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In the years immediately following World War II, stock car racing was experiencing the greatest popularity it had ever seen. Tracks throughout the country were drawing more drivers – and bigger crowds.
Nonetheless, there was a serious lack of organization. From track to track, rules were different. Some tracks were makeshift facilities, built to produce one big show at a county fair or something similar to capitalize on the crowds flocking to the events. Other tracks were suited to handle the cars, but not the crowds. Some could manage both, but did little to adhere to rules set by other tracks.
In December 1947, Bill France Sr., of Daytona Beach, Fla., organized a meeting at the Streamline Hotel across the street from the Atlantic Ocean to discuss the problems facing stock car racing.
France had come to Florida from Washington, D.C., years earlier. He operated a local service station and also promoted races on the city’s famed beach-road courses, often racing himself. He was a man of strong will – and ambition. Thus, by the time that meeting at the Streamline Hotel was complete, the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing was born. Few knew when the meeting adjourned if the organization would be successful. In fact, there were skeptics who believed it never would work.
Not even France, who believed a sanctioning body was exactly what the sport of stock car racing needed, could have envisioned what NASCAR has become today.
Things came together quickly. The first NASCAR-sanctioned race was held on Daytona’s beach course Feb. 15, 1948, just two months after the organizational meeting. Red Byron, a stock car legend from Atlanta, won the event in his Ford Modified. Six days later on Feb. 21, the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing was incorporated.
It was 1949, however, that what is now the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, the premier racing series in America, was born.
Jim Roper of Great Bend, Kan., was the winner of the first “Strictly Stock” (the precursor to NASCAR Sprint Cup) event, held at the Charlotte Fairgrounds on June 19, 1949. A tremendous crowd attended the event to see automobiles with the appearance of a street-car race door-to-door. The new racing series was off and running. And it was an immediate success.
Plans immediately were made for ways to bring bigger, faster races to bigger, hungrier crowds and less than a year later (1950), the country’s first asphalt superspeedway, Darlington Raceway in South Carolina, opened its doors for the new division.
The first decade for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series was one of tremendous growth. Characters became heroes and fans hung on every turn of the wheel, watching drivers manhandle cars at speeds fans wished they could legally run themselves.
Names like Lee Petty, Fireball Roberts, Buck Baker, Herb Thomas, the Flock brothers, Bill Rexford, Paul Goldsmith and others became as well-known to race fans as Willie, Mickey and the Duke were to baseball fans.
Looking to the future, and the past with the success of Darlington, Bill France Sr., began construction of a 2.5-mile, high-banked superspeedway four miles off the beach in Daytona Beach.
France had helped lead the fight to keep racing affiliated with the city. When those looking to set land speed records began opting for the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah so the incoming and outgoing tides at Daytona Beach would not be a factor, the city wanted to maintain one of its main attractions – fast cars and the beach. By the end of NASCAR’s first decade, the city not only had held on to its racing roots, but had outgrown the beach and, in 1959, moved events to Daytona International Speedway. With its long back straightaway and sweeping high-banked turns of more than 30 degrees, the 2.5-mile tri-oval was one of the largest speedways in the world.
In the first race, fans were treated to something that each year still brings millions of fans to NASCAR races – close competition.
The first Daytona 500 didn’t end for three days. It took that long for NASCAR officials to study a photograph of the finish between Petty and Johnny Beauchamp before declaring Petty the winner.
The hook had been set.
The following year (1960), superspeedways were opened just outside Atlanta and Charlotte. ABC televised the 1961 Firecracker 250 from Daytona Beach as part of its "Wide World of Sports."
New heroes emerged.
Lee Petty’s son Richard, who soon would be referred to as "The King" of stock car racing, Buddy Baker, Cale Yarborough, Ned Jarrett, David Pearson and Bobby Allison led NASCAR racing through an era that featured a schedule of more than 60 races a year on tracks from Florida to California to Maine.
Fan interest grew and the demand for bigger, faster tracks was heard. In 1969, France opened the 2.66-mile Alabama International Motor Speedway (now known as Talladega Superspeedway), the largest and fastest motorsports oval in the world. New tracks sprang up in Brooklyn, Mich., (70 miles southwest of Detroit), Dover, Del., (between Philadelphia and Baltimore) and Pocono, Pa., two hours from Manhattan.
The decade of the 1970s brought further change, including one at the top when Bill France Sr., passed the torch of leadership of NASCAR to his son Bill Jr. on Jan. 10, 1972.
Corporate sponsorship of the series by the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company through its Winston brand began in 1971 and NASCAR’s premier division was then known as the NASCAR Winston Cup Series.
In 1976, NASCAR’s premier division took the lead in worldwide motorsports attendance for the first time with more than 1.4 million spectators making their way to events, according to figures from the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company. That lead never has been relinquished.
Television exposure grew as well. The 1979 Daytona 500 became the first 500-mile race in history to be telecast live in its entirety. In 1981, NASCAR moved its annual awards ceremony to New York City from Daytona Beach for the first time.
By the mid 1980s, Fortune 500 companies not only were involved in sponsoring NASCAR, but individual races and teams as well.
Drivers such as Darrell Waltrip, Dale Earnhardt, Bill Elliott and others were rising to challenge Petty and Allison and Yarborough and displaying the colors of detergents and coffees and cereals on the hoods of their cars while doing it.
Major consumer packaging companies like Kellogg’s, General Foods, and Procter & Gamble were realizing what Bill France saw coming in the late 1940s – stock car racing was big.
In 1982, NASCAR consolidated the Late Model Sportsman Division into a new series. Since rising costs had made weekly racing for the Late Model stock cars difficult, the idea behind the creation of the series was to build big races, and to bring all of the regional-stars of the series together for all of the races.
Anheuser-Busch, Inc. of St. Louis, Mo., became the sponsor of the new NASCAR Budweiser Late Model Sportsman Series. In 1984, the Busch brand took over the sponsorship in what would become the NASCAR Busch Series – now called the NASCAR Nationwide Series.
By 1989, just 10 years after the first 500-mile race to be broadcast live flag-to-flag, every race on the NASCAR Sprint Cup schedule was televised, nearly all of them live.
Close competition and high speeds in cars that have a "stock" appearance have been the hallmark of the NASCAR’s top division through the years.
As the decade of the 1990s began, perhaps no one but the sports visionaries could have imagined the growth NASCAR would undertake. Without question it was an exciting time. NASCAR began its meteoric rise by expansion in 1993 to New Hampshire Motor Speedway – 70 miles north of Boston – and in 1994, to the capital of open-wheel racing, Indianapolis.
In May 1994, NASCAR introduced a new series, the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series, involving full-bodied pickup trucks. After several exhibition events, the first points event in the new series was held in February of 1995. The intensely competitive series has grown in popularity and starts 2009 with a new sponsor and name: the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series.
At the same time, NASCAR’s at-track attendance grew monumentally.
The NASCAR “lifestyle” was becoming a national phenomenon with cover stories in Forbes and Sports Illustrated. To help feed the tremendous growth, NASCAR launched its official Web site in 1995 (www.nascar.com) and in 1997, NASCAR branched out again, adding races in top 10 markets like Los Angeles, Dallas/Ft. Worth and added a second date in New Hampshire.
The 1998 season marked the celebration of NASCAR’s 50th Anniversary with an unprecedented integrated marketing campaign to celebrate NASCAR’s past, present and future. NASCAR’s top division expanded once again to Las Vegas while the NASCAR Nationwide Series expanded to Pikes Peak International Raceway in Colorado, and the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series included new races at St. Louis, Memphis, and Pikes Peak.
From 1993 to 1998, NASCAR Sprint Cup Series at-track attendance alone grew 57% (by 2.2 million) to over 6.3 million and its top three divisions combined grew a staggering 80% (by 4.1 million), to over 9.3 million.
Topping off NASCAR’s explosion in the `90s was the announcement in November 1999 of a consolidated television package with Fox Sports/FX and NBC Sports/TNT for NASCAR’s premier division and NASCAR Nationwide Series beginning in 2001. At the same time, DaimlerChrysler announced intentions to return its Dodge nameplate to NASCAR’s top division for 2001, after a 15-year hiatus.
As the sports fan base grew, NASCAR grew internally as well. In November of 2000, Mike Helton became the third president in NASCAR history as the torch of leadership passed to a non-France family member for the first time.
By the turn of the century, nothing could stand in the way of NASCAR’s raging success. New stars emerged such as Jeff Gordon, Bobby Labonte and second-generation driver Dale Jarrett. NASCAR’s drivers, teams and tracks once again saw unprecedented exposure, this time with the aid of an expanded 36-race schedule and its new television package in 2001.
The TV story was proving a remarkable success as viewership for the Daytona 500 grew 48% (over 6 million) to 18.7 million viewers between 1993 and 2002. When Fox Sports aired its first Daytona 500 in 2001, viewership increased 32% (4.1 million) to over 17 million from the 2000 broadcast.
As Tony Stewart was crowned NASCAR’s 2002 champion, close observers of the sport saw a youth movement swelling, personified by drivers such as Jimmie Johnson, Ryan Newman, Kurt Busch, Kevin Harvick, Matt Kenseth and Dale Earnhardt Jr., were evidence.
In 2003, NASCAR made two major announcements to help the dawn of the new era become even clearer. NASCAR announced in June that Nextel would become the new series sponsor in 2004, replacing R.J. Reynolds’ Winston brand after 33 years. Three months later in September, Brian Z. France was named as NASCAR’s CEO and Chairman of the Board replacing his father, Bill France Jr.
A number of developments have followed. The Chase for the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup was announced at the start of 2004, ushering in a new format by which to determine the champion of NASCAR’s premier series. In 2006, Toyota announced a move into all three of NASCAR’s national series. In 2007 it was announced that the premier series’ name would be changed to the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. NASCAR’s “playoffs” would also have a new name: The Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup. In addition, 2007 also saw the announcement that Nationwide Insurance was replacing Anheuser Busch as main sponsor of NASCAR’s No. 2 series. And, there was the phasing-in of NASCAR’s safety-oriented new car.
In 2008, history was made as Jimmie Johnson won a third consecutive NASCAR Sprint Cup championship, tying Cale Yarborough’s record set from 1976-78. Johnson then eclipsed that mark with an unprecedented fourth-consecutive title in 2009.
But no matter the year, there have always been – and always will be – constants: Close, safe competition, fair stewardship and drivers who are genuine American heroes.