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Closed car racing and the rise of NASCAR

First Daytona Beach . . .

Daytona Beach, Florida, has been a hallowed venue of American racing since the early 1900s. The problem with the beach (as seen by the race organizers) was that too many spectators could see the races without paying, albeit from a farther distance than those who paid. The problem with the beach (as seen by the racers) was that you sometimes ended up in the waves.

Alexander Winton in the 'Bullet No. 1'
Alexander Winton in the "Bullet No. 1"
The “Woggle Bug”
The “Woggle Bug”
'Black Hawk' in the surf
"Black Hawk" in the surf
Wreck of Frank Croker's 'Simplex Special'
Wreck of Frank Croker's "Simplex Special"

. . . next NASCAR

Bill France, Sr. created NASCAR in 1948 when he set up sprints for closed cars at Daytona Beach, Florida. The cars kept their stock bodies intact (thus keeping costs down for owners and drivers). But “souping-up” of the engines and some chassis changes (such as stiffer springs) were permitted. France organized the races and enforced his rules. The popularity of closed-car, “jalopy” racing soared, particularly in the South, then spread to the Northeast and West. But if the best competitors across the country wanted to race at Daytona, they had to follow France’s rules.

The great appeal of closed-car racing was the stock appearance of the cars to the car-loving general American public. Money came from entry fees. Commercial sponsorships from auto-related companies both local and national of the participating race-car teams encouraged ever greater entry fees. The saying quickly arose among Detroit auto manufacturers whose cars the public saw racing: “Win on Sunday, sell on Monday.” Such fees allowed France to build a paved, oval “superspeedway” at Daytona, forsaking the beach. The track could handle many more cars in each race and more spectators in the stands.

Some years later, France took ownership of the then fastest oval track for stock cars, in Talledega, Alabama. With two premier stock-car tracks in hand, France and NASCAR held sway over rule-setting. Other track operators actually benefited from this “benevolent rule” because the standardized rules facilitated more and more racing on a national scale. The rules became detailed, ensuring that cars of different makes were fairly equal in performance. This produced close, exciting races sure to draw big crowds.

The France family still controls NASCAR, with a small board selected by the family. Car owners and drivers have little say. Rules are enforced with a thorough-going integrity, and there are few disputes about them: too much is at stake economically. NASCAR has the most intricate and extensive set of rules of any racing form. NASCAR finishes are probably the closest, with many different winners during a season.

Richard Petty’s stock car
Richard Petty’s stock car

NASCAR cars are purpose-built, all-out racers; there are no longer ANY parts taken from production passenger cars, not even parts of the body. Even the headlights are just decals! Body shape, overall weight, engine details, fuel systems, suspension details, wheel design, fuel capacity and refueling technique, etc., are exhaustively codified. The purpose is overt: to equalize the competitors as much as possible.

In the 1970s, consumer-product companies began to realize the sales promotion opportunities with stock-cars running in front of millions of spectators, both those attending races and watching on television. Consumer-product sponsors of race teams entered the scene in droves. Money flowed at unprecedented levels and brought NASCAR to its present level, challenging to become the country’s second most popular spectator sport.

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