The invitation came via e-mail, which seemed strange enough. Junior Johnson, a legendary figure in stock car driving circles, was being inducted into the North Carolina Auto Racing Hall of Fame. There was no such thing as e-mail when Johnson unknowingly launched his driving career as a young man, trying to outrun federal agents with his illegal loads of moonshine.
Then came the kicker: The Hall dinner and ceremony that also would include induction of William H.G. France, the father of stock car racing, and Dale Inman, one of the sport's master mechanics, would be a black-tie affair.
A black-tie affair? For a guy from the hills who used to drive in a T-shirt and overalls? In yet another illustration of how far this sport has come in the last fifty years, a lavish affair was put on at the Charlotte Convention Center in downtown Charlotte, arguably the epicenter of the National Association of Stock Car Auto Racing, or NASCAR. Sure, there is Daytona Beach, Florida, which can make the same argument and has racing roots that sink deep into the sandy beaches that run along the Atlantic coast. But Charlotte and its outlying areas, particularly Mooresville, where the North Carolina Auto Racing Hall of Fame is located, relies more heavily on NASCAR as a vital cog in its local economy than any other region in America.
According to an economic impact study unveiled in September of 2000, Lowe's Motor Speedway in Concord, North Carolina, located on the outskirts of Charlotte, generates more than $276 million annually in three surrounding counties. Humpy Wheeler, president of the facility, estimated that motorsports was a one-billion-dollar industry in the state of North Carolina, with $750 million of that being generated within a seventy-five-mile radius of his track where some three hundred race teams and two hundred additional race-related companies are based.
Not that other regions of the United States have been ignored by NASCAR. With the addition in the year 2001 of tracks and Winston Cup races in two more large metropolitan areas Kansas City and Chicago stock car racing continues to be this nation's fastest-growing major sport, ranging well beyond its southeastern birthplaces.
The sport has exploded not only in the nineteen states where NASCAR Winston Cup races are now being run, but also in homes across the country as new fans tune in and discover NASCAR's unique appeal. And it is readily apparent to those getting acquainted with the sport that stock car racing is overwhelmingly corporate, to be sure, but in a fashion more Dukes of Hazard than Madison Avenue. Winston Cup teams will sell to sponsors any portion of their car or space on their race day uniforms, and the minute they have the dollars committed from that sponsor they are intensely loyal at least until the second the sponsor drops them.
Take driver Jimmy Spencer, for instance. There isn't a more likable guy to interview on the circuit. So what if he hasn't won since 1994? He still knows how to push his latest sponsor's product. He hopped into cars sponsored by Kmart for the 2000 season, and was asked to assess his chances and those of Kmart teammate Darrell Waltrip prior to the first race.
"I'm excited about the Kmart deal because of the two thousand two hundred stores, and the amount of employees that we have. The people that go to NASCAR races in the Winston Cup series, there's no question they shop at Kmart stores. I think that's special for me and for Darrell," Spencer said.
Then he was asked about 2000 being the flamboyant Waltrip's final season as a driver.
"We're going to be looking for a guy to replace Darrell next year...and hopefully we'll find someone who can push the pedal and get the job done for Kmart," Spencer said.
Drivers slide the sponsor's name into interviews so smoothly that it becomes second nature, and the consumers identify them with the corporations they're pushing. In the first two years of an annual survey done by Street & Smith's Sports Business Journal, NASCAR blew away all other professional sports leagues in the detailed opinions of sports sponsors. In seventeen of the twenty characteristics measured by the survey, NASCAR graded out best including in the three areas sponsors said were most important to them in determining where their marketing dollars went: whether the sport has a strong future, whether it is responsive to its customers and whether it offers good value for the money. Ninety-five percent said the sport had a strong future, as opposed to 67 percent for Major League baseball, 49 percent for the National Basketball Association and 37 percent for the National Hockey League. Ninety-six percent said that NASCAR enjoys a strong relationship with its fans, compared to 63 percent for the NFL, 57 percent for the NHL, 45 percent for Major League baseball and 37 percent for the NBA. The sponsors have spoken loudly about their level of satisfaction and long ago determined that NASCAR fans will buy products based on what they see at the tracks, and that's where many of this nation's richest and most influential companies are funneling large portions of their advertising dollars.
The sport wasn't always this corporate and cutting edge, but its history is rich and colorful and full of entertaining stories. It is in NASCAR's birthplaces such as Charlotte and Daytona and Darlington, South Carolina, that grand memories were forged and the foundation was laid for a future so compelling that even Bill France Sr. (nicknamed "Big Bill"), could not have possibly envisioned it. The memories remain firmly ingrained in the minds and souls of the legions who grew up pulling for Johnson or David Pearson or any of the Pettys, stock car racing's first family that includes the King, Richard Petty. This book is their story, but it isn't only for them. It's for the many new fans that today are embracing NASCAR for the first time, those who know little of its history and the men who made it.
In the South, fans and foes of NASCAR alike call it redneck racin'. Antagonists mean that to be derogatory, but fans of the sport take it as a compliment. That isn't quite in tune with today's whacked-out politically correct society, but that's what they do.
Talking with Johnson after his induction ceremony that night in Charlotte, I was left with an idea of what it is like to be an insider in this large, lovable but undeniably dysfunctional family. Speaking in his slow southern drawl, Johnson said, "You want to be remembered for what you've done for the sport and how you treated people and what you contributed to it. You certainly don't want to be remembered as someone that nobody could get along with. You would like to feel like you've treated your fellow mechanics and drivers and everyone else like you would have wanted to have been treated yourself. As far as everything you've contributed, sometimes you're the only one who'll know exactly what all that was. That's why I think the people thing, being remembered for how you treated everyone, is the one thing that your memory can be most honored by."
Research for this book first began in May 1999, but really didn't take flight in earnest until January of 2000 during the annual press tour sponsored by the accommodating folks at Lowe's Motor Speedway without whose generous help the book could not have been completed. It was on the first day of that tour that Adam Petty offered evidence that he was a special young man, and he had to be, for he was the chosen one to carry on the famed Petty racing legacy. Flashing an infectious grin, he talked that day about how he hoped to do just that in a way that would make his great-grandfather Lee, his grandfather Richard and his father Kyle proud.
Two days later, during a seminar on the future of NASCAR, word trickled down that another well-respected athlete in the Charlotte community had died in an automobile accident; Bobby Phills, a guard with the Charlotte Hornets of the NBA. Phills, it turned out, had been killed while drag racing with a teammate on a public road. A police investigation subsequently put his speed at an estimated 107 miles per hour at the time of the accident. It was a sobering reminder that even good guys can perish on account of bad judgment or bad luck.
Yet in the occasionally surreal world of NASCAR, where everyone knows the inherent dangers of racing but almost universally chooses to ignore them, speeds of nearly twice that are regularly attained and always sought. Yes, the stock car folks do it on sanctioned tracks in cars that are designed for safety while wearing the latest in sponsor-plastered fireproof suits designed to protect them head to toe from harm. Sadly, though, these safety measures are sometimes inadequate. The reality is always there, lurking: Speed can kill.
Oddly, that contributes largely to the lure of the sport. Attending a NASCAR race is like watching a circus where the high-wire acrobats operate without a net. Make it too safe and maybe folks aren't as interested in coming to see them perform. Remove the net, or at least make it smaller and lower to the ground to increase the suspense, and the interest of the paying and often adoring public is likely to increase. Move the high wire farther off the ground and take away the net completely, and interest surely will increase. The danger of someone falling to their death is part of the public's fascination with the event, and so it is with NASCAR.
Officials with NASCAR don't promote this morbid fascination with their sport. Improving safety is now and always has been their top priority, or so they will tell anyone within earshot. But without the ever-looming specter of wrecks and possibly deaths as an unfortunate byproduct of them the sport would lose much of its appeal with the millions who are tuning in.
Why risk the dance with death? Ask any driver and he will tell you that it's not going to happen to him. It might happen to another guy, but not to him. Meanwhile, they chase fame and fortune beyond the wildest dreams of Junior Johnson, once a moonshine runner simply looking to make a little extra pocket money when he first started out. But they don't do it solely for the purpose of chasing glory and mountains of cash. David Blaine, a renowned magician who once buried himself alive for seven days and on another occasion had himself encased in a block of ice for fifty-eight straight hours, was asked why he would perform such outlandish, life-threatening stunts. His reply was, "There's a certain euphoria you get by pushing yourself to a place you normally wouldn't and achieving that." He could have been talking about what NASCAR drivers experience every time they circle a track.
The riches rewarded today are substantial for the top racers. Bobby Labonte earned in excess of three million dollars from NASCAR and R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company for taking the 2000 Winston Cup points title. For Labonte, Rusty Wallace, Dale Jarrett, Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and all the current drivers endangering their lives thirty-eight weekends out of the year, the risk was long ago deemed acceptable. So it was with their predecessors wonderful characters like the Flock brothers, Ned Jarrett and Fireball Roberts, Curtis Turner and Joe Weatherly.
Today's racing is big business, as demonstrated by the new television contract that kicked in for the 2001 season, paying nearly three billion dollars for the right to televise NASCAR for the next six years. But in the early days, folks raced for purses that barely covered the cost of running a car and sometimes didn't add up to even that. Crews consisted of family, friends or drinking buddies who happened to have nothing better to do that day. It became more specialized as the years went by, but it was only in the last decade or so that putting together a quality crew became as high a priority as putting a top driver in the car.
"When I first got in Cup racing [in 1989], you had five or six people working on a race car," said Spencer, who earned his only two Winston Cup victories in 1994 driving for Junior Johnson, then a successful car owner. "Now you walk into these shops and Joe Gibbs has one hundred and forty people working at his facility. Dale Earnhardt Inc. has one hundred and thirty or whatever working at their facility. That's a major, major difference."
Today there are an abundance of operations like the one run by Gibbs, the former National Football League coach who guided the Washington Redskins to three Super Bowl championships. Gibbs owns and operates the teams of Bobby Labonte, the reigning points champion, and Tony Stewart, who won more races than anyone else in 2000 and appears to be one of the sport's budding superstars of the future. Listen to Gibbs explain why he switched from the NFL to NASCAR and one gets a feel for where this sport is headed.
"I told everybody if you're good in football you'd be good in this," Gibbs said. "It's exactly the same. Somebody who is on a race team would be very good in football, because you win with people. It's a people business. It's not technology, Xs and Os. It's getting the best people together and the best chemistry. I think it's exactly the same. I've been shocked. Everything that happened to me in football has happened to me here. It's kind of like reliving something. I'll bring up a football analogy just because it's happened to me. Lots of times the guys on the race teams laugh."
Gibbs is part of a growing movement that has been taking the sport mainstream over the last decade. He talked prior to winning last year's championship about how difficult it is to do just that, comparing it to winning a Super Bowl in football.
"I've got to tell you the truth," Gibbs said then. "It certainly wasn't easy, but by this time in football we'd won a couple of Super Bowls. So this is a superhard deal. It's the hardest thing I've ever tried to do. You've got to do it all. You've got to have sales, you've got to have PR, you've got to have a front office, you've got to have [body] fabrication, you've got to have engineering and you've got to be able to do every single bit of it. It's the hardest thing I've ever tried to do. I think that's the reason why we're in it. It's extremely hard and the best in the world are trying to do it."
It's extremely hard, but the folks trying to accomplish it are extremely talented from the driver down to the guy who changes the tires or works on the engine and the circuit is booming. As the new TV contract kicks in and exposure to the sport's many personalities increases, Gibbs said the average fan soon will begin to understand just how much it is like football and other sports.
"Crew chiefs are exactly like football coaches. They're going to get more and more visible as time goes by. TV is going to help that," Gibbs said. "[Crew chiefs] have developed an expertise. They didn't get it by going to school, just like a coach doesn't get how to run a football team from going to school. They learn it on the job and they work their way up to these positions. They are very highly paid and the positions are filled by highly sought-after people.
"It's going to continue to improve for them financially and in other ways too. They've got to do a lot. They've got to be able to handle all the people around them, set up the racing car, get along with the driver and also handle the press and a lot of other people issues."
Gibbs said that NASCAR's meteoric rise in popularity is the direct result of a fan base that has always been able to stay close to the stars in its sport, certainly a unique arrangement that will be put to the test in coming years as growth continues.
"This is a much better atmosphere for the media, for instance," Gibbs said. "In football, for example, the last year I coached in the Super Bowl, the only time I talked to the media was in a huge meeting on a Tuesday and Wednesday morning for one hour. You're insulated and isolated from them. I sit down at the Daytona 500 and the first day I must have done fifty interviews. Guys are grabbing you and talking to you.
"That's one thing about motorsports that is a neat deal. Fans can still get close to the stars and drivers. If I were covering [athletes] I'd rather be in motorsports. You grab somebody, get them off to one side and talk to them. If you tried to talk to Troy Aikman on game day you'd be arrested. This deal right here is the way to have things in sports, where people can still get close to it. That's one thing motorsports has and I hope keeps."
Humpy Wheeler thinks there are other compelling reasons NASCAR Winston Cup racing has caught on among a growing number of fans from all walks of life over the last decade, believing stock car racing's increased popularity is at least partly due to growing disenchantment with professional athletes from many of the other major sports.
"Americans love big things, and they love contact," Wheeler said. "They like football instead of soccer. Again, big guys running into each other. They like basketball. What's bigger than NBA players? Only NFL offensive linemen. They like heavyweights instead of featherweights. They like Mark McGwire, a great big guy, more than they like the rest of the baseball players.
"Why is soccer the greatest sport in the world but it's not in the United States? It tells you something about the American public. We're a violent society, we like contact in our sport. The NFL is the most violent sport in the world when you take the veneer off of it. Pete Rozelle wrapped it up in a beautiful red-white-and-blue package and made it the number one sport in the United States. But only in the United States. Why? I never talked to him about this but I think he understood what we're talking about.
"The other thing is obviously the overall behavior of the drivers. I think there's a disgust, particularly in the heartland of America, over the behavior of athletes. And it's affected the very sports they're in. Race drivers, because they can't have toxicity in their system today and do anything in a race car, have had to keep their noses clean to stay in the sport. Plus, they're more tied to some company than most athletes, so they've got to behave. It's simple."
It could create problems down the road, however, Wheeler admitted.
"The problem with good behavior is sometimes it's boring. It's great for kids, but sometimes you take all the juice out of somebody when they're trying to behave. I'm not suggesting that misbehaving is something they ought to be doing, but certainly creating some drama on the racetrack is what's got to be done to keep us on this climb."
The increased television exposure is sure to bring about changes in NASCAR. Some desirable, some not so desirable.
"Having come over from another sport, I can tell you this: in an NFL meeting, whenever TV says it wants something, the NFL does it," Gibbs said. "There's a lot of money and a lot of power there. The reason for it is everybody in the country is paying to watch our races. We've got a lot of things that a lot of other sports don't have. We've got a ten-month season. Every one of our races is televised live to every house. You don't have delays. You have all the stars of the sport competing against each other every week. You don't have a situation where a fan is sitting at home complaining because he can't get the Raiders, or he can't get the Giants. He gets Bobby Labonte and Tony Stewart and Gordon every week, and he gets them live. We've got a lot of real positives. As soon as you get all of the markets, the Northwest and Denver and Chicago, I think you're going to see this thing explode."
The television money also will lead to increased purses that will continue to help fuel growth, according to Gibbs.
"As far as the added purses, I think the last time we won at Atlanta [in 1999] we won $125,000 to $130,000 [actually the first-place purse for Bobby Labonte was $174,300]. It probably cost us $250,000 to go race that race. The golfer that week I think won $320,000. You've got him and his golf clubs. We've got twenty-six people down there [on the race team]," Gibbs said. "So we've got a lot of catching up to do from the standpoint of the purses and a lot of other things. Hopefully, this will help us out. I think more than anything else is the popularity of the sport and the fact they're going to be doing a lot of half-hour shows to bring a lot of the stories to life. There are so many great stories. The history, in particular, of NASCAR. What I'm excited about are those pregame shows, those one-hour shows and the follow-up shows that will help bring all of this to life and make it such a real story for all the fans out there. Our sport needs that, and I think it's going to be neat to see that happen. Certainly with the networks making that kind of investment, they're going to put the extra resources into it."
Adam Petty, unfortunately, will not be around to see it. He died at age nineteen in an accident when his car slammed into an outside wall during practice for a Busch Series race at New Hampshire International Speedway in May of 2000. Only two months later, driver Kenny Irwin died during qualifying for a Winston Cup race at the same track. And later in the tragedy-filled 2000 racing season, driver Tony Roper of the NASCAR truck series perished during a race at Texas Motor Speedway.
As stunning as each of those deaths was in 2000, nothing could have prepared race fans or the sport's elite for the passing of Dale Earnhardt on the final lap of the Daytona 500 in February of 2001. Earnhardt was the sport's bigger-than-life star with a swagger and a daredevil's air of invincibility seemingly surrounding him like some kind of force field. Other drivers might suffer a terrible fate, but surely not the Intimidator. Surely not the Man in Black. Surely not Earnhardt. The legions who thought that found out how wrong they could be when Earnhardt crashed head-on into turn four at Daytona International Speedway, making it four NASCAR deaths in nine months and moving the issue of safety, always worth debating in the sport, front and center like perhaps never before.
Perhaps Earnhardt's legacy will be improved safety, much like it became part of Fireball Roberts's legacy following his death that was the result of burns suffered during a terrible accident at Charlotte Motor Speedway in 1964. Fuel cells and improved flameproof clothing came about immediately as a result of Roberts's demise (racing pioneer Ralph Moody claimed he had made the fuel-cell technology available to NASCAR even before Roberts's fiery wreck and that it might have saved the sport's first superstar). The hope here is that some lasting safety innovations will result from Earnhardt's passing. Surely NASCAR must and will do more in the immediate future to protect its greatest assets: the drivers.
Each of the recent driver deaths was a violent reminder of what is at stake each time a race is run. But the racing goes on. Why?
Because it enriches the lives of so many who are involved in the sport, and many more who only now are beginning to latch onto it.
Despite the official invite to Junior Johnson's induction ceremony, stock car racing is not a black-tie world. It's a blue-collar deal that these days is beginning to appeal to blue-collar and white-collar fans alike. Folks who have followed it for years or studied its history would be pleased to know that upon entering the Charlotte Convention Center for Junior's big day, standing near the door were two of his oldest friends, Willie Clay Call and Millard Ashley. Years ago, they used to run moonshine with him. Johnson has never forgotten them, and history shouldn't either.
Amidst all the wandering tuxedos, Call and Ashley stood tall that night next to a honest-to-goodness, old-fashioned moonshine still and a car that once was used to transport it to thirsty customers. There they told stories that helped explain not only the roads they had traveled, but also how the sport had evolved over more than half a century.
That is what this book attempts to do on a larger scale. Hopefully, it will not disappoint. Jimmy Spencer, for one, thinks it is a story that begs to be told.
"People have no clue what Junior Johnson and the Wood brothers have done or guys like [former driver and owner] Bud Moore," Jimmy Spencer said. "I hear so many things about all the new guys. But everyone has to realize that those boys only made it because of the veterans in this sport. Bobby Allison and Donnie Allison. Fred Lorenzen. Ned Jarrett. I mean, those guys raced for three and four hundred dollars to win. These guys today are making good money. Those guys were risking their life for next to nothing.
"Dale Earnhardt, the same way. It's because of those people that the sport is what it is today. [Now] maybe fans are starting to look for new guys to latch onto and they're going to look at the cars that are running up front. But fans have so much to learn. There are a lot of new people coming into our sport, with the TV and media coverage we've been receiving, and there are a lot of people who don't know how all this got started."
And Spencer's goal in all this?
"I just want my little piece of the action, that's all," he answered honestly.
Copyright © 2001 by Joe Menzer