What NASCAR owes its early drivers

Tomorrow night in Las Vegas, NASCAR driver Jimmy Johnson will receive his fifth championship trophy in as many years. Decked out in a black tuxedo, he’ll also pick up a check for more than $5 million.

Joining Johnson in Las Vegas will be the other Race for the Sprint Cup participants, all of whom also earned several million dollars this past season.

Included in Friday night’s festivities will be the Viva ELVIS by Cirque de Soleil acrobats that will feature a 29-foot, 7,000-pound blue suede shoe and nearly 400 Elvis costumes featuring approximately 100,000 crystals. The show calls for hundreds of pairs of shoes and custom wigs, as well.

No doubt about it; NASCAR’s come along way from its early days. It may seem hard to believe that just 50 years ago the sport’s top drivers were lucky to earn $1,000 for a first place finish at a race.

In fact, many drivers lived on a diet of hot dogs and liquor, and not only worked on their own cars, but hauled their cars themselves and sometimes slept in them on the way to the track.

Today, drivers fly to races, top teams have dozens of cars, with at least one or two tailored to each style of track, and sponsors spend tens of millions of dollars on the sport.

There’s no going back to the way it was, but it’s sure amusing to see what it was like once.

Daniel S. Pierce, the chair of the History Department at the University of North Carolina at Asheville, has recently published “Real NASCAR: White Lightning, Red Clay, and Big Bill France,” an entertaining look back at the early days of stock car racing.

Pierce begins one chapter by describing one of the sport’s early legends, Fonty Flock, and his reaction after winning the 1952 Southern 500 at Darlington. Flock, a former rumrunner, was one of three brothers noted for their ability to win on the track and get in trouble off it.

Ever the character, Flock’s uniform often consisted of a short sleeve shirt, argyle socks and Bermuda shorts, along with what appears to have been a polo pony helmet.

After winning the ’52 Southern 500, Flock pulled his car into the front chute of Darlington Raceway and celebrated with the fans. Pierce describes the scene:

One image indelibly imprinted in the minds of many NASCAR fans is that of Fonty Flock – the handsome, mustachioed (the ‘Boston Blackie’ kind) former bootlegger turned biggest star in NASCAR Grand National racing – standing on the hood of his victorious Olds 88 wearing Bermuda shorts, or Bamooda, as he pronounced it, and leading the massive crowd of over 32,000 in singing ‘Dixie.’

Don’t expect NASCAR executives to talk much about the “good old days,” however. When you’re hobnobbing with big money in Vegas or New York, you tend to forget about the early days, back when you had to scrape to get by, and instead focus on the current glitz and glamour.

But whether NASCAR wants to admit it or not, it was the Fonty Flocks, along with the Curtis Turners, Joe Weatherlys and Fireball Roberts who got the sport off the ground and helped lay the groundwork for the billion-dollar business it is today.

NASCAR would do well to remember its past, rather than try to rewrite it, or, even worse, erase it.

3 thoughts on “What NASCAR owes its early drivers

  1. Pingback: What NASCAR owes its early drivers « The Cotton Boll Conspiracy « All About NASCAR

  2. All issues are, eventually, resolved by large-enough stacks of cash. The fact remains that NASCAR drivers are just well-paid puppets of the France family, who’ve learned the lesson of the NFL that every few years one must demand a new stadium from the taxpayers or they will all feel emasculated.

    • And most sports fans go right along with the owners, even if it means more money out of their pockets and into those of the wealthy.

      I’ve largely stopped attending pro sporting events, with the exception of an occasional NASCAR race, because I can’t stomach the high price for tickets. Who in their right mind is willing to pay $30 bucks for a decent seat at Major League baseball game or $60-$100 for an NFL/NBA/NHL game?

      I’ll pay for NASCAR because it comes around once or twice in my area a year, the athletes aren’t total jerks and the fans actually attend because they like the event, rather than because they want to be seen.

      But even NASCAR sure ain’t like it used to be.

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