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The evolution of modern NASCAR is in the passage of the Volstead Act in 1919. This made the sale of alcohol illegal throughout the United States.
What prohibition failed to do was to prevent alcohol from being sold – it simply created a black market of ‘bootleggers.’ These professional criminals made their money in delivering large quantities of booze to various speakeasies throughout the country.
In the southeast United States, the people of Appalachia began to sell whiskey and moonshine throughout the region. With large numbers of police on the lookout for those transporting alcohol, an arms race developed.
Bootleggers would take ordinary-looking cars, and modify their engines to be more powerful than average. The goal would be to pass by police unnoticed but to be able to outrun them if they were pursued.
Eventually a class of ‘runners’ emerged – drivers who were especially adept at driving extremely quickly along winding, unpaved roads, often at night without headlights. The modified cars also became increasingly sophisticated.
Eventually, challenge races began to take place between runners and their cars in North Carolina, Virginia, Tennessee, and Georgia.
On weekends, these cars would race on dirt roads. The end of prohibition did not lead to an end in illegal racing, particularly as many of the liquor being transported was untaxed.
Early NASCAR races, such as Junior Johnson (future Hall of Famer) and Edmund Fahey both started as bootleg drivers during the 1920s and 1930s.
Concurrent with the emergence of these ‘runners’ was the discovery of Daytona Beach as a fast place to drive. Blessed with a wide beach and with smooth, tight-packed sand during low tide, the ability to drive quickly on Daytona Beach soon meant that it surpassed locations in Belgium and France as the pre-eminent place to set speed records.
Despite NASCAR’s roots as a working-class sport, the earliest drivers at Daytona Beach were the wealthy East Coast elite, with people like John D. Rockefeller wintering nearby.
The rich playboys would show off their cars and eventually, racing became common. The first official race was between Ransom Olds (founder of Oldsmobile) and Alexander Winton in 1903. They were clocked at a top speed of 68 mph.
The most important figure in the codifying of what we now know of as NASCAR was William ‘Bill’ France. France had been a mechanic and auto-repair shop owner in Washington, D.C. until the Depression forced him to move elsewhere to look for work.
After moving to Daytona, France soon became involved in stock car racing. However, he was unimpressed with the relative anarchy of the sport, with complex and varying rules and regulations across different races, and unscrupulous race promoters often absconding with the prize money.
By 1948, a points system was solidified, and the nascent NASCAR had taken on its initial form.
Although NASCAR initially had a classification for Modified, Roadster, and Stock cars, the latter was the most popular (particularly in the southeast) and this became the predominant form of NASCAR that we know today.
As NASCAR grew in popularity, it began to build its own dedicated tracks. In 1950, the Darlington Raceway in South Carolina opened specifically for NASCAR.
In 1959, the Daytona International Speedway opened and hosted the first Daytona 500. This soon became the blue riband event for the NASCAR season.
One of the major thresholds crossed by NASCAR was in 1979 when the Daytona 500 was broadcast in totality on television. This was aided by the publicity when a large-scale brawl took place between the drivers at the finish of the race.
This helped it become popular nationally, rather than just on a local level. NASCAR began to operate on tracks throughout the United States, rather than being confined to a small segment of the southeast.
Developments in car technology have increased speeds, although the shape and type of cars have remained relatively consistent with the stock car origins of the sport.
Sources and Further Reading
Safety innovations at NASCAR mean that crashes that take place now are far safer than at any point in NASCAR history.
Drivers regularly walk away from crashes that would have been fatal in the earliest days of the championship. Spectators are safer too, as a result of cars being safer, but also crash barriers being improved.
HANS devices (Hand and Neck Support) devices function as a head restraint, which secures the helmet to the driver’s body. This prevents whiplash injuries in the case of an impact.
Previous iterations of this device secured the helmet to the seat, although the HANS device was found to be safer. Since 2005, HANS devices have been mandatory.
Seats are now, perhaps, the primary safety device within current NASCAR vehicles. As with safety devices across the automobile industry, technological developments have centered on softness and flexibility in conjunction with rigidity. Carbon fiber seats allow the impact to be dispersed.
Window nets have become symbolic in NASCAR; a driver lowering his or her window net lets the safety team and the crowd know that they are not injured.
Window nets are designed to protect the driver from debris flying around the track in the case of a crash. Furthermore, it also prevents the driver from exiting the car during a crash.
The suits that the drivers wear are specifically designed to be fire retardant.
Along with this, many drivers wear heatproof underwear, shoes, and gloves (although often the heatproof shoes are to protect drivers from the high temperatures caused by the engine during the race).
SAFER (Steel and Foam Energy Reduction) barriers are designed specifically for use in oval track racing. Counter-intuitively, the barriers are far softer than previous ones, meaning that crashes are absorbed, rather than rebounding drivers.
This means that much of the force is absorbed by the barrier, and therefore dispersed away from the driver. SAFER barriers have been extremely successful at reducing injury.
In 2006 the Iowa Speedway became the first track built exclusively with SAFER barriers, and many other tracks have been retrofitted to feature this type of structure.
NASCAR has, in recent years, sought to increase their global presence. NASCAR races are currently shown in more than 100 countries, meaning that there is a global audience for what they offer.
Furthermore, with the international success of Formula 1, NASCAR would be tapping into an audience of global motor racing fans. In recent years, NASCAR has been more explicitly looking at international expansion.
In 2013, Steve O’Donnell, the Senior Vice President of NASCAR publicly suggested the idea of holding one-off races in China (apparently with local financial backing) and talked about the idea of hosting races in Brazil, Japan, and Russia – places where NASCAR already has large numbers of fans.
O’Donnell made it clear that these would be lower-level races, perhaps with a lower-level international NASCAR competition, although one that would perhaps lead into an international NASCAR championship.
Between 1996 and 1998, NASCAR ran three Cup exhibition races in Japan, which were the source of a great deal of money either through the governing body of the sport or through sponsors in Japan.
However, perhaps because of NASCAR’s working-class roots, it has been unwilling to create an ‘international elite tier’ of races that have little connection with the homegrown population.
Ultimately, NASCAR has seen a relative explosion in popularity in the previous seventy years, taking it from a set of rules written by Bill France on a hotel bar napkin to an international phenomenon, bringing in hundreds of millions of dollars per year.
What is truly remarkable about NASCAR’s rise has been the extent to which it has transcended its initial roots from a purely working-class event, based on the actions of criminals evading the law. NASCAR is now regarded as part of an international elite of motor racing, alongside events such as Formula One, the Indy500, and the Le Mans 24 hour race.
The developments in car technology have increased both speed and safety, but at its heart, NASCAR is still the same event as it was in the early days of moonshiners, races on Daytona Beach, and Bill France.
Sources and Further Reading