Deana Clark’s article was amusing and will probably be a well-read article on AC. However, I lost my interest in NASCAR long before she published The Girl’s Guide to NASCAR’s 10 Hottest Drivers. As a younger adult, I was very much into the NASCAR scene. I attended races at Atlanta Motor Speedway. (Atlanta Motor Speedway was formerly known as Atlanta International Raceway.) I spent countless hours of Sunday afternoons firmly planted in front of the television so as not miss one spin-out, one pit stop, or one lead change. I missed the glory days of NASCAR’s birth and rise in popularity. NASCAR’s eight-race first season finished with a former World War II aviator and Atlanta GA native, Red Byron, who drove a 1949 Oldsmobile, as its first champion with $5800 in race winnings.
I wasn’t even a sparkle in my father’s eye during the first decade of NASCAR’s history. The 1950’s saw NASCAR’s pioneers become champions and earn the status of legend. The youngest driver ever to win the NASCAR championship was 23 year old Bill Rexford in 1950. Legendary drivers of the ’50’s included Lee Petty, Buck Baker, Fireball Roberts, as well as lesser known Tim Flock and Herb Thomas. The close of the ’50’s saw newcomer Richard Petty begin making his mark on the sport, even as his father, Lee, collected his third championship in NASCAR’s burgeoning success.
The decade of the ’60’s birthed some of NASCAR’s most famous names. Richard Petty, David Pearson, Ned Jarrett, Junior Johnson, Buddy Baker, Bobby Allison and Cale Yarborough brought attention and controversy to their corner of the drama that was the 60’s. There were more drivers, more sponsors, more races and larger purses than ever.
The decade of the 70’s is likely the most historic years to date in the history of NASCAR. Cale Yarborough became the first driver with three consecutive championships. Richard Petty collected five of his seven career championships. The points system used until recent years began in the ’70’s. The Winston brand of RJ Reynolds Tobacco Company began its reign of prominent sponsorship of the sport. 1972 begins what is commonly referred to as the “Modern Era of NASCAR.”
The 80’s was the decade of NASCAR superstars. Even as I transitioned from teenager to young adult, this decade bridged the legends of the early years with exciting youthful talent beginning to develop. Dale Earnhardt began his rise to legend. “Million Dollar” Bill Elliott’s hometown was just up the road from us and he went from hometown hero to fan favorite. The restrictor plate became a controversial standard in super-speedway racing.
1990-1999 saw a meteoric rise in the popularity of the NASCAR Winston Cup Series, evidenced by swelling attendance, huge television ratings, on-track excitement and seven-digit earnings. Brothers and fathers and sons were racing each other. Driver marketing became big business. NASCAR founder and icon Bill France passed away, along with the tragic deaths of Davey Allison and Alan Kulwicki.
The new century brought with it many changes. The almost inconceivable change in sponsorship to NEXTEL, the institution of “The Chase”, and the shocking death of Dale Earnhardt Sr, changed the face of NASCAR racing forever. New efforts to appeal to a broader crowd were put in place by Bill France, Jr. Fans who have followed the sport for a lifetime are now chastised for the adornment they bring to their campsites. Marketing of drivers has infiltrated everything from clothing to dinnerware, collectible cars to cell phone décor. Attractive young drivers like Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr brought throngs of adoring female fans.
And somewhere along the way, the uniqueness of the sport began to be streamlined to conform to the ways of other major professional sports. Ticket prices soared and tickets became harder and harder to come by. Drivers have become know as much for their sex appeal as for their driving abilities. The implementation of “The Chase” changed the way the championship was earned, allegedly making the sport more exciting and claiming to bring balance to winning races and season-long consistency of performance. Restrictor plates have changed the all-out battles at super-speedways like Talladega and Atlanta into “drafting” competition. The old motto of “Win on Sunday, Sell on Monday” gave way to body templates and spoiler heights. Gone are the days of “stock car” racing in the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing.
I find myself wistful for the old ways and taking more naps to the hum of the track emanating from the television. I suppose change is inevitable. And evidently, these changes have attracted a whole new breed of NASCAR fans.