1. The day America saw it all
I’ll start with an obvious one: the 1979 Daytona 500. Not only was this race the first broadcast live in its entirety on a major national network (CBS), it was run on a weekend when most of the Northeast was snowed in following a huge storm. The captive audience got to see an exciting race and — as we know from NASCAR folklore — an even more exciting and unusual finish.
Richard Petty took the point as Donnie Allison and Cale Yarborough wrecked while fighting for the lead on the backstretch. Petty then held off a hard-charging young driver named Darrell Waltrip to take the checkered flag. After that, if it wasn’t for some sharp-eyed booth announcers, the infamous fight in the infield might have gone unnoticed.
Bobby Allison, who got involved defending his brother, Donnie, told me years later that the brawl had an ironic outcome. While NASCAR fined each driver involved thousands of dollars during an era when such an amount meant something to racers, the sanctioning body went on to generate multiple millions by replaying the fight footage as part of their marketing and promotion. What NASCAR deemed “unsportsmanlike conduct” became the sport’s ticket into the big time.
By Monday morning, the Daytona 500 was front page news all across America. Madison Avenue took notice, smelled potential, and begged to get a piece of the high-speed action. The rest became mainstream sports history.
Here’s a clip. –Mark Howell
2. And the day the world saw even more
In the 2012 Daytona 500, Brad Keselowski tweeted a picture of the cars stopped on the backstretch as the fire from Juan Pablo Montoya’s Chevrolet and much of Turn 3 burned in the distance. It was one of the most significant social media moments in the history of sports, not just NASCAR, exposing the sport and Keselowski to a nation of fans. The image was retweeted 5,000 times, and his number of followers tripled to over 200,000 in the span of a couple of hours. He followed that up nine months later with what will prove to be one of the greatest championship interviews to be granted. That is, until Clint Bowyer has consumed a gallon of Busch Light before going in front of a camera should he win a Cup Series title…. –Vito Pugliese
3. The dawn of the modern era
I’ll have to go with the transitionary period that occurred in NASCAR between 1970 and 1972. In the early to late 1960s, factory wars between the Ford Motor Company and Chrysler kept the flames burning. (Actually, the factory wars began in earnest in the 1950s, if not in NASCAR’s infancy, at least in it’s toddlerhood.) GM was not a part of the game at any official level after 1963 when a corporate edict banned all direct participation in sanctioned racing series.
It wasn’t that GM felt they couldn’t keep up or that to do so would be too expensive. Back in that era of “Win on Sunday, Sell on Monday,” GM feared they’d be too successful thus selling more cars and, in that era, U.S. Congress was considering anti-monopoly legislation aimed at GM to break up the company into smaller divisions and parts to keep the vital U.S. auto industry competitive. GM was trying to keep a low profile as a result.
Meanwhile, Ford and Chrysler were dumping huge sums of money into the sport. All the best drivers had factory contracts. All the best teams got the latest advances and trick parts from the car manufacturers. The battle for supremacy was intense, though it’s notable in that era the car makers were more worried about winning high-profile races on the big tracks, not titles. Championships have only become a fixation in racing in later times. As the car companies saw it, if they won the Daytona 500 and Southern 500, who cared who won at Ashville-Weaverville or Islip? (Or what sort of spark plug or oil filter they used to do so.)
Big Bill France (the original) loved the money those car companies poured into the sport and all the free promotion NASCAR got from the resultant advertising. But he feared and distrusted the car makers as well. The boycott seasons of 1965 and 1966 further fueled that distrust.
The 1970s were a time of upheaval in the auto industry as the government was setting safety and emission standards new cars had to meet. The car insurance companies were beating up owners of high performance muscle cars with outlandish premiums. Even if a fellow could afford a new Hemi Road Runner, he likely couldn’t afford to insure it as well. The Muscle car era was drawing to its sad end and marketing high-performance cars no longer made sense for Chrysler and Ford. Ford left the sport entirely after 1970. During 1971, Chrysler only backed two teams, both run out of the Petty Engineering stable. After that year, they were gone altogether.
It looked like NASCAR was going to become a relic of the past just like the muscle cars. Teams were shutting down left and right and drivers were left looking for rides. Some, most notably Cale Yarborough, even left NASCAR to start competing in IndyCar style racing.
Into the void stepped RJ Reynolds and their Winston brand of cigarettes. The federal government had recently banned advertising tobacco products on TV. That left Winston with a huge marketing budget in a competitive industry but few places they were allowed to advertise. The story goes that Winston originally approached Junior Johnson about sponsoring a one or two-car team. When he saw the dollar figures involved, Johnson suggested they go talk to NASCAR about becoming the Cup Series sponsor instead. He arranged a meeting between RJ Reynolds and Bill France and the rest is history. Starting in 1971, NASCAR’s top division became Winston Cup, a mutually beneficial relationship that endured until 2003 and kept the sport afloat during that difficult time of transition.
In addition to the prize money they contributed to the sport, RJ Reynolds brought a ton of marketing savvy to the table. They basically gave the sport a shave, a haircut and some fresh duds so they could trot it out in front of curious Americans as a real sport, not some carnival daredevil freak show. TV coverage followed not that long afterwards. For better or worse, the secret so many stock car racing fans had known all along was out of the bag. The fact T. Wayne Robertson (RJ Reynolds marketing guru and a true visionary who lost his life in a boating accident back in 1998) isn’t in NASCAR’s Hall of Fame is a travesty that reeks of political correctness run amuck. –Matt McLaughlin
4. And the sport’s darkest day
I’m going to go a little more somber/serious with mine, but honestly I think the 2001 NASCAR season changed the game. You had the Daytona 500 (the tragic accident and death of Dale Earnhardt), the Atlanta race (with rookie Kevin Harvick winning with what was the No. 3 RCR team), the July race at Daytona (with Dale Earnhardt Jr. winning and stealing the hearts of so many then-and-future NASCAR fans in the No. 8 Chevy) and the post 9/11 national impact on life beyond sports and racing (i.e. the NHMS race being moved to November). Those may be a few of the most important, key moments in recent NASCAR history.
Due to the tragedy of losing Dale Earnhardt in February of 2001, we also gained a massive renewed effort in safety in the sport. That included SAFER barriers, in-car seating and head and neck restraints becoming mandatory.
The loss also brought with it a renewed interest and a national spotlight in the mainstream media of NASCAR. Before this time, NASCAR was really still thought of as a mostly southern sport. The mainstream media attention, in my opinion, really helped to bring it back into the overall major sports landscape. From that point on, it competed with the big four stick-and-ball sports leagues, initiating the major growth we saw throughout the early 2000s.
When you think about it, 2001 was a season unlike any other in our sport’s history. At least for me, it really was the launching point of the growth of the sport we all know and love today despite its recent ups and downs. –Greg Davis
5. The start of a tradition and a new kind of racetrack
Before the 1950 Southern 500, NASCAR was just one of several stock car racing bodies in the south that were trying to gain a foothold. They had two major advantages: Bill France, who most of the media had informally declared the 1940 national stock car racing champion and who also was a master at both promoting and politics, and Daytona Beach, the second most famous stock car circuit in the south.
But they had plenty of enemies. Sam Nunis, the head of AAA back when they were more of a national sanactioning body, had taught France years earlier how to promote. Before meeting Nunis, France had taken to promoting his spring Daytona Beach event the “National Stock Car Championship” race with the winner informally declared the champion, which Nunis scoffed at. Why have one championship race when you can have multiple races, give the competitors points, and have a year-end champion when all is said and done? France took the idea and began the National Stock Car Racing Association in 1947, the precursor to NASCAR, which was formed the following year.
AAA had traditionally treated stock car racing as only being slightly above demolition derbies. And who could blame them? Stock car races were tough, dirty affairs. The cars were driven by tough men, bootlegging convicts with names like Flock or Speedy or Gober. At best they were a glorified sideshow attraction for the main open-wheel races.
But AAA saw dollar signs in the south and Nunis began to promote his own racing series. Unlike NASCAR and other racing series, including one headed by Bruton Smith, AAA had name value, resources, and the Lakewood Speedway in Atlanta. Lakewood, a one-mile dirt oval famous for the giant lake in the infield, was the most popular track in the south for many years.
A lot of the most famous drivers of the day, such as Lloyd Seay and Roy Hall, considered it their home track and Atlanta itself was both the moonshine capital in the south (the “baron”, Raymond Parks, was based in Atlanta). It was also the biggest city in the region. The annual Labor Day race there was a great tradition and the flagship stock car race in the country for nearly 20 years. The only problem for NASCAR was they couldn’t race there. Even if Nunis didn’t pressure the track to not allow France to promote there, most of France’s biggest-drawing drivers were known moonshiners. After 1946, known bootleggers were banned from competing at Lakewood.
While all this news was unfolding, Harold Brasington visited Indianapolis Motor Speedway and was so impressed he began building Darlington Raceway, the first of its kind in the south, and a sanctioning body began to promote a 500 mile-race on Labor Day. Entry forms did not exactly come flooding in; not a whole lot of people believed stock cars could survive 500 miles around a paved track or be that exciting by doing it, not the least of which was France himself. Still, France didn’t want to miss an opportunity to stick it to Nunis, who had also announced a 500-mile race at Lakewood the very same day. France entered the picture and NASCAR co-sanctioned the race, with the largest purse (over $25 grand!) anybody had ever seen for a stock car race. Entries came flooding in, to the point where Nunis had to cancel his event.
To make a long story short, Indy 500 racer Johnny Mantz (who woke up hungover, literally, on Myrtle Beach the day of the race) drove a tiny Plymouth to victory in the first race at Darlington. It was a stroke of pure genius on France’s part. The heavier stock cars could make it around Darlington, although the tires simply couldn’t.
Mantz’s Plymouth, which France co-owned with Curtis Turner, was bought because it didn’t eat up tires like everything else that day. The week before, France used the Plymouth for promotional work and would later plant a fake story that the car was never meant to be used for the event.
Mantz winning the race brought prestige to NASCAR, it opened the doors for a partnership with Chrysler down the road that would be beneficial to everybody, and it made a great story for the press. After that day, NASCAR was the undisputed stock car king in the country. Darlington would also eventually inspire all of the other speedways on the circuit today, with the exception of Indianapolis itself.
Before Labor Day in 1950, Bill France dreamed of a NASCAR where anybody could find a car in the junkyard and, with some elbow grease, could go out there and rub fenders with the best of the best on Sunday. After Labor Day in 1950, France dreamed of a NASCAR with big crowds, giant stadiums and fast cars. Modern day NASCAR truly began in 1972, but it can trace its roots all the way back to that first 500-mile event. –Michael Finley