by Tammy Hart
Being the daughter of a race car driver, I take an extreme interest in the evolution of stock-car racing (NASCAR). NASCAR was first organized in the late 1940’s in Florida on a beach/road course by Bill France, Sr., in an effort to grow stock car racing with standardized rules, a regular schedule and an organized championship. From there it quickly moved away from dirt tracks to the high-banked super speedways such as Darlington , which held its first race on Labor Day 1950. The track owner, Harold Brasington, predicted less than 10,000 fans, but 25,000 came.
In the early days of NASCAR, the media wasn’t all that interested in televising the races. The first network television coverage of NASCAR racing was a filmed segment of the “Firecracker 400” at Daytona on ABC’s “Wild World of Sports” program in 1961. CBS televised the Daytona 500 for the first time in 1979, following the dramatic finish between Pearson and Petty in the 1976 Daytona 500. I can still recall my dad’s frustration when stations would quit televising the race before it was finished to start airing other programs. Today NASCAR is considered to be the number-one, and fastest growing spectator sport in the United States , in addition to having the highest television ratings with the exception of the NFL. NASCAR has taken on many other forms, some of which are receiving national coverage, including the Busch Grand National and Craftsman truck series, both of which are also gaining steadily in popularity.
NASCAR has continued to develop with each passing year. I’ll never forget the ecstatic look on my brother’s face when my parents came home from a race with a personally autographed picture of Harry Gant in his number 33 Skoal Bandit race car. In 1979 Gant lost the Rookie of the Year honors to Dale Earnhardt, Sr. Gant raced the Skoal Bandit car until he retired from the Winston Cup circuit in 1994. In 1995 he was inducted into the Charlotte Motor Speedway Court of Legends.
Today NASCAR is banning all advertising of nicotine in an effort to promote a more positive, family-friendly image. The sponsors who promote NASCAR events and showcase their products trackside have also evolved significantly. R.J. Reynolds Tobacco (Winston) was the reigning sponsor for NASCAR for more than thirty years until Nextel took over sponsorship in 2003. Although NASCAR has clearly expressed its appreciation to Winston for its decades of support, it recognizes the need to change its image. The sport had reached a point where it was having difficulties growing because of the changing public perceptions of tobacco, according to NASCAR Public Relations Director Chip Williams. The change in sponsorship will allow NASCAR to target different marketing areas in television and radio, including kid-friendly media.
Many community leaders believe that NASCAR’s economic impact on a community can be tremendous. Today’s successful tracks are moving towards larger cities and bigger venues. Two tracks suffering from more nationally marketed forces are Rockingham (“The Rock”) and Darlington (located about 50 miles from each other in North Carolina ). Both tracks are now operated by the France family. NASCAR believes it can broaden its national audience and give its sponsors more exposure by moving to larger, more marketable tracks in the Midwest or west. Some say the troubled economy and rising ticket prices are contributing factors to Rockingham not being able to fill the grandstands. Others say scheduling issues contributed to low tickets sales: the first scheduled race at Rockingham is during February’s cold, following the Daytona 500 in Florida , where the weather is warm. Whatever the case might be, it’s not just Rockingham , NC, feeling the pain of competitive pressure; other neighboring counties are distressed as well. Caleb Miles, President of Moore County Convention and Visitors’ Bureau, claims that race weeks used to house 2500 fans in its hotel rooms and see more than $2.5 million in tourist spending. Marketing the races to larger cities threatens these economic benefits.
Some experts fear that moving the scheduled races to bigger market areas may produce more short-term revenue, but in the long run may ruin the sport’s uniqueness and quality. Other economists believe the monetary impact of professional franchises and large sporting events is exaggerated. They claim that the money spent on the event is mostly from locals who would otherwise have spent it on other activities within the local economy. But I don’t believe NASCAR can really be lumped in with the rest of the large sporting events. In my opinion, it is in a separate league of its own.