What is the history of stock car racing?

The Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway.
Michael Rougier/Time Life Pictures/­Getty Images

­Stock car racing is a quintessentially American pastime. Many other sports originated in ancient times or as variations of classic games, but stock car racing has uniquely American roots.

­­Born in the days of Prohibition, stock car racing soon proved to be popular with the masses. It began to spread in the 1920s and by the late '40s was a common source of entertainment. The National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR) formed in 1948 to give congruency to the many leagues that had sprung up around the country. Today, stock car racing is a well-governed sport.


­NASCAR is the No.1 spectator sport in the United States and the second most popular televised sport broadcast worldwide [source: NASCAR]. It continues to grow in popularity, and roughly 40 percent of its fan base is now female [source: Wise]. Not many professional sports can claim that women make up almost half of their audience.

Stock car racing was originally a competition between cars that hadn't been altered from their original factory build. But as times changed and technology advanced, the sport evolved. These days, the cars still have a semistock build, but they're a bit different under the hood than the cars on your local dealer's lot.

NASCAR has done what it can to maintain the integrit­y of the original sport. When the "aero wars" of the '70s put two automotive giants consistently in the winner's circle, NASCAR stepped in to level the playing field by placing restrictions on all cars. The organization has also made other changes for safety reasons -- each automotive and technological advance made the cars faster, but with increased speed came increased danger.

­As you read on, you'll learn more about the beginnings of stock car racing and see how it has evolved into the global force it is today.


Prohibition's Role in Stock Car Racing

In 1920, the 18th Amendment banned the production and possession of alcohol, and Prohibition officially began. Strangely enough, drinking alcohol wasn't illegal, so many people went ahead and made their own liquor, known as moonshine.

­As law enforcement officials tried to enforce the 18th Amendment, alcohol producers had to be clever about their business. To transport illegal liquor, they needed vehicles that would blend and not attract attention. They began transporting the liquor in their personal cars at night, calling themselves "moon runners." Unfortunately, the moon runners couldn't outrun the police. To give their cars an advantage, they began modifying the vehicles.


Producers and runners would take ordinary cars and alter them slightly to make them capable of reaching high speeds. The cars still looked like all the other automobiles on the road, but they could now beat law enforcement.

Moon runners were constantly bragging about their exploits. They boasted of making nighttime trips on dirt roads at more than 120 mph (194 kilometers per hour) -- with no headlights. Soon, runners started racing on weekends, and stock car racing was born.

When Prohibition ended in 1933, racing had become very popular, as did the practice of souping up cars. The sport continued to grow through the next 15 years. By 1948, it was a widespread sport, but different in every region. NASCAR formed in 1949 as a way to organize the chaos.

­NASCAR had quite a bit of work to do. Read on to learn more about this famous racing league.


Bill France's Role in Stock Car Racing History

It would be impossible to talk about the history of ­stock car racing without recognizing the immeasurable contributions of Bill France. Without him, NASCAR as it is today would not exist.

­In 1934, auto mechanic Bill France picked up his family, left Washington, D.C., and headed for Florida. His motive was simple: In Florida, he could work on cars out of the cold and the snow.


Call it luck or call it fate, but France set up roots in Daytona Beach, Fla. In 1936, he took fifth place in the town's first stock car race. Unfortunately, the city lost $22,000 on the event and chalked it up as a failure. The race was handed over to the local Elks Racing Club for the following year, but again suffered financial losses and seemed like an ill-conceived idea.

Fortunately for the sport of stock car racing, Bill France stepped in. Along with Charlie Reese, a local restaurant owner, he organized a race and charged a 50-cent admission. They sold 5,000 tickets and split $200 in profits when it was over. A month later they did it again. This time they charged a dollar, and the same number of people showed up. They split $2,200 in profits this time around [source: SIVault].

Racing all but stopped during World War II, but shortly after V-J Day, France decided to organize and promote a national championship at the local fairgrounds. People said it wasn't fair to call it a national championship when only local drivers were competing. Seeing the value in that argument, France created the National Championship circuit in 1946. Less than a year later, at a meeting in the lounge of Daytona Beach's Streamline Hotel, the National Association for Stock Car Automobile Racing (NASCAR) was born, with France as the primary stockholder.­



Auto Manufacturers' Roles in Stock Car Racing History

As NASCAR's popularity boomed in the 1950s, auto manufacturers began to get more involved in the sport by giving "factory backing" to individual drivers. Simply put, they paid drivers to drive their cars. There was a popular motto that caught on with the manufacturers during this time: "win on Sunday, sell on Monday" [source: AeroWarriors].

­However, in 1957 all the automobile manufacturers pulled out of racing after an 8-year-old boy and five others were injured by the flying debris from an accident.


It would be five years before the manufacturers returned to NASCAR and seven years before Chrysler introduced the 426-cubic-inch (6,980 cubic cm) hemispherical engine, more commonly referred to as the "hemi." The powerful new engine immediately began to dominate the sport, and competition suffered. After a single season of racing, Bill France outlawed the hemi and Chrysler pulled out of NASCAR in protest. In 1966 France allowed a modified version of the hemi, and Chrysler immediately returned [source: NASCARonlinebetting].

By the late 1960s most of the auto manufacturers were producing the most powerful engines they could produce and still legally race. Smaller and smaller horsepower gains were becoming increasingly expensive to obtain. So the manufacturers turned their attention to a new frontier -- aerodynamics.

It was the beginning of the "aero wars," a great competition between auto manufacturers to produce the most aerodynamic car in the sport. The main competitors were Chrysler and Ford, who both claimed to have come out on top when the dust settled [source: AeroWarriors]. Eventually, France stepped in to introduce an engine-size limit, and many drivers switched back to the classic stock builds.

With drivers reaching speeds of more than 200 mph (322 km per hour), safety has become a much larger focus. Certain speedways now require restrictor plates, which slow cars down. The message is clear: Until the cars are safer, they can't go any faster. Auto manufacturers will no doubt play a large role in the continued development of safer, faster stock cars.



Changes to Stock Car Tracks

Stock car tracks weren't always perfectly paved like they are today. In fact, during NASCAR's inaugural season in 1949, all but one of the tracks was dirt. The 4.15-mile (6.68-kilometer) Beach & Road Course in Daytona Beach, Fla., was the only one that was partially paved.

­Darlington Raceway opened its doors in 1950 as the first fully paved track on the NASCAR schedule. At more than 1.25 miles (2.41 km) in length, it classifies as a superspeedway and is still in use today. Superspeedways are oval tracks more than a mile (1.6 km) long. Their elongated straightaways allow cars to reach higher speeds.


Just as auto manufacturers have striven to create a faster, more powerful stock car, track designers have worked hard to create faster, more exciting tracks. NASCAR's premier track is the Daytona International Speedway. Daytona's steeply banked turns set it apart when it opened in 1959 -- steeper embankments allow drivers to maintain higher speeds. The idea of banked turns was by no means a new one in the world of stock car racing, but Daytona took it to a new level. That, combined with the track's 2.5 miles (4.02 km) of pavement, made it a behemoth. It was the biggest and fastest track around.

Daytona held that title only until 1969, when the Alabama International Speedway opened its doors at Talladega. Flaunting 2.66 miles (4.28 km) of pavement, it is still the longest track.

By the late 1960s, there were only three dirt tracks left on the schedule. On Sept. 30, 1970, NASCAR ran its last dirt-track race at the State Fairgrounds Speedway in Raleigh, N.C. Richard Petty won -- in tribute to those who came before him, he said, "I hope a few dirt tracks are kept on the schedule. This is where our brand of racing started." Inevitably, however, tradition gave way to progress, and dirt tracks became history.


Stock Car Racing Purses

As the No. 1 spectator sport in the United States -- with a huge amount of consumer loyalty -- NASCAR and stock car racing are lucrative industries. Sponsors pay large sums of money to have their logos displayed at racing events. Fans can buy T-shirts, bumper stickers, bedding and home appliance that sport the NASCAR logo. This income allows racing leagues the opportunity to pay drivers and teams handsome paychecks out of their racing purses.

In the simplest terms, a racing purse is the money given to the winner of a race [source: Dregni]. A driver or an owner's purse refers to the amount of money he or she won at a race. It seems simple, but it gets a little more complicated when you add in contingency and special awards. With these, a driver who finished 17th in a race can actually win more money than the driver who finished fourth.


This happens because special awards are distributed at each race beyond the general standing awards. Sponsors also hold contests for their drivers. For example, if Coca-Cola sponsors four cars in a given race, it might offer a prize to the driver who finished first out of those four, regardless of his standing in the overall race.

Teams can also enter a race as a part of a plan, like the Plan 1 of the NASCAR Nextel Cup Races. Besides competing with all the other teams on the track, drivers are part of a special competition among only those teams that are part of the plan. Drivers in the plan can win money and special recognition based on their standing in relation to one another.

So, a driver can win money in a variety of ways -- from his placement in the race, sponsor bonuses, special awards and plan prizes. At the end of the day, he adds it all up to see how much he's got in his purse.

­To learn more about the ever-growing stock car industry, be sure to check the links on the next page.


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles


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