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A Yankee's Guide To NASCAR

If you've heard yourself say...Who's Richard Petty? This is for you.

From humble (and sandy) beginnings, stock car racing has trans formed itself into America's fastest growing sport. For a 50-year-old, NASCAR is remarkably spry and spirited. When the sport's founders met for the first time at the Streamline Hotel in Daytona Beach, Florida, on December 14, 1947, not one of them could imagine how big and dynamic their enterprise would eventually become.

In attendance were a moonshiner or two, an Atlanta garage operator, a South Carolina turnip farmer, a Rhode Island motorcycle dealer, a New York midget-race promoter and assorted hustlers. The real motivator was William Henry Getty France, owner of a small local service station. France, a sometime driver, had latched onto racing with a determination, seriousness and enthusiasm that would nurse the sport through its infancy. The meeting, held in the hotel's bar, stretched out over three days but resulted in no formal resolutions, except that Louis (Red) Vogtt, the garage operator, proposed the organization be named NASCAR, standing for the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing.

The group decided it needed a lawyer to draw up documents. Bill France knew an attorney named Louis Ossinsky who ~ practiced in an office near his service station. He was one of France's few cash customers. That was reason enough to ~ hire him for the Febxuaxy 21, 1948, meeting, at which time NASCAR became a private corporation owned by France, Ossinsky and Bill Tuthill, the New York promoter. (Ed Otto, a New Jersey race promoter, would acquire shares later, then be bought out.) France would serve as president until he retired in 1972, turning the executive office over to his oldest son, Bill Jr. Over time, the France family bought out all their partners.


NASCAR's mandate has been simple from the start: peddle franchises to racetrack promoters willing to affiliate with the sanctioning body. That first racing season, NASCAR held 54 races, beginning with the Rayson Memorial 150, an event for modified cars on the 3.2-mile beach course at Daytona. The late Louis (Red) Byron of Boulder, Colorado, won in a souped-up Ford built by Vogt. He averaged 75.94 miles per hour and finished 15 seconds ahead of local driver Marshall Teague. Byron pocketed $1,000 of the total $3,000 purse.

The next year, NASCAR added a division for late-model stock cars. It was called Strictly Stock, today known as the Winston-Cup Series. The first Strictly Stock race, held June 19, 1949, took place on a three-quarter-mile dirt track in Charlotte, North Carolina. It was planned and sponsored by France. Jim Roper of Kansas won over Fonty Flock in a Lincoln and banked $2,000. NASCAR's first race ended in controversy. Glen Dunnaway was flagged the winner but his 1947 Ford was disqualified for "illegal use of rear springs." The starting field of 33 cars featured Lincolns, Hudsons, Oldsmobiles, Fords, Buicks, Chryslers, Kaisers, Mercurys and one Cadillac.

Besides Charlotte, Martinsville Speedway, the Beach-Road course at Daytona, the Occoneechee Speedway at Hillsboro, NC, Langhorne, PA, Hamburg, NY, Heidelberg Speedway in Pittsburgh, PA and North Wilkesboro Speedway were part of the inaugural eight-race, "Strictly Stock Division" schedule in 1949. Red Byron, who started only six of the races, also won at Daytona and posted four top five finishes to win his title and $5,800 for the season. He finished 117.5 points over Lee Petty. In 1950, the Strictly Stock title was replaced by NASCAR Grand National.

Dirt Trackin'

Sometime back, in one of my columns in , I mentioned racing on dirt tracks. One reader wanted me to write a column about the latter days of dirt track racing. Another reader said he couldn't believe I ever raced on dirt! Well, pal, we sure did. We did a lot of racing on dirt tracks. I liked racing on dirt, and I'd sure love to see some of these guys who drive on the Winston Cup circuit today try their hand out there on a half-mile dirt oval. That would be exciting and fun to watch.

In fact, 1970 was the last year we ran any dirt track races. We ran three that year. Five of our 54 races in 1969 were on dirt. Seven of our 49 races in 1968 were on dirt. Fourteen in 1967 were on dirt, and go back to 1960 when we ran 21 of 44 events on dirt. Racing on dirt is different from racing on a paved track. I'm not saying it is all that much tougher, it's just different. Some drivers were good at it, and others weren't.

I can tell you something else, too. It wasn't very clean. Everybody got dirty - the drivers, crews and especially the fans up there in the stands. We kicked up a bunch of dust when the green flag dropped. They would work on the tracks and try to water them down, but we'd grind right on through the mud and get down to the dust in short order. Another thing, you couldn't clean the dirt from under those cars. There was a time when we'd leave home with one car and go to maybe four or five races before we'd return. Maybe three of them would be on paved tracks and the other two were on dirt.

After a race on dirt, you'd clean up the car as best you could, and go on to the next track Sometimes when you would pull out on the pavement to begin practice, a bunch of red clay would fall out from under the car. Daddy (Lee Petty) was a drivers dirt track driver. So were Curtis Turner, Joe Weatherly, Elmo Langley, Bobby Isaac, Bobby Allison, and David Pearson. There were others, too.

Some of those drivers would keep their car about half sideways all the way around some of the smaller tracks. When I first started racing, I remember being told that you would go faster if you stayed sideways. Well, I soon discovered that wasn't necessarily true, at least not for me. I soon learned the fastest way around the track was to keep the car as straight as possible. Of course, you were sideways most of the time going through the turns, but I tried to keep the car straight as much as I could.

The last dirt track race we (NASCAR's top division) ran was at the North Carolina State Fairgrounds Speedway in Raleigh, North Carolina. It was a 100-miler on a half-mile track. The date was September 30, 1970. John Sears, a drivers dirt track racer, won the pole and led the first 10 laps. Then Benny Parsons took the lead and led from lap 11 through lap 88. I took over on lap 89 and led the rest of the race, which was through lap 200. I think I averaged about 68 miles per hour. Neil Castles finished second, Bobby Isaac third, James Hylton fourth, and Cecil Gordon fifth. Bobby Allison finished sixth.

Now, I want to tell you something about how we won the race. At Petty Enterprises we didn't have a car built exclusively for dirt track racing. We were running the Plymouth SuperBird on the big speedways and the regular Plymouths on the paved short tracks. But we remembered selling driver Jabe Thomas and team owner Don Robertson a '69 Plymouth built for dirt track racing, or let's say it was better suited for dirt than anything we had to race at our shop. So what we did was borrow that car from Jabe and Don. We put one of our engines in the car and won the race. Then we returned it to Jabe and Don and left our engine in the car as a payment.

The other two dirt track races that year were at Columbia Speedway in Columbia, South Carolina. That track was as hard as asphalt. We ran the first race at Columbia that year on April 30. We did the same car-borrowing then. That was the first time we borrowed our old car back from Jabe and Don. We were lucky enough to win that race, too. Bobby Allison finished second and Bobby Isaac third. Neil Castles ran fourth and James Hylton fifth.

We did the same thing after the win, too. We turned the car back over to Jabe and Don with one of our engines in it. What you must remember is that back in the early days of stock car racing, we ran a lot of state fairgrounds tracks, and they were all dirt. In fact, I don't remember Hillsborough, North Carolina, having guard railings for a long time. You ran off the track going into the third turn, and you drove off down into a pine thicket. Nope, racing wasn't always as prim and proper as it is now.
By Richard Petty

Progress was slow in those early years. Racing in its infancy was at best a wild, raw sport, and without exception the tracks were unsafe. Whenever there was a crash, it was every man for himself, whether driver or spectator. Promoters were notorious for staging races and fleeing with gate receipts. There was a crying need for organization, regulation and continuity, all of which were in short order during that era.

A series of events boosted the sport to its current level of respectability and profitability. First, NASCAR formed a crucial alliance with the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. in 1971. The Winston brand of cigarettes began sponsoring a 500-mile race at Talladega, Alabama, and established a cumulative-point fund worth $100,000 for the season's leading drivers. Reynolds also began providing substantial advertising and promotional support on a nationwide scale.

Television gave the sport its next major upgrade in 1979, when CBS broadcast the Daytona 500 from start to finish. (Previously, networks had covered auto racing only in a tape-delayed or edited fashion.) And CBS got quite a show with Richard Petty taking the checkered flag, while Cale Yarborough and the Allison brothers-Donnie and Bobby-engaged in a donnybrook right on the track. Little more than a year later, NASCAR would move its awards banquet from Daytona to New York. The wheels were really starting to roll.

What next? How about the presidential seal of approval? NASCAR received it on July 4, 1984, when Ronald Reagan attended the Firecracker 400 at Daytona International Speedway. He witnessed an epic battle between Petty and Yarborough. The first fan's attendance ensured that the national press covered Petty's 200th career victory. NASCAR's final stepping-stone came in 1994 with the inaugural Brickyard 400 at the hallowed Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

All these factors have contributed to NASCAR's remarkable evolution. The sport, once a provincial pastime of the Southeast, has gradually washed the red clay from its hands and put on cufflinks and Italian loafers.

Drivers began making big-time money. While salaries and sponsor compensation for the sport's top names add up to more than $3 million a year, endorsement fees have absolutely exploded. By stamping their names and likenesses on shirts and hats (and detergents, canned hams, cereal boxes and automobile batteries), series stars are reaping up to $40 million a year.

Meanwhile, the Winston Cup Series continues to grow. In 1997, NASCAR established two new venues: Bruton Smith's new track in Fort Worth, Texas; and Roger Penske's new facility in California. This year, Las Vegas gets a date, and Kansas City has announced plans to build a track.

Therein lies a problem. Bill France Jr. wants to remain loyal to the small market tracks that helped his father in the early years. But now everybody wants a date, and there are only so many weekends on the racing calendar. Like many other prosperous 50-yearolds, NASCAR is experiencing a little middle-aged spread.

From 1972 through 2003, NASCAR's premier series was called the Winston Cup Series. It was sponsored by R.J. Reynolds Tobacco (RJR) as an advertising mechanism to bring attention to its Winston brand of cigarettes. In its later years, RJR's sponsorship became more controversial in the wake of U.S. legislation that sharply restricted avenues for tobacco advertising.

The changes in NASCAR that resulted from RJR's involvement cause many fans to refer to 1972 as the beginning of the "Modern Era". The season was made shorter, and the point system was modified. Races shorter than 250 miles were removed from the schedule. NASCAR's founder, Bill France, Sr., turned over control of NASCAR to his son, Bill France Jr..

In 2003, RJR dropped its sponsorship of the top series, and NASCAR obtained a sponsorship from NEXTEL, a telecommunications company. The contract was not renewed for several reasons; one, because of the steady decline of revenue of RJR, and two, because cigarette and other forms of tobacco advertising were deemed illegal by the U.S. Congress in 2002. In 2003, the Cup series became known as the NEXTEL Cup.

The merger between Sprint and NEXTEL resulted in NASCAR's premier series being known as the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series beginning Jan. 1, 2008. Sprint replaced R.J. Reynolds' Winston brand as title sponsor of NASCAR's flagship property in 2004. Nextel remains a vital part of the Sprint products and services mix. As a result, the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series name and logo and Nextel-branded assets will remain for 2007. (The name Sprint Cup might be confusing because there already is a class of racecars called sprint cars, which are quite different from stock cars.)

NASCAR consists of three major national series as well as eight regional tours and one local grassroots series. NASCAR is the largest sanctioning body of stock car racing in the United States. NASCAR sanctions over 1,500 races at over 100 tracks in 39 states, Canada, and Mexico.

Benny Phillips covers auto racing for the High Point North Carolina Enterprise. Right on Track. Mike Hembree covers auto racing for Greenville (S.C.) News. Shifting gears. TV Guide. February 14-20, 1998

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