N.C.) Gazette since 1993, and was the National Motorsports Press Association writer of the year in 2009. "The South is the first place where (stock car racing) became a spectacle."

The stills were the source

In his essay, "The Most Southern Sport on Earth," UNC-Asheville history professor Dan Pierce writes, "Stock car racing in the South originated just before World War II in a mill-village environment with few choices and little excitement besides moonshining."

"This is all related to the Depression," Dutton said. "In these areas where there weren’t many ways of making a living and people were dirt poor, one of the few ways a person could make a living was by engaging in illegal commerce."

Buyers weren’t brought to the region’s remote moonshine stills, so the moonshine had to be brought to them.

The delivery car had to be fast and the driver needed to be skilled to deliver the illegal goods without being caught by police.

The need for speed brought car modifications that have influenced the design of modern stock cars, including rear and passenger seats being removed, and heavy-duty suspensions being added to the rear of the car to handle the extra weight of the moonshine.

"The South was and is the poorest part of the country," Dutton said. "So instead of buying new cars that performed better, people in the South were souping up the cars they already had."

Bootlegging was confined to the weekdays, so, wanting to show off their skills as mechanics and their courage as drivers, moonshiners took to empty pastures on the weekends to compete for the honor of having the fastest car.

For those who were lucky enough to live near an enterprising farmer willing to turn a cow pasture or empty field into a race track, they had something extra and exciting to watch on Sunday.

As the popularity of these events grew, the sport became more formalized.

The legends of illegality

Cousins Roy Hall and Lloyd Seay of Dawson County dominated the stock car scene in the Southeast and Midwest in the late 1930s and early ’40s.

Raymond Parks, another cousin of the aforementioned and Dawson County native, not only played an integral part in the forming of NASCAR, but owned the car that won the first two NASCAR championships — the driver was Red Byron, a Anniston, Al. native and one of NASCAR’s legendary drivers.

Junior Johnson of Wilkes County, N.C. won 50 NASCAR races and finished in the top 10 148 times during his 13-year driving career. He became a NASCAR racing team owner in the ’70s and sponsored such champions as Cale Yarborough and Darrell Waltrip.

With the exception of Byron, all these men have one thing in common: They were all moonshine runners at one time.

Bootlegging’s biggest boom period was between the early ’30s and the early ’50s, but as moonshining faded away racing took its place.

The draw came from the money being made in the pastures on Sundays, but the sport lacked organization.

According to Pierce’s essay, "Promoters often reneged on paying promised purses, Track owners neglected even basic maintenance of the racing surface ... and fans and drivers had no way of comparing performances."

On Dec. 12, 1947, William (Bill) Henry Getty France, a Daytona Beach garage owner and racing promoter, stepped in to help.

France gathered 35 men, including Parks and Red Vogt — a mechanic from Atlanta — in the Ebony Bar above the Streamline Hotel in Daytona Beach. After three days, the group adopted a set of rules to standardize the stock cars, create a points system, arrange insurance and guarantee drivers pay. They established three divisions of competition including the "strictly stock" division which is now known as the Sprint Cup.

After the rules were established, Vogt came up with the name National Association for Stock Car Automobile Racing and after the Association’s incorporation in Feb. 1948, NASCAR was born.

From pasture to spectacular

In the fall of 1949, Darlington S.C. businessman Harold Brasington set out to build a paved superspeedway in an old cotton field.

The visionary had been to the Indianapolis 500 several years before, and upon returning home he had an idea: create a place to hold stock car events.

"He built this track in its egg shape because they didn’t exactly have an architectural firm come in and they started building the track and there was a pond that the farmer who owned the land wanted to keep, so they made the track narrow on one end," Dutton said.

The first race on the 1 1/4-mile track was scheduled for Labor Day 1950. Brasington expected no more than 10,000 fans and was shocked when well over 25,000 showed up.

Californian Johnny Mantz drove to victory that day in the first Southern 500. Mantz was the slowest qualifier, but he had a smaller car that ran slow and didn’t have to pit as many times. His slow speed meant less tire wear which made up for his lack of speed.

"It was this race that took people where they’d never been before," Dutton said. "Guys had never raced on asphalt, they’d never raced 500 miles and many more people came than they thought would or that they could accommodate.

"The drivers went out there and found that the speeds were so high that the tires wouldn’t last, tires were blowing up left and right," he added. "It got to the point where race teams were going to the infield buying tires from people and putting them on their cars to finish the race."

Between 1947 and 1969, seven tracks were built in the South, including Darlington, Daytona International Speedway, Atlanta Motor Speedway and Bristol Motor Speedway. The tracks were put on the map to house the growing sport of stock car racing, but also became pilgrimmages for the growing number of NASCAR fans.

And while none of the started out being as big as they’ve gotten, to date, the seven tracks built combine to hold 888,231 fans.

The fanatic masses

"Not everybody can hit a fastball, but everybody drives a car," Dutton said. "They can’t drive a car at 180 mph, but there is a certain way in which racing allows people to live vicariously to a greater extent than other sports."

From the moonshine and dirt track days to the superspeedway, sponsor-laden races of today, one thing hasn’t changed: fans come in droves.

"Motorsports are the ultimate sport," said Geoff Lee, President of Road Atlanta. "It’s a team sport, an individual sport, it uses speed and technology and it’s exciting — it has all the elements wrapped into one.

"Racing is compelling because it’s a chess match at 200 mph."

Between 1990 and 1999, attendance at NASCAR races increased by 97 percent, from 3.3 million to 6.5 million, outpacing growth in every other sport according to figures from NASCAR.

The opening of an article by writer Raygan Swan describes a typical race day scene, "They all wear obscene amounts of fan gear, turn a one-day sporting event into a week-long celebration and buy sponsor-friendly products which they hope will support their favorite team’s coffers."

"There’s just something about the tension of when a race is about to start," said Dutton, who as a boy went with his father to watch many races at Darlington Raceway. "When those cars are lined up two abreast, all those beautiful shiny race cars and they come down and take the green flag, that’s really exciting."

The hundreds of fans who flocked to a neighbor’s pasture in the early days of stock car racing have turned into thousands upon thousands who set up camp outside and in the infield of NASCAR races across the South.

"Every time I leave a race track there’s smoke in the air from campfires," Dutton said. "It always reminds me of something like a Civil War battlecamp.

"These people set up for 3-4 days and it’s a vast array of people," he added. "There’s a certain level where it’s like a redneck Woodstock."

Even at Road Atlanta where stock car racing isn’t king, fans still turn out for the spectacle and the party.

"Whether it’s NASCAR related or the Petit LeMans, it’s a big festival with lots of excitement," Lee said. "It’s truly an event from dawn to dusk to well into the night because it’s a chance to come out, be close to the cars, be close to the drivers and racing."

Since the early 2000s, when the marketing of NASCAR hit its peak along with the popularity of the sport nationwide, attendance and viewership has been on the decline. Tracks accustomed to selling out, like Daytona International for the Coke Zero 400 held annually on July 4, have seen a 20-30 percent drop in attendance.

"The sport in general is in a bit of a malaise right now," Dutton said. "It got so hip and so trendy that it became fashionable to follow NASCAR, but when your success is based on that, it never lasts.

"Nothing grows forever, and from the 1970s to the 1990s at one level or another, stock car racing was always on the grow," he added. "But you can’t make a kid from the inner city who rides a subway and bus develop a love affair with the American automobile, so there are limits to the popularity."

Going national and alienating its origins

Greg Fielden, a Charlotte, N.C. native, is a NASCAR historian and staunch fan of the sport, or at least he was.

Fielden spent his adulthood documenting stock car racing in a series of books titled, "Forty Years of Stock Car Racing," which covers every NASCAR Winston Cup Grand National race from 1949-1993.

"I don’t watch it anymore," Fielden said. "I’ll tune into Daytona and Talladega because those are exciting races, but (NASCAR) has done its best to get rid of everything that made it popular in the first place."

According to Dutton, NASCAR got a "missionary zeal" to go out and bring the sport to all the "unconverted masses."

"NASCAR has put so much effort into appealing to people who don’t like stock car racing, that they’ve alienated some of the people who have liked it all along," Dutton said.

Southerners identified with stock car racing and NASCAR because of the southern origins. That identity has fallen by the wayside of late for a bevy of reasons, one of which being that the sport has gone national.

"Now there are more drivers from California than any other state," Dutton said. "It isn’t like every southerner pulls for Dale Earnhardt Jr. and every Californian pulls against him, but part of the reason for the disenchantment of southerners is that people from the region don’t dominate anymore."

Since the Chase for the Cup was implemented in 2004, much to the chagrin of fans like Dutton who refers to it as "socialized racing," there hasn’t been a champion from the South. Kurt Busch, the 2004 winner, hails from Nevada; Tony Stewart, who won in 2005, is an Indiana native, and Jimmie Johnson, winner of the last three championships, is from California.

According to Dutton, there is no single reason for the disenchantment, but a piling of all the rule changes on top of the identity crisis, makes a difference.

It used to be that people identified with stock cars because they were like the cars they drove on the highway, now they don’t look anything like cars driven on the highway. It used to be that drivers who lost a lap or had bad luck had to race their way back into the race, now they’re given free passes back on the lead lap.

"All the new things were done to jazz it up," Dutton said. "So now you have a sword that cuts both ways, the new fans who really never learned a whole lot about it, but became attracted to it because it seemed like the happening thing to do, they’re getting disillusioned because they expect every race to have two cars cross the finish line side-by-side upside down and on fire.

"Then you have the traditional fans who know what it’s like who think it’s become a big reality show," he added. "They’ve tricked it up so much that it’s just become a travesty for the true believers."

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