Looking back at the history of NASCAR, it’s not a big secret that the roots of the sport lie squarely in the Southeast. With the series founded in a smoke-filled room in Daytona Beach, Fla., back in 1947, the sport spent the ’50s and ’60s building its reputation on tracks like Darlington, Martinsville, and little dirt ovals scattered all over the Southeast.
Since then, NASCAR has clearly opened itself up to become a national phenomenon… but despite decades of immeasurable growth, not everyone understands the way it has expanded. In fact, one of the stinging criticisms that has always bothered me has been when people claim the sport is “just a bunch of Southern rednecks driving around in a circle.”
That leaves me baffled. Well, what is the NBA and the NFL then? A bunch of drug dealers, dog fighters and violent felons running back and forth chasing a ball around? The irony of people’s comments is their ignorance on the subject. No, I’m not talking about NASCAR and its ratings and attendance – numbers that are eclipsed only by the NFL. I’m talking about where most of the drivers come from that race in NASCAR’s top series. Because the ugly truth of it is, most of the top drivers today in NASCAR aren’t from below the Mason-Dixon line. The sport that was once characterized as being made up of “Good Ol’ Boys” is now made up of legal aliens from the North and the West.
And the Northwest.
There’s further irony here; the truth that disproves how half of America thinks – one that further legitimizes the sport’s national reputation – might not actually be a good thing. In fact, it kind of tears at the fabric of NASCAR a little bit. Gone are traditional-sounding southern cities: Timmonsville, S.C.. Randleman, N.C. Dawsonville, Ga. Hueytown, Ala.
Those are cities that sound like towns stock car drivers come from.
Now, let’s look at some of the places we have today. Vancouver, Wash.? El Cajon, Calif.? Las Vegas, Nev.?
Let’s just say these are places that don’t quite have a stock car ring to them… at least, not yet.
If you take a look at the top 10 in Nextel Cup Points, there are currently just two Southern drivers listed, both from Virginia: Denny Hamlin and Jeff Burton. Yeah, Martin Truex Jr. sounds like he’s from North Carolina, but he’s really from New Jersey. As for everyone else, there are a pair of Californians, two brothers from Las Vegas and two Midwesterners from Missouri and Kansas.
When did all of this happen? Where did the drawls go? What happened to the accents and the colloquialisms from drivers like Buddy Baker, Darrell Waltrip and Richard Petty? A little bit of the personality and history of the sport has been lost as the regionalism of the sport has slowly been whittled away. Gone along with venues such as North Wilkesboro and Rockingham are the top drivers that started their careers at places like Hickory Motor Speedway. And while I’m fairly certain that JJ Yeley is a very nice guy, he never had to operate a still or evade revenuers with a trunk full of corn whiskey to get where he is today.
Don’t get me wrong here; Kasey Kahne is a good person and Jimmie Johnson is among the best drivers ever to strap into a racecar; but there’s something missing in a soundbite from Kurt Busch compared to Sterling Marlin. When his brother ran into him at Lowe’s during the Nextel All-Star Race this past May, he could have labeled him a “bug-eyed dummy” or lamented that “someone stuck a stick in my spokes.” Instead, he waxed poetic about patience and brotherly conflict… or something.
And when was the last time we were treated to a subtitle-worthy Ward Burton interview? It seems that in the two years he was out looking for a ride, he also lost some of the accent that made his voice so great.
So, when did all this change away from Southern roots come about?
I always think back to 1990, when the sport started to transition over from more of a regional sport with limited viewership to one that started its burgeoning national prominence. Part of this was spurred on by the movie Days of Thunder. While not exactly accurate (or based remotely anywhere nearing reality, for that matter), the movie did manage to garner national attention towards our sport. It is ironic, too, that in the movie Tom Cruise played a driver who came from open-wheel racing on the left coast, much like many drivers today. It was the perfect foreshadowing of many changes to come, as 1990 was a year that saw a number of drivers who were from less traditional locales come to establish careers in the heart of Dixie.
The year began with Derrike Cope from Spanaway, Wash. winning the Daytona 500. Dick Trickle from Wisconsin Rapids, Wisc. had just won Rookie of the Year honors the year before, and continued to run up front all season long. Chad Little and Ernie Irvan began to make names for themselves, coming to the series from Washington and California, respectively, while Jimmy Spencer, Brett Bodine and Rob Moroso represented the northeast coast contingent of drivers that season. Clearly, variety was the spice of life, with new blood from all different places working hard to supplant the old guard.
And so, the seeds had been planted… although it took awhile for the “new” generation to take control. As the season drew to a close, the top 12 drivers represented the following states:
North Carolina: 3
New York: 1
While the South still dominated the overall standings, you could see that drivers from other parts of the country were beginning to make a dent in the landscape of competition… but not too many.
Now, compare that list to today’s top 12:
North Carolina: 0
New York: 0
Notice that none of those additional states are from the South. It’s clear a movement has been afoot to further nationalize the sport – and it’s worked, with the growth certainly becoming more far-reaching than ever anticipated.
That said, it’s not like this is the first time drivers from outside the South have ever infiltrated the sport. There has always been a small contingent of drivers who came from parts of the country whose economies were not cotton-dependent; they just formed the minority, not the majority. Fred Lorenzen with his 26 career wins was from Elmhurst, Ill. – outside of Chicago. 1970 Daytona 500 winner and Petty protege Pete Hamilton hailed from Dedham, Mass. 1992 Winston Cup champion Alan Kulwicki was from Greenfield, Wisc. 1989 Winston Cup champion and author of 55 career wins, Rusty Wallace, hails from St. Louis, Mo.
So, if you have friends like I do who sometimes chide you for being a redneck, acting like a hick and clearing out an entire afternoon to watch a stock car race, feel free to rattle off the list of drivers above, where they came from and what other careers they engaged in prior to sullying themselves with guys who only turn left. If anything, NASCAR has quite a diverse cross-section of drivers, and the sport has always recognized that the success and loyalty it has enjoyed is because of the drivers that represent the sport, as well as their accessibility to the fans. Having loyal fans of several drivers from each pocket of the country goes a long way towards growing and maintaining a healthy fanbase, much more so than building cookie-cutter tracks in “large market” areas.
But if you’re a longtime fan, just take a moment and shed a tear for the rapidly declining influence of the sport’s birthplace. However, for those lamenting the loss of the South, we have no choice; we’re just going to have to accept the new NASCAR. Besides, if you absolutely need to pull for a guy from really down South, Juan Pablo Montoya is in nearly a completely different hemisphere all by himself. Literally. And he don’t like that Yankee Kevin Harvick too much, neither…