On this day in 1948, a blessed event took place in Daytona, Fla. William “Bill” France Sr., a transplanted auto mechanic and repair shop owner from Washington, D.C., filed the incorporation papers for the National Association for Stock Car Racing. NASCAR exists today as one of the world’s most popular spectator sports. It is a multi-billion dollar and multi-national enterprise. Along with rock and roll and baseball, NASCAR is a quintessentially American institution.
In line with Greek Titans and Norse Aesir, NASCAR has its own pantheon of warriors and legends. Knowing the fanatical devotion of modern fans, any recitation of current racing stars would inevitably be deemed an incomplete heresy by someone. As such, in celebrating the nativity of American motorsport, it is better that we look back to stars of heavens past.
As any American with a pulse knows, NASCAR grew out of prohibition-era bootleggers and their souped-up hotrods. Few exemplify this better than the Flock Brothers of Georgia. Carl, Bob, and Truman Fontello “Fonty” Flock all ran moonshine for their uncle, Peachtree Williams. Carl took over the whiskey business when Williams was killed in an automobile accident.
In 1934, Bob and Fonty met up with two dozen other men who also made their living runnin’ Thunder Road. In a cow pasture outside Stockbridge, Ga., these men held a little “speed test” in front of 300 of their closest friends. In the crowd of onlookers was a fourth member of the Flock clan, Tim Flock. Eventually, he too would push a heavy foot into the family business.
Cut of the same illegal alcohol and burnt tire cloth, a young man from Wilkes County, N.C., Robert Glenn “Junior” Johnson also rose to be one of the sport’s early stars. Over the course of his career, Johnson won 50 races. Perhaps more importantly, he was one of the first drivers to successfully exploit the slipstream effect — “drafting” as it’s better known.
Then there’s “The King,” Richard Petty. Petty is nothing short of a walking catalog of iconic signatures: the big cowboy hat, the sunglasses, the gunslinger moustache, the broad smile, 43 … and, oh, yeah, that bright blue Pontiac Superbird. This doesn’t even touch the seven times he won the NASCAR championship (Dale Earnhardt, Sr. is the only other person to have done so) or the 200 races he won during his career.
Petty’s aforementioned peer, Dale Earnhardt Sr., “The Intimidator,” would stand above most other drivers on wins alone, but as most fans know, that is not his fuller legacy. While the horrific 2001 crash at the Daytona Speedway took Earnhardt’s life, the tragedy itself signaled a turning point in racing history. Earnhardt was no stranger to dramatic Daytona crashes. In 1996 (following fellow driver Ernie Irvan’s firey wreck) he hit the tri-oval wall almost head-on — going just under 200 miles per hour. After hitting the wall, his car flipped and slid across the track in front of race traffic. His car was then hit in both the roof and windshield. This accident, compounded by a similar accident (killing driver Russell Phillips at Charlotte), led NASCAR to mandate the “Earnhardt Bar,” a metal brace located in the center of the windshield that reinforces the roof in case of a similar crash.
Earnhardt’s 2001 death likewise exposed gross failures in safety equipment and the need for deep changes, the most notable of which is the now-mandated use of the HANS device, a type of head and neck restraint.
Even this enumeration of notable NASCAR figures does great damage. Missing are names such as Barkhimer, Baker, Allison, Waltrip, Wood, Jarrett … and too many others who merit inclusion.
As we acknowledge NASCAR’s foundations, we can be satisfied to note that it is fast, gritty, dangerous, wildly popular and lucrative. It has heroes and villains. As such, it is deeply emblematic of so much that is American.