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Where the Rubber Met the Road

By Nat Walker, 05/09/13, 11:00AM EDT

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STOCK CAR RACING’S ROOTS ARE FIRMLY PLANTED IN NORTH CAROLINA


In the 1970s and 1980s, Randleman native Richard Petty was the key driver in turning stock car racing into a national pastime.

When it comes to stock car racing, the place to be is North Carolina. This state is THE central story of the beginning, growth and popularity of the sport. Here, among other reasons, is why:

Race tracks dot the state from coast to mountains; many of the major NASCAR racing teams have their operations here; Charlotte hosted NASCAR’s first Grand National race and boasts the NASCAR Hall of Fame; and the greatest stock car drivers, team owners and promoters are Tar Heel legends (Lee and Richard Petty, Ned and Dale Jarrett, Junior Johnson, Buck Baker, Herb Thomas, Dale Earnhardt, Richard Childress, and Humpy Wheeler – all members of the North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame).

Automobile racing was popular in North Carolina in the pre-World War II years with organized races at fairground tracks in Greensboro, High Point, Salisbury and Charlotte. After the war, North Carolina was a hotbed of auto racing. Moonshine haulers who polished their racing skills against federal revenue collectors out of the Tar Heel foothills in “modified” Fords and Chevrolets were among the top performers in the early days of the sport. They were daring and accomplished drivers and mechanics ready to compete on race tracks.

When Big Bill France muscled others out of the way to organize stock car racing, he used lessons he learned as a race car driver on ovals such as Bowman Gray Stadium in Winston-Salem and North Wilkesboro as well as the fairground tracks around North Carolina.

Once the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR) was launched, North Carolina race tracks figured prominently on the schedule. Occoneechee Speedway (aka Orange Speedway), Wilson Speedway, Asheville-Weaverville Speedway, Hickory Speedway, the one-mile superspeedway in Raleigh, and Concord Speedway joined the tracks mentioned above to stage NASCAR events. North Carolina Speedway, usually referred to as Rockingham, joined the fray in 1965.

What today is called the Sprint Series replaced the modified series in 1949 as NASCAR’s major racing program. The first race of the Strictly Stock Car Series was held in Charlotte on June 19, 1949. The next year it was renamed Grand National Series. At that time, modified meant the souped-up cars in the fashion of the whiskey runners.

From racing’s lowly beginning until today, action on the tracks draws the fans, and the top performers become full-fledged celebrities. Those in the N.C. Sports Hall of Fame prove the point.

Lee Petty was an early star, winning NASCAR championships in 1954, 1958 and 1959. The man from Level Cross won 54 major races, including the very first Daytona 500 in 1959. His son Richard’s career was even more spectacular. Most racing followers agree that Richard Petty is the greatest ambassador ever for the sport of stock car racing. Petty won 200 races and seven championships of NASCAR’s premier series. He may well be the world leader in signing autographs and remains to this day the “king” of stock car racing.



Dale Earnhardt, like Petty, captured seven NASCAR championships.

Ned and Dale Jarrett of Hickory are another fatherson team in the N.C. Sports Hall of fame. Ned won two NASCAR championships (1961 and 1965) and compiled 50 wins in a relatively short driving career and today is a noted radio and TV racing broadcaster. Son Dale won 33 major races, including the Daytona 500 three times. He was champion in 1999. He is also now a racing broadcaster.


Richard Childress

Dale Earnhardt is the only other driver to equal Richard Petty’s number of seven championships. He earned the “Intimidator” moniker for his aggressive driving style. His career soared after he joined Richard Childress’ racing team. Together they won six NASCAR championships. Childress is approaching 20 NASCAR championships as he continues his successful team operation out of Welcome.


Junior Johnson

Junior Johnson burst onto the NASCAR scene in 1955. He gave no quarter and won 50 races in 11 years before becoming one of the sport’s most successful car and team owners. Two of his drivers, Cale Yarborough and Darrell Waltrip, won three championships each.

Buck Baker and Herb Thomas were racing pioneers. Buck won 46 races and two championships in 1956 and 1957. Herb won 48 major races in seven years and championships in 1951 and 1959.

Humpy Wheeler is regarded by many as the greatest racing promoter ever. He drew fans to Charlotte Motor Speedway with pre-race events such as New York cab drivers competing against each other on the super-speedway.

Just how important has the sport been in our state? In recognition of the state’s historic and present day impact on auto racing, the North Carolina General Assembly in 2011 adopted stock car racing as the state sport.


Rick Hendrick

In 1984, Hendrick founded Hendrick Motorsports. Today, the original race shop overlooks a state-of-the-art facility with 430,000 square feet of workspace on 140 acres in Concord. It houses more than 600 employees to support four full-time Chevrolet teams in the elite NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.  Now one of the sport’s premier operations, Hendrick Motorsports has garnered a NASCAR record 14 national series owner’s championships and 15 overall. Its roster of stock-car drivers includes Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and Kasey Kahne.


Nat Walker

Nat Walker

Author

Nat Walker is a former reporter and city/state editor of the Greensboro Daily News and a former director of public relations of R.J. Reynolds Sports Marketing. He is the author of two books on stock car racing.