1 of 2
Fans fill the seats at Bristol Motor Speedway.
2 of 2
A race begins at the Martinsville Speedway in Virginia.
It’s almost impossible to refine the origin of stock car racing. It is what it is. Bootleggers were running moonshine during the Prohibition, modifying their vehicles to quickly escape from police – and later tax revenuers.
But deep down, a silver lining shines through.
Take away the illegal aspects and one fact remains: NASCAR holds strong Appalachian roots. For years, Southerners have cheered on their favorite drivers in a sport they could claim as their own. But as NASCAR became popular with even more people across the United States and more tracks popped up out west, fans and regional associates of the sport hope its heritage is never lost.
STILL AN APPALACHIAN SPORT?
Yes, Kansas, Illinois and California have acquired racetracks within the past 10 years, but, says Kevin Triplett, public relations director for Tennessee’s Bristol Motor Speedway, Alabama, Georgia, the Carolinas and Virginia all still host NASCAR races.
“It’s a delicate balance,” he adds.
And, according to Clay Campbell, president of the Martinsville Speedway in Virginia, the changes are good for the sport.
“NASCAR realizes its roots,” he adds. “They remember the businesses that brought them to where they are today. Because of that, NASCAR maintains a great presence in the Southeast, but can still venture into other areas. Now, we’re in front of many more eyes.”
It’s certainly recognized as a national sport these days, but Campbell says that just gives even more credit to the region that helped build it up – the South. To that same effect, Southern writer Sharyn McCrumb has written several racing-based books, setting them in the Appalachian region and acknowledging the Southern culture that is part of NASCAR’s history.
Her novel St. Dale, a modernized version of Canterbury Tales, features a memorial pilgrimage to Southern tracks in honor of legendary driver Dale Earnhardt, while Once Around the Track follows the adventures of an all-female pit crew. Currently, she has co-written another Southern-based novel, Faster Pastor, with Adam Edwards, who, among other race-related jobs, has managed a Busch-series team, drives in the ARCA series and teaches a racing school. In the book – which McCrumb hopes will be out by summer 2010 – an up-and-coming driver wrecks while racing the streets of a small southern town. He is sentenced to three months in jail or to teach local ministers how to race cars.
Despite her efforts to portray this region through fictional southern characters and towns in her books, McCrumb worries that NASCAR – and its participants – may forget its roots. Not only are more and more drivers coming from the west, but the number from Appalachia seems to be dwindling.
“NASCAR seems to be changing the image and taking it out of the South,” she says. “I don’t really see anything drawing it back to the area. Plus, southern stereotypes are hard to fight; they think if they build (tracks) elsewhere, that would counteract the stereotypes.”
Edwards agrees. “I don’t see any push to recentralize it. It used to be a southern sport. Now, motorsports seems to have become the new polo or yacht racing.”
IN LOVE WITH SPEED
Either way, the co-authors are still big fans.
“I didn’t expect to fall in love with the sport,” McCrumb says.
But she did, evident in the number of novels she has already dedicated to NASCAR. Her fascination began while searching for the “saint” of her Canterbury Tales-esque idea. She knew she needed a well-known figure, but decided against icons such as Elvis Presley and Princess Diana when she learned of the untimely death of Dale Earnhardt, whose sport boasted connections close to home.
“I knew nothing about racing,” she says. “But when I heard about the overwhelming reaction to Dale Earnhardt’s death, I said ‘there’s my saint.’”
Thus, St. Dale was born. And it was this book that brought her and fellow racing-fanatic Edwards together for Faster Pastor.
The two met at Bristol Motor Speedway; he was on a promotional tour as a spokesperson for Tyson Food, Inc.’s Nation Pit Crew Championship, she was touting St. Dale. Earnhardt being his favorite driver, Edwards bought the book, loved it, and kept in contact with McCrumb.
A fan and a participant, Edwards started racing as a senior at Virginia Tech. With money to spend on either a pilot’s license or racing, he chose the latter.
“I got a college buddy to be my crew chief while I raced at the New River Valley Speedway,” (now the Motor Mile Speedway). His link to the sport blossomed from there, and his knowledge of racing terms inspired McCrumb to seek his help for the novel.
“The book features a complex scene of the driver caught in a fiery wreck,” she explains. “Adam wrote about what to do to get out and I learned he was good at writing action. So, I asked if he wanted to co-author the book.”
Connecting with the sport was easy for McCrumb and Edwards, both residents of this region. But NASCAR has garnered widespread attention over the years. Both Campbell and Triplett agree it’s one sport that almost everyone can relate to.
“There probably is more to it, but at the very core is the love this country has of the automobile and speed,” Triplett says. “The more who go (to races) the more who fall in love…with the sound and smell and cars and speed.”
Plus, adds Campbell, no other sport allows fans to get up close and personal with some of the athletes.
“You can’t walk on the 50 yard line before a football game,” Campbell explains. “Here, people have a lot of access. The drivers are more in tune with the fans. That has been a tremendous help in growing the popularity.”
FEELING THE PINCH
While NASCAR certainly feels the pinch during the current economic state, it is focusing on ways to keep the seats full and fans happy.
Teams and tracks have experienced cutbacks in staff and pay while sponsors with hardships have had to scale back as well. But numerous new ticket options and other values are great incentives for fans.
“Tickets here start at $25,” Campbell says of Martinsville Speedway. “All tracks are faced with the same dilemma. But with all the initiatives, I think this will be a good, but challenging year.”
Fans fill the seats at Bristol Motor Speedway.
At Bristol, where ticket sales are at a more than 90 percent renewal rate, races and driver appearances have been added at no extra cost to enhance the experience of visiting a track.
“That’s what people are looking for right now,” Triplett says. “In times such as these, fans still want to have a fun vacation. It may not be as many weekends a year, but they still want to get away.”