NASCAR: An American Institution Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

NASCAR: An American Institution

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One of the most popular forms of racing in America is stock car racing. Historically, this has involved driving stock cars - cars that anyone could buy at the corner dealership with whatever the factory included as 'stock' features - around various oval-shaped tracks several hundred times until someone wins. While the stock car has evolved beyond the status of 'strictly stock', the basic concept has remained true.

Early Stock Car Racing

Modern-day stock car racing was conceived in the late 1940s by Bill France Sr. Bill enjoyed racing the family car from his days as a teenager in Washington DC, and upon moving to Daytona, Florida, in 1934 soon became involved in the local motorsports competitions.

Daytona Beach had been the location of the automobile speed trials from 1902 to 1935 when they were moved to Utah. In their absence, several races were organised to generate a speed attraction in the area, but they were largely met with mediocre enthusiasm and financial losses for the organisers. Bill participated in these events as a driver and promoter until the war, when all racing was put on hold for the duration.

Upon returning to racing after the war, Bill realised that the real problem with racing was that the sanctioning of the races was inconsistent. Of the leagues in existence, none had the same goals in mind and many had no interest in governing stock car racing at all. What was needed was a single governing organisation to streamline the sport and even up the competition. In 1947, Bill France retired from driving to organise the sanctioning body he envisioned for stock car racing. This organisation would sanction and promote races, develop uniform racing procedures, adopt technical rules, support a membership benefit and insurance fund, pay post-season awards and be able to determine a single national champion using a clearly defined point system.

The first meeting of the National Association of Stock Car Auto Racing, or NASCAR , was held on 12 December, 1947, with Bill France Sr as its first president. NASCAR was incorporated on 21 February, 1948.

Adopting Technical Rules

At first, NASCAR was intended to oversee three divisions of racing: roadsters1, modified stock cars2 and strictly stock cars3. It was quickly apparent that spectators in the region didn't care for the roadsters and they were dropped to concentrate attention on modified stock cars. But building on the idea that consumers might be more inclined to buy a winner, more emphasis was placed on the strictly stock division, where cars were raced 'as-is' from the dealership with no modifications allowed. Drivers could fine-tune the engines to gain a small advantage. A popular saying, 'Race on Sunday, sell on Monday', reflected the idea that car buyers would be more inclined to purchase a car like the one they had just seen win a race the day before.

Most of the earliest races took place on the beach and road course at Daytona or similar dirt/sand/marginally paved tracks in the area. Maintaining tyres and suspension systems became problematic due to the different track surfaces. Eventually, the variety of tracks made some modifications to the cars necessary, usually for safety reasons; for instance, aircraft harnesses were installed to replace seatbelts. Rollbars weren't required or common in early race cars, but were allowed as a safety feature. Drivers using roll cages discovered they made the cars stiffer when in motion, improving performance as well as safety.

Gradually, manufacturers began making parts specifically for racing, offering them as options on the showroom models at first. Racing tyres were introduced in 1952, followed by changes in frame and engine design, and later other improvements. Eventually, this led to developments exclusively for race cars. By the mid 1950s, auto manufacturers, most notably Ford and Chevrolet, created factory-backed programs to support racers driving their cars; however an agreement between the Automobile Manufacturers Association (AMA) and NASCAR broke ties between racers and manufacturers by limiting manufacturer involvement. This lasted until 1962 when first Ford, then Chrysler began openly developing high performance parts for stock cars.

In the modern era of NASCAR, all participating manufacturers have factory backed programs to the degree of excluding makes without this support. This results in a very limited choice of cars for drivers, with only a few makes in major competition. Nextel Cup cars are backed by Ford, Chevrolet or Dodge, Busch cars are backed by Ford, Chevrolet, Dodge or Pontiac, and trucks are backed by Ford, Chevrolet, Dodge or Toyota.

Using a Point System

In addition to cash prizes, drivers compete for points during sanctioned races. Points are awarded for performance during the race and finishing order, and are accumulated during the racing season to determine a grand champion every year. NASCAR's first Grand National Champion was Red Byron who won two of eight races in the 1949 season.

The structure of the point system changes occasionally, as does the structure of a season. In 1950, drivers received point penalties for competing in non-sanctioned events during the season, so though Lee Petty won the most points that year, he finished third in the standings after his penalties were deducted leaving the championship to Bill Rexford. You can't keep a good dynasty down, though, and Lee came back to win his first of three championships in 1954.

Since the first major point system overhaul in 1968, there have been many close seasons when determining a champion came down to the last race. Probably none was more dramatic than the last race of the 1992 season, when the two race leaders, Bill Elliott and Alan Kulwicki, began the last lap tied in the points standings. Kulwicki crossed the finish line first, beating Elliott by ten points for the season; the difference between points awarded for first and second finishes in a race.

The Tracks

Given the amount of wear and tear the old dirt tracks dished out on the cars, it wasn't long before fully paved tracks started appearing. The first fully paved track on NASCAR's circuit was at Darlington Raceway in South Carolina. The track, a 1.25 mile egg-shaped oval, saw its first sanctioned race over Labor Day weekend 1950. It remains one of the toughest tracks on the circuit due to the tighter corners at the top of the 'egg' shape.

Paved tracks became more common throughout the 1950s but weren't really popular until later in the decade. Perhaps the opening of the Daytona International Superspeedway in 1959 had something to do with this. The track that started it all has become a 2.5 mile tri-oval course that plays host to the most important race of the season: The Daytona 500.

In the course of a nine month season, NASCAR events visit more than 30 venues. Lengths and layouts vary from the half-mile tracks at Bristol, Tennessee, and Martinsville, Virginia, to the 'biggest, fastest, most competitive' 2.66 mile tri-oval at Talledega, Alabama, to the road courses at Watkins Glen in New York and Infineon in Sonoma, California. NASCAR even stages competition on the Indy cars' hallowed grounds, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, home of the Indianapolis 500. All courses are fully paved either with concrete or asphalt, or a combination of both.

Racing Goes Mainstream

From the earliest days of its inception, NASCAR racing was widely regarded as a Southern obsession. Throughout the 1970s and 80s, that perception was changed by the consistent performances of legendary champions such as Richard Petty, Cale Yarborough, Darrell Waltrip and Dale Earnhardt4. In 1972, NASCAR partnered with RJ Reynolds Industries, Inc., which resulted in the Grand Nationals competition being renamed as the Winston Cup Series, after RJRs premier product Winston cigarettes. The attention garnered by these champions, coupled with the national name recognition of a product like Winston brought the sport to a wider American public. As racing grew more popular during the 1990s, it achieved status as a major American sport, joining the ranks of baseball, football, ice hockey and basketball for the size of its fan base. NASCAR races consistently draw crowds in excess of 100,000 per race.

The Modern Era of NASCAR

NASCAR oversees three divisions of racing: the Nextel Cup Series5, the Busch Series and the Craftsman Truck Series. The Busch league is another stock car division a step down from the Nextel Series, many Nextel drivers have spent time on this circuit before 'stepping up to the big leagues'. The Craftsman Truck Series races trucks, of course.

Racing season begins in early February with Speedweeks, two weeks of activities and events in all classes leading up to the 'Superbowl of Motorsports', the Daytona 500 which officially kicks off the season. From then, the Nextel Cup Series races nearly every Sunday, with a few exceptions for Saturday night races and off weeks. The Busch Series races nearly every Saturday with a few exceptions for Friday night races, and the Craftsman Trucks race throughout the season on no set pattern.

The points system is applied equally in each division with drivers receiving points for entering a race, finishing a race and leading laps. Points are tallied throughout the season, and in the Busch and Craftsman Truck Series, the driver with the most points at the end of the season is awarded that Series championship. In the Nextel Cup Series the championship is decided a little differently. After 26 races the top ten points-leaders and anyone within 400 points of the top contender compete for the title. Points are adjusted so that all drivers are five points apart and competition goes from there, effectively creating a 'playoff season' for racing.

Recordbooks and the Legacy of NASCAR

There is no shortage of significant events and people in the history of NASCAR, and it would be incomplete not to mention just a few.

The Pettys are the 'First Family' of racing, from patriarch Lee who won the very first Daytona 500, to his great-grandson Adam who lost his life qualifying for a Busch race in New Hampshire. Not only the first four-generation family of drivers in NASCAR, but the first four-generation family in American professional sports. Lee's son Richard Petty, the undisputed 'King of Racing' won a record seven Grand National Championships, as well as winning the most races in a season by old (27) and new (13) standards. Richard's son, Kyle runs the family racing business in addition to driving in the Nextel Series.

After being named Rookie of the Year in 1979, Dale Earnhardt Sr went on to win his first championship the following year. Tied with Richard Petty for the most championships at seven, Dale quickly earned a reputation as a driver and became known as 'the Intimidator'. Dale Sr lost his life in the last corner of the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500 while helping his son Dale Jr and Michael Waltrip finish second and first, respectively. After 15 years in NASCAR's premier series, it was Waltrip's first race win.

Lee and Richard Petty were the first father/son to win a championship title (Lee in 1954, 58, and 59, Richard in 64, 67, 71, 72, 74, 75 and 79) but not the only one. Ned (1961, 1965) and Dale Jarrett became the second in 1999. Terry (1984, 1996) and Bobby (2000) Labonte became the first brothers to do the same. Bobby Labonte was also the first driver to win both Busch Series (1991) and Winston Series championships. And while many drivers have managed to win multiple and back-to-back championships, Cale Yarborough was the only driver to win three years in a row (1976-77-78).

Jeff Gordon stands out for having the second most titles, winning four championships faster than Richard Petty won his first four; it took Jeff 9 seasons to Richard's 14. Jeff is also the first driver to break $5 million in earnings in a single season.

NASCAR continues to turn out new crowd-pleasing rookies and fan favourites, ensuring that the family traditions of driving and spectating will continue for generations to come.

1Late 1920s or early 30s model cars; 2-seater soft-tops, sometimes with open body.2Cars like the ones everyone drove, only with some type of modification to the body work and engine.3Even though today's race cars are heavily modified from the showroom models, they are still considered stock cars.4Between them these four drivers won 14 of 20 championships from 1970 to 1989.5Formerly the Winston Cup Series or the Grand Nationals, primary sponsorship was changed after the 2003 season.

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