Study photos of early racing events and you'll see that many NASCAR drivers raced in slacks and T-shirts. Some didn't even wear helmets. Seat belts weren't required, either, and tracks seldom had much in the way of safety rails to keep an errant car in bounds. These hard-boiled competitors often put their lives on the line for less than $100 per race.
Many early racing stars honed their driving skills running moonshine on back-country roads. Transporting illegal liquor was a hazardous occupation -- particularly if you got caught. So drivers learned all sorts of tricks to escape the "Revenuers," and those talents transferred well to the dirt tracks that predominated in stock car racing at the time.
2005 NASCAR NEXTEL Cup champion Tony Stewart
See more pictures of NASCAR.
But many drivers who excelled on dirt didn't fare as well on pavement, where speeds were higher and drifting through corners wasn't necessarily the fastest (or safest) way around a track. This wasn't much of an obstacle at first, as for years there were only a few paved tracks on the schedule. That had changed by the early 1960s, when drivers such as Junior Johnson, Lee Petty, Fireball Roberts, Joe Weatherly, and Rex White stood out by showing the skill to compete successfully on any surface.
Local dirt tracks were the training ground for many drivers who came of age during the 1960s and '70s, though NASCAR races were being increasingly run on pavement -- and only on pavement beginning in 1971. In recent years, karting has often been the entry point for young drivers, many of whom -- such as Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart -- started in the sport about the same time they started school.
Partly as a result, top drivers these days not only seem younger than ever before, but also seem to find success earlier in their careers. In 2005, for instance, 21-year-old Kyle Busch won two races in his very first NASCAR NEXTEL Cup series season, becoming the youngest driver to ever win a race and a pole.
Current-day fans will notice that most of the drivers profiled in these articles have long since retired from racing. These are the men who helped elevate the sport from its humble beginnings to the popularity it enjoys today, some becoming household names in the process and setting records that still stand. It is important to the history of the sport that their memory and sacrifices be honored.
Whether young or old, each of the drivers on the following pages share something in common: they have helped NASCAR racing evolve from a high-speed curiosity to the most popular motorsport of all time. These are the legends of NASCAR, with driver bios, stats, and photos.
For more information on all things NASCAR, see:
- Quiz Corner: NASCAR Quiz
- NASCAR Home Page
- NASCAR Tracks
- NASCAR Season Recaps
- NASCAR Results
- How NASCAR Race Cars Work
- How the Daytona 500 Works