sports gazette

NASCAR's North Carolina Connection

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Published: 8 Oct 2017

"Why on earth are you completely enamored with watching people drive in a circle for four hours every Sunday?"

Such is the question that I get asked whenever I mention my status as a NASCAR reporter. For much of the country, stock car racing is a small segment of life. But as the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series returns to Charlotte Motor Speedway for their annual early October race, the Bank of America 500 (6 p.m., Premier Sports, PRN), I think it's worth retelling the tale of why that form of racing matters so much to us native North Carolinians. For our state, the relationship with NASCAR is quite different than most others.

It begins with its history, which is deeper and richer here than anywhere else. It is in North Carolina where the roots of NASCAR can best be traced to their beginning. That beginning comes in the Piedmont region of the state, during Prohibition. With a constitutional ban on the production of alcoholic products in place, citizens of the Piedmont took it upon themselves to distill their own liquor in homemade stills. These stills were located in the countryside, away from the police stations in the city, and the distillation took place at night to draw as little attention to the operation as possible – hence the term "moonshine".

Distillers would keep some of what they produced, but the majority of their product was sold off for profit to the speakeasies that dotted the landscape in the 1920s. To make their deliveries, "'shine runners" would buy the standard saloons from the local Ford and Chevrolet dealerships, then take them back home and modify them for the purpose of delivering alcohol as quickly as possible – and to evade the police. The most common change was to remove the seats in the back row (to save weight), but some shine runners changed out engine parts to increase horsepower, and others stiffened the suspension to increase handling, among other things.

Over time, the shine runners gained a massive amount of experience behind the wheel, and became as accomplished in evading the police on the country roads as they were in distilling the liquor. Their network was not large, but it was close, and it didn't take long for drivers to compare their cars.

Likewise, it wasn't long before one crucial question was asked: "what if my car, with my modifications, is faster than your car, with your modifications?"

Shine runners of the Piedmont were some of the first in the United States to ask this question, and races between them evolved naturally, when they weren't busy delivering liquor. Initially, these races took place on paved state roads and the winding dirt roads outside of the cities. But as the popularity of racing increased, the dirt oval became the standard place to race.

The dirt oval was favoured over more purpose-built circuits to begin with because it was the cheapest and most economic way to create a race track. All that was needed was a field to dig up, and in the Piedmont, there were plenty of those available.

More importantly, dirt ovals could be built in such a manner that they could be tucked away and hidden from law enforcement. Given that the police would have been happy to confiscate all of the shine runners' cars if caught, the ability to hide these dirt ovals amongst the rolling hills of the area was of great importance too. Creating a dedicated racing circuit like those in Europe would have been too expensive and drawn too much attention.

Even though Prohibition ended in 1933, the racing that it had fostered continued to develop into its own business. The transition came naturally: shine runners became drivers and competed for prize money amongst themselves, then business owners recognised the potential of the races as marketing tools and introduced sponsorships. Some of those businessmen identified that money could be made off of organising races and sponsors and turned that into a profession on its own, becoming track promoters. One of those promoters, Bill France, Sr., saw the potential in having a series of races that toured race tracks all around the Southeast.

Unifying the competition at the top level would allow for more media coverage, more sponsors, more prize money, and would make everyone involved richer. It was this line of thinking that eventually led to the formation of NASCAR in December 1948.
Though NASCAR expanded across the Southeast in its early years, its roots stayed in North Carolina more than anywhere else. No state played host to more Grand National Series races per year than the Tar Heel State, and it held this distinction for 55 years, from 1949 until Rockingham Speedway closed its doors in 2004.

As the extra money came in, the more significant dirt ovals were paved over and created the "short tracks" for which North Carolina is famous. Winston-Salem's Bowman Gray Stadium became the first-ever track to receive a NASCAR sanction, and that track became a mainstay on the schedule, along with ones in Hickory and North Wilkesboro. The increased appetite for racing across the state saw tracks in Asheboro, Burlington, Roxboro and Kenly flourish, even when those facilities didn't host a NASCAR-sanctioned race.

Though most towns and cities in North Carolina were doing fine with their short tracks, Charlotte's status as the largest city in the Carolinas meant that it was destined for something much bigger than a short track. Purpose-built race tracks had eventually come to the Southeast in the 1950s, as Darlington Raceway and Daytona International Speedway became the first paved ovals longer than a mile in length.

Two men who would become NASCAR Hall of Famers, Bruton Smith and Curtis Turner, combined to build Charlotte Motor Speedway in 1959. When it opened a year later, it was a state-of-the-art 1.5-mile circuit designed to push drivers to a mental and physical edge, and equipment to the absolute limit of its ability. It joined Darlington, Daytona and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway as the only facilities of their kind in the United States.

With the facility in place for North Carolina to host racing events on a national scale, the creation of a race was next on the checklist. Ever the decisive businessman, Smith was quick to design his centrepiece event for the new racetrack. Charlotte would host NASCAR's version of the Indianapolis 500, to be held on the final weekend of May, just like the more established race in the Midwest. However, to ensure that the two races were different, the Charlotte race would run for 100 extra miles and be billed as the greater test of endurance and strength. Thus, the World 600 was born.

The first World 600 was not actually held on Memorial Day weekend in 1960 as intended – it moved to June as construction delays kept Charlotte Motor Speedway from being completed on time. It moved back to its intended date on the final Sunday in May the following year, and has been held on that date ever since. Now known as the Coca-Cola 600, it is one of four "crown jewel" races on the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series calendar, and is North Carolina's largest single-day sporting event of the year, drawing around 150,000 people to the Queen City.

The presence of Charlotte Motor Speedway and the World 600 cemented North Carolina's place as the heart of the NASCAR world. It was larger in population than both Darlington and Daytona Beach, and was geographically centred to most of the tracks that were already on the schedule. It made for a convenient place for race teams to build their permanent shops. Driven by the powerhouse Holman Moody team, most of NASCAR built roots in the Charlotte area during the 1960s.

When NASCAR established a plan to expand from the Southeast in the early 1970s, their first step was to get the Grand National Series sponsored. Fittingly, it was a North Carolina-based company – the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company of Winston-Salem – that became the Grand National Series' first major sponsor. The partnership between the two companies lasted from 1971 to 2003, and in that time, NASCAR expanded from a predominantly regional sport to a national one. When the final Winston Cup Series race was run in November 2003, NASCAR had expanded to Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston, Kansas City, and Miami, amongst other places.

Though the sport has changed significantly since the days of the shine runners, North Carolina's status as the epicentre of the NASCAR world has not changed. To this day, over 90% of NASCAR teams are headquartered within a 50-mile radius of Charlotte. Over 700 motorsports-related companies are based around the city, contributing more than $6 billion dollars annually to the North Carolina economy. NASCAR's largest office in the United States is in Uptown Charlotte, and the sport's Hall of Fame sits adjacent to it.

The Hall of Fame's membership also stands as evidence to North Carolina's significant place in NASCAR. One of the five inductees in the inaugural Class of 2010, Junior Johnson, got his start in racing as one of the shine runners from the Prohibition era, and is a North Carolina native. Two other men in that class, Dale Earnhardt and Richard Petty, were also born and raised in the Tar Heel State, and are widely considered to be the two greatest NASCAR drivers of all-time. Since then, 15 other North Carolina natives have been inducted into the Hall of Fame, representing over a third of its entire membership to this point.

To be fair, it isn't just Charlotte that drives motorsport in North Carolina. There are more short tracks across the state than any other state in the Union, and their combined revenue is highest amongst all states too.

Most tracks on the NASCAR schedule tend to be motorsport enclaves. Tracks like those in Los Angeles and Dallas and Chicago exist to serve a particular geographical market and to provide people with an interest a place to gather and partake in the sport.

But most of these places only hold that distinction for a weekend or two throughout the year, and then go back to being a specific part of a community in the other 50 weeks.

In North Carolina, the situation is vastly different. The history that took place here has entrenched the sport in a way unmatched by any other place in the country. In turn, it is only in North Carolina that NASCAR shapes the day-to-day life of so many people. It is a year-round haven for motorsport.

It begins with the work of U.S. Legends Cars, whose spec-built cars are now the most popular racing machines on the planet. All of their cars in the eastern United States come from their North Carolina shop, and many of them stay close to home. Since their founding in 1992, the Legends Cars program has become the de-facto little league of stock car racing, and many drivers now competing at NASCAR's highest level began their careers driving a USLCI car at ages eight and nine.

While USCLI has support across the world, North Carolina has become the natural headquarters of Legends Cars competition. Charlotte Motor Speedway hosts a Legends Cars series each summer that is the first step for many drivers to the Monster Energy Cup Series, and in combination with Concord Speedway, Legends Cars racing occurs in the state nearly year-round.

On the other end of the spectrum is Mooresville's GoPro Motorplex, which is America's premier karting facility. In the NASCAR community, it is best known as the place where Monster Energy Cup Series drivers go when they want to race for fun. The Motorplex might be one of the few places in the country where the majority of its regular patrons are doing the exact same thing that they do for a job!

As crazy as that sounds, it is worth noting that drivers will return to the Motorplex because it is a fun place to race above all else (and having personally driven there too, I can attest to this). But most of them got into the sport because it was fun for them, and I find it fitting that it is here in North Carolina where USCLI and the Motorplex combine with the other motorsports companies to complete a Blakeian circle of innocence. In North Carolina, you can begin your racing career, make it all the way to the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, and then come back to the fun of it again.

In that sense, motorsport can completely circle your life in North Carolina. For many of us, it does. To me, that explains why I've never been bothered by the fact that NASCAR does revolve around a lot of "going in circles", as I often get told.

I, along with many other North Carolinians, am just used to it.

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