Days of thunder: Why America fell in love with NASCAR

Days of thunder: Why America fell in love with NASCAR
Cars collide on turn 3 in the Daytona 500 International in Florida. It was in 1979 that NASCAR racing was first shown on national television in America. Picture: Jeff Siner/Charlotte Observer/Tribune News Service via Getty Images.

The clichéd imagery of NASCAR racing is familiar to anyone who binges on American television programmes.

NASCAR racing has been used to portray a very particular image of person or place.

This is a culture that is presented as quintessentially‘redneck’, a world that is white and rural and rooted in the societies of the former slave-owning states of southern America.

But – as always – the cliché tells too little of a story. NASCAR racing is now much, much more than that.

The transformation of NASCAR racing into a thriving, increasingly global sporting brand has taken 40 years.

It was in 1979 that NASCAR racing was first shown on national television in America.

What happened next was truly sensational.

ESPN began showing NASCAR racing in 1981 and this partnership was vital to the success of both entities. By the middle of the 1990s, its total viewing audience was second only to American football.

Into the new millennium, the ratings for NASCAR racing continued to grow and grow.

Multi-annual television deals saw the sport sought by every major television network – the upshot was unprecedented fame and fortune for its drivers, and immense success for the people who owned NASCAR.

It is a success that couldn’t be further away from the origins of motor car racing. Such racing was first codified by the aristocratic elite of French society as the 19th century turned into the 20th, and it spread from there across Europe, before reaching America.

In the decades that followed, the sport of racing shaped itself to the demands of whichever nation in which it flourished at any particular time.

And, in the process, it took on different forms.

In certain places, it was Grand Prix racing – ultimately Formula 1 – which became the most prestigious and the most popular form of car racing.

In Brazil, for example,Formula 1 racing developed a huge following leading to the production of numerous outstanding drivers.

For Brazilians, motor racing was vital to the desire to be modern.

In other places, city-to-city races proved hugely important and the enduring appeal of contests such as the Paris-Dakar Rally echo a time when such races dominated the popular imagination.

Races from Paris to Madrid, for example, were also vital for the development of trade links and for industrial development.

In its own mythology, at least, NASCAR, owes its initial development to the collapsed American economy of the 1930s.

Unemployed men sought to earn money by bringing moonshine whiskey that was distilled in mountain regions down into urban areas.

Naturally, government agents sought to suppress this illegal behaviour and what ensued was car-chases. As an offshoot of this activity, these whiskey-bootleggers began to race each other for fun (and for status, of course) on dirt tracks that were cut out of hills and fields.

This was motorsport at its wildest – drinking, brawling men fighting over purses and getting swindled.

Almost every sport needs a key individual – or a small group of individuals – to crystallise its emergence as a formal, organised sport.

In this instance, William France – a man who ran a car repair shop at Daytona Beach in Florida – stepped in to promote races.

He, himself, raced in a 1935 Ford and was consumed with the idea of men racing ordinary cars against each other in sport.

As a result, he formed the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR), following an initial meeting in December 1947, pulling together local drivers and the tracks they raced on into an organisation which he took control of.

At that meeting he spoke of the importance of uniformity in vehicles and of racing cars that were affordable.

He later said: “Plain, ordinary working people have to be able to associate with their cars. Standard stock cars are what we should be running.”

From that point on, the France family dominated the running of the sport until selling it from its own private ownership in 2001.

Central to the success of the sport was just how close the races were. Richard Davies wrote in his fine book Sport in American Life: “The races would be conducted on a level field with owners and drivers held to rigorous standards.

The result was that many races would be decided by a few seconds with less than a car length often separating the front runners after several hundred miles circling an oval track.

"Such exciting finishes, France knew, would bring spectators back for more. He had hit upon an appealing formula.”

In fact, of course, he soon shifted the rules so that the cars were actually significantly modified in terms of their power – reaching 200mph.

The cars might have looked like Fords and Chevvies, but they were significantly more potent.

What mattered in all of this was entertainment.

Unlike other aspects of motor racing, NASCAR did not really bother with trying to pretend that it was involved in racing cars as a sort of laboratory for automobile manufacturers.

Instead, it was all about bringing fun to the masses.

And its timing could not have been better. In the years after 1950, there was an explosion in car ownership in America and that country’s popular culture was fundamentally reorientated by the centrality of the car to everyday life.

In 1959, the Daytona International Speedway – opened and controlled by William France – saw facilities created for more than 150,000 fans across almost 500 acres of shops, restaurants, museums and much else.

By then there were some 45 races in a NASCAR championship that saw the emergence of an annual‘Leading Driver’, based on a complex scoring system.

Put together, the many elements of the sport proved a recipe that brought enduring, growing success.

Stars such as Dale Earnhardt (‘The Intimidator’) were celebrated, not just for winning but also for the recklessness of their styles of driving.

Earnhardt was particularly renowned for his apparent fearlessness and a willingness to break rules in a way which suggested a return to the origins of the sport.

That he wore black and was regularly reprimanded and suspended only added to his reputation.

In the end, he died on the final corner of the Daytona 500 race in 2001 when he crashed into the wall at 180mph, having attempted a daring push for the lead on the last lap.

In the way of these things, the nostalgia of moonshine running hung around the sport but the reality of its operations saw the increasing dominance of the bureaucracy of corporate America in all its trappings. Everything that could possibly be commercialised was given the same treatment as NFL or the NBA.

Sponsorhip, endorsements, agents, TV deals, spin-off shows, movies and much else.

During all of this, there was essentially only the most limited of welcomes for non-white drivers or women.

Before the new millennium only one black driver made it any significant distance into the upper echelon of NASCAR.

That driver, Wendell Scott, was accepted by a few, but – as the historian, Joe Menzer, wrote:

“Many hated him because of his skin colour and tried to make his life miserable whenever he showed up at a racetrack.”

The fact that the emergence of NASCAR racing had coincided with the rise of the civil rights movement was of importance here.

NASCAR became a new symbol of white southern Americans whose perceived traditional character and distinction was now under threat.

Part of the attraction of NASCAR was that it could “help sustain the mythology of Southern white supremacy.”

This was not just about colour, it was also a “redemption for Southern masculinity”, something that symbolised Southern resistance of authority.

The effort to move NASCAR out of the southern states and to attract for it a much wider audience involves an ongoing effort to shake the past in NASCAR racing.

The years since 200 have seen more diversity, even if a truly significant amount of work in this area remains to be accomplished.

Meanwhile, its progress in financial terms is clear: the overwhelming commercial success is undeniable.

The races are broadcast across more than 150 countries.

The judgment on NASCAR from the respected CBS ’60 Minutes’ show was a straightforward one:

“The most successful business in American sports is stock car racing.”

Paul Rouse is associate professor of history at University College Dublin.

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