NASCAR, (National Association for Stock Car Racing), was officially started by Bill France Sr. in 1948. However, it’s roots sprouted first as far back as the ’20’s. It’s birthplace being Daytona Beach, Florida. During this period, Daytona Beach had replaced France and Belgium as the preferred place to set new land-speed records. A total of 8 records were set between 1927 and 1935, turning the Daytona beach into a racing and speed enthusiasts” paradise. In 1936, the Bonneville Salt Flats became the new premier place for setting land-speed records, but Daytona was now the place for racing. During this time, the track at Daytona was a 4.1 mile elongated oval, with a 1.5 mile stretch of beach as one straightaway, and a flat, narrow, blacktop highway as the other. They were both connected by two furrowed and tightly cornered sand covered turns. Why is NACAR so popular in the south? Stock car racing’s origins are deeply rooted in ‘bootlegging’. During “Prohibition”, bootleg whiskey operators, (better known as Moonshiners), who were mostly located in the Appalachian area of the U.S., needed to distribute their illegal product to other parts of the south. For this, they used fast cars and daring drivers, who could either evade or just plain outrun the authorities. In 1933, prohibition was repealed, putting some bootleggers out of service. But the money and continued demand kept many operating. Now it was ‘Tax’ revenuers they were trying to outrun. This necessity caused drivers’ to modify their cars to make them lighter and faster. By the late ’40’s, many of these ‘shine-runnin’ vehicles were being raced against one another for pride and profit. These racing events were big entertainment in the rural segment of the south, especially in the Wilkes County area of North Carolina.
In 1935, mechanic William France Sr. moved to Daytona Beach, Florida from Washington D.C. to escape the woes of the “Great Depression”. France was familiar with Daytona’s history of speed records and racing. He even participated in a race in 1936, coming in at 5th place. In 1938 he began running the course. France sponsored a few races before the onset of WW II. France had always seen the entertainment value of “stock car” racing. In 1947, he began pushing for the racing to become sanctioned and organized into a ‘formal sport’, with rules and regulations for owner’s honest management and driver’s protection, on and off the track. In the past, crooked promoters’ would take off with all the money made from the race, before the driver’s had even crossed the finish line. In December of 1947, France met with other influential drivers and promoters to hammer out some kind of a plan for the venture. The historic meeting took place at the Streamline Hotel in Daytona Beach. It took over 2 months, but on February 21, 1948, all those involved came to a singular agreement and NASCAR was born.
NASCAR Baby She’s Hot 1949-1970 “Gentlemen, start your engines!”
It was now official, there was a sport known as ‘stock car racing’, with a governing body called, NASCAR. The first commissioner of this new organization was Erwin “Cannonball” Baker. Besides being one of the founders who was at that famous meeting in Daytona Beach, Baker was a legend in the racing world. The winner of the very first race held at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 1909, along with winning a host of stock car and motorcycle races. He also set over a hundred land speed records in his career. The cross-country race, “Cannonball Run”, and the movies of the same name that followed, were named after him, when he drove a car from New York to Los Angeles. Baker passed away in 1960 at the age of 78.
In the early ’50’s, a big development was about to come about. William’s son, Bill France Jr., was serving in the Navy and had been stationed in California at the Moffet Federal Airfield. France Sr. asked his son to get in touch with Bob Barkhimer in San Jose, California. During World War II, Barkhimer earned fame in midget car racing. He now owned and operated 22 different speedways, which had earned him the role as head of the ‘California Stock Car Racing Association. France Jr. met and developed a close friendship with Barkhimer. Bill Jr. enjoyed and became immersed in west coast racing. “Barkey”, as he was known as by friends, traveled east to Daytona to meet with France Sr. The meeting was a success for both men. In the spring of 1954, NASCAR became a two coast organization, with sanctioned racing in California under the leadership of Barkhimer.
One of the first elite drivers of NASCAR was Ralph Earnhardt. Earnhardt began racing on the side in 1949, but by 1953, racing was his full-time job. In 1955, Earnhardt was runner-up in the NASCAR Sportsman Championship. The following year he won the title, and in ’57 came in third. 1956 saw Earnhardt compete in his first Grand National,(now known as Sprint Cup), race, where he took the pole and finished 2cnd. In ’61, he came in 17th in the National Point standings. In ’67, he became South Carolina’s state champion, winning races at Columbia and the Greenville-Pickens speedway. One of NASCAR’s original legendary drivers, he is the father of the late and also legendary, Dale Earnhardt as well as grandfather to Dale Earnhardt Jr. and brother, Kerry Earbhardt. Ralph Earnhardt passed in 1973 of a heart attack.
Another great driver from that era was, Fred Lorenzen. The “Golden Boy”, as he was called, won all five of the original southern ‘big tracks’. It took another great, Richard Petty, two decades to reach this milestone. From 1961-1967, Lorenzen won a quarter of the races he was in and placed in the top 10 half of the time. A remarkable feat considering the conditions of the tracks as well as the poor survival rate of the cars of that time. He retired at the early age of 32. Picking up where Lorenzen left off as Ford’s number one driver was Bobby Allison. He and rival Richard Petty went head to head many times with Allison, getting the better of it in even races. Allison won races well into his forties, even scoring a win at the Daytona 500 at age 50. A severe wreck in 1988, however, finally forced his retirement.
Then there’s “The King”. Of course I mean Richard Petty. One of the greatest drivers from this era to ever sit behind the wheel. He is called “The King” because of his 200 professional wins. There is not another NASCAR driver better known than Petty. For the first part of NASCAR’s modern era, Petty was the face of stock car racing. Another generational racing family like the Earnhardts, Richard’s son Kyle, (now retired), was also a driver, as well as his son, Adam. Tragically Adam was killed in a crash during practice at the New Hampshire Motor Speedway in 2000. Two years later, Kyle would retire from racing to concentrate on behind-the-scenes efforts at Petty Enterprises.
NASCAR was growing and maturing. The ’60’s were coming to a close and with the new decade, there was about to be a new development. It would bring NASCAR into the national limelight, big-time.