Few sports allow the direct contact as does NASCAR. It may seem that certainly football and probably basketball pit one person against another as they both allow bodily contact but they aren't armed with four thousand pounds of metal. Drivers in NASCAR are. And they enjoy throwing their weightiness around. We know this because drivers-and their teams-are among the most sanctioned groups in professional sports. It's a dull day at the track when one driver isn't attacking another driver either with his car or, after everyone is pulled from the wreckage, face to face. Indeed “stock” car racing is one of the few completely American sports. What's close to it? Fox Hunting?
In 1947 NASCAR was formed by the France family who still own the whole thing to this day. Different from the NFL which hides behind “non-profit” status, this is very much a for profit business that will go to great lengths to draw a crowd and keep them coming back. And one of the motivators for return business is the not unlikely notion that, to quote Tom Lehr writing about bull fighting, “The moment had come, we swallowed our gum for we knew there'd be blood on the sand pretty soon. I hadn't had so much fun since the day my dog Rover, got run over. (Rover was killed by a Pontiac but it was done with such artistry that the witnesses awarded the driver both ears and the tail.)”. Tom's onto something hear as are those charged with publicizing car races. Few other contests are as hot, sweaty and boring as a car race unless you've some sort of vested interest in the driver, the car or the team. I understand that many are interested in the performance of the cars but, still, this interest cannot be carried out by direct observation as the innards of a car are generally a protected secret allowing only those who are checking to make sure they're legal to run near them.
No sport relies as heavily on regional culturism to keep it going. It began in the area of thel country generally defined by the Appalachian Mountains from North Georgia to the Pennsylvania border. In the hills and hollers were stills manufacturing whiskey and that was being sold. Apart from a friendly jug shared amongst friends. And it might have stayed that way had not the United States largest ever experiment in social reform, prohibition, become the law. Now all this corn licker was illegal to sell but much sought after by buyers. It was cheaper than smuggled spirits from Canada, available 24/7 and it didn't take weeks to turn out a new “vintage”. Not that anyone who was buying was particular. Eventually America breathed a sigh of relief, the taverns, clubs and saloons opened again but by now moonshine had a foothold in the libation industry. The only spoiler sport to this was the Federal Government who wasn't too concerned about the making of it but was dead serious that the taxes that entitled them, by government law, be paid on the production. And the race was on. In those days it was the 'Shiners versus the Revenooers and their chases through the countryside to get bottle fun to the thirsty. Equally, it was the charged task of the tax officials to see that either the tax was paid or the still was broken up. Truth was, it was an easy thing to build a still, but it was the principle of the thing, they'd never paid taxes on what they saw as a sort of cottage industry and, by damn, they weren't going to now.
It was the height of the car chase in all parts of the country. Chicago and New York were famous for their cops and crooks street drags and the boys making 'Shine and those out to tax it were the agrarian version. It's said that as time wore on, both sides came to enjoy the chase save for a few feds who actually took their jobs seriously. World War Two temporarily lowered the heat but not the making of mountain joy juice. (It was found that apart from the “benefits” derived from drinking it, you could use it in cook stoves, in slightly altered engines and was a good retardant for fire ants. ) Still the thrill of the chase was now in its second or third generations-on both sides-and the urge to run was too tempting to pass up.
But then the war was over, the France family organized NASCAR and a new and potentially dangerous element was added: Money. Initially, the road races were either speed tests at places such as Daytona Beach or “friendly” competitions on tracks that were often just former Air Force Air Bases made into some sort of oval. There was a modest prize for the top two or three finishers and it was very much a matter of “run what you brung”. Corporate sponsorship was largely confined to local car dealers, oil products, mechanical shops and local businesses. That, however, changed when tobacco companies first and then liquor distillers plunked down ever bigger bucks and the competition to win extended from the track to the financials. And the car manufacturers were the next, and the largest, group to find that cars on the track represented sales in the showroom and, additionally, they also found a ready made testing area for new, improved cars they sold. And, through the fifties and sixties things worked out quite well. But for all that, the drivers and the teams were still the same good 'ol boys or their descendants who had started all this in the early twentieth century.
The famous feud between the Hatfields and the McCoys may have been the most public and publicized of the hill country 'shiners but it accurately reflected the prevailing attitudes held by many of those involved in racing. In some cases it was a straight rivalry or hate, in others it was more a matter of the enemy of my enemy is my friend. There was no neutrality, you were on one side or the other whether at home or in the pits at the races. Overt civility was practiced but it wasn't even skin deep. What kept the squirrel rifles packed away was money. One way or another everyone was making it and some were making a lot of it. The popularity was growing wildly and, eventually, there would be over a hundred tracks spread from coast to coast.
It was too good too last. First tobacco, then liquor and finally the car manufacturers either dropped their sponsorship or pulled back. Certainly there were others, but the big money was gone and not likely to come back. At some point in this light shift, NASCAR discovered that the fans were a goose that could and did lay golden eggs. Merchandising was the new sport and it proved to be phenomenally successful. NASCAR claimed seventy five million loyal followers who were buying any sort of trinket that was marketed.
That sounds good but the figures reveal a somewhat different slant. For all those millions of fans, they only spent about three billion dollars on NASCAR and their products. It's still big money but compared to the NFL, it's modest at best. Each team became obsessed with getting more of the pie and the way to that was to win and win often. Notoriety garnered money particularly when dealing with a population that was perhaps less sophisticated in their tastes. What they were increasingly seeing was a technically advanced car, carefully monitored and structured but in their hearts it was still a matter of “run what you brung”. Those loyalties of generations still saw the participants as “their boys” who represented their honour and way of life.
It was inevitable that the drivers eventually gave in and began to return to a more personally motivated competition. At first it was possible to see the accidents on the track as just that, accidents. But as time and seasons went on it got a whole lot more personal. One didn't like another driver and never had. Their families didn't like each other, the people in their small town didn't like the people from the town where the competitor lived. Increasingly there were ugly scenes where fights broke out and then the violence moved to the track. Drivers went at each other with their cars with no thought of winning or losing but of doing damage to the other person. Penalties were handed out as were sanctions but there was a back story that was hard to ignore; NASCAR was running into trouble financially. Stands that had routinely been filled now were not. Blandishments to attract fans weren't the success they once were. But what did draw was the certain knowledge that some sort of fight or violence would occur. To see thousands of pounds of metal roaring into another and then for them both to leap the fence was worth coming out to see. Early in the 1900's a railroad had attracted a crowd of fifty thousand when they crashed two engines into each other. The same motive to attend the races now existed.
It cannot be long until someone is killed and it will be an accident only in that it wasn't meant to go that far. Stories of rivalries are now as common as the results of the race. It's not quite the Roman Coliseum but it's getting closer. And the horrible fact is that NASCAR needs this sort of unfortunate publicity to keep going. They're no longer able to portray what they do as helping the automobile industry, just the very specialized market for other racing cars. The races continue but what motivates the drivers now is as much payback for whatever slights they feel they've endured as for the money. It's become a business of personality and the formats have so diluted the initial product that when one person or another is declared a “champion”, it's only in that niche.
The rivalries continue and will intensify as the sport seems to decline. The basic costs of running the races and the costs to the teams will only escalate and the sport as a whole lacks a clear view of what the future might hold. But one thing is certain, on the track the man to man violence will continue. Maybe they should go back to “running what they brung.” It was more fun then.