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Fans atop a school bus take in the racing as the sun sets during the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

Jordan Chittley/The Globe and Mail

Redline

The rise and fall of NASCAR

Why racetracks are removing hundreds of thousands of seats

The infield of the Charlotte Motor Speedway on race weekend is a universe unto itself. Here, you enter the Vatican of Internal Combustion, a microcosm ruled by the forces of V-8 power and flat-out speed.

Multicoloured race cars blast around the speedway’s steep grey banks at more than 330 km/h, and the infield resembles a cross between the Woodstock festival and a Road Warrior set. Race fans, encamped here for days, arrive by the thousands in jumbo-sized motor homes, jacked-up Ford F-150s and old school buses with viewing platforms welded on top.

More photos: The fans of NASCAR

A fan drinks beer while biking around the infield during the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

A fan drinks beer while biking around the infield during the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

Peter Cheney/The Globe and Mail

Steel scaffolds and deer hunting stands rise from the crowd like minarets, each topped with a group of partiers. A black, hemi-powered Ram pickup truck rolls past, loaded with shirtless revellers and a stack of beer coolers. A Confederate flag flutters from one of the chrome-plated exhaust stacks and it brings to mind what one writer said after visiting a NASCAR race at Talladega: “It has not come to the attention of eastern Alabama that the civil war ended.”

Charlotte Motor Speedway is at the heart of stock car country. Many of the top race shops in the business are within a 10-kilometre radius of here – places like Hendricks Racing and Roush-Fenway, where expert engineering teams spend their days milling high-tuned cylinder heads and shaping lengths of steel tubing into racing chassis.

Once upon a time, stock car racing was a humble, homespun operation. Drivers were farm boys and shade tree mechanics who learned to race by outrunning the law on back-road moonshine runs. Their cars really were stock: They bought them from the local dealer, fixed them up in the parking lot before races, then went at it. The tracks were dirt ovals, carved out of country fields with a bulldozer. Fans stood at the edge of the track and went home coated in dust.

Driver Kurt Busch, right, arrives with girlfriend Patricia Driscoll, left, and her son, Houston, centre, for the NASCAR Sprint Cup series Coca-Cola 600 auto race at Charlotte Motor Speedway in Concord, N.C., Sunday, May 25, 2014. Busch finished sixth in the Indianapolis 500 race earlier.

Driver Kurt Busch, right, arrives with girlfriend Patricia Driscoll, left, and her son, Houston, centre, for the NASCAR Sprint Cup series Coca-Cola 600 auto race at Charlotte Motor Speedway in Concord, N.C., Sunday, May 25, 2014.

Chuck Burton/AP Photo

But those days are long gone, replaced by big-budget reality. NASCAR’s tracks are all paved, and the drivers are millionaire stars. At Charlotte, glinting turbine helicopters hover down onto a concrete pad just outside the speedway, disgorging corporate honchos in golf shirts and custom loafers. Polished race team transporters, with hydraulic tailgates and several million dollars worth of tools inside, are lined up near the pits, and a video screen the size of a football field towers over the action.

The money is huge. But there are cracks in the House of NASCAR. Once an unstoppable commercial juggernaut that looked like it might surpass professional football in popularity, NASCAR is in retreat. Crews have removed entire sections of the stands at Charlotte, and other tracks have followed suit. Daytona Speedway, which once had seats for 159,000, has cut its capacity to 101,000.

The map shows the location of 12 major tracks and the number of seats removed between 2007 and 2014. Click on the flags for details:

Related: Dig deeper behind the numbers

Various reasons have been cited for the decline, including the price of gas, uninspiring race cars and the 2008 economic meltdown, but there might be more to it than that. What has happened to a sport that had always tugged at the imagination?


TABLE OF CONTENTS




chapter 1

Far from the hot banked asphalt and thunderous engine roar is a bubbling brook with a still. Making moonshine was how it all got started

2:51

The rise of the modern racer

How crazy characters fueled success and how the Car of Tomorrow killed it

My fascination with stock car racing began with Junior Johnson, a man I first encountered in a magazine story titled The Last American Hero. Written by Tom Wolfe in the 1960s, the story took a generation of readers into the colourful world of oval racing.

Back then, I was a Formula One aficionado, and looked down on stock car racing as a déclassé joke, unworthy of a real car buff’s attention. Wolfe’s story changed all that. It explored the social and mechanical roots of NASCAR, showing how the sport had blossomed in the lost green hollows of the south to become a cultural and sporting phenomenon.

The main character was Johnson, a racer who epitomized NASCAR’s golden age. He was the son of one the biggest copper-still operators in North Carolina, and rose to local fame thanks to his skill at evading the law on late-night moonshine runs in tricked-out Ford sedans. The techniques that made him an uncatchable bootleg driver also made him a star on the dirt-track circuit that gave rise to NASCAR as we now know it.

Test driving an original moonshine car

2:17

Wolfe’s profile showed how Johnson’s exploits, legal and otherwise, had captured the dreams and aspirations of a generation, in the same way that a Babe Ruth or Rocket Richard had.

“Junior Johnson has followers who need to keep him, symbolically, riding through nighttime like a demon,” Wolfe wrote. “Madness! But Junior Johnson is one of the last of those sports stars who is not just an ace at the game itself, but a hero a whole people or class of people can identify with.”

ISC Archives via Getty Images

Johnson’s racing colleagues included a cast of characters that no movie director could dream up. In the early days of NASCAR, drivers strapped themselves into their cars with belts from their jeans, and one carried a gun so he could shoot out his back window during a race, theorizing that it would improve aerodynamics and suck out the dust.

Curtis Turner was a star driver, a handsome rogue who mastered the power slide, slewing his car through turns at full throttle in a long contrail of dirt. “He made it look easy,” said one stock car expert. “It wasn’t.”

Turner made and lost several fortunes in the timber business, and spent his money on airplanes and good times. He kept a party house near the Charlotte Motor Speedway that was a redneck version of Hugh Hefner’s Playboy mansion, always stocked with liquor and women. “If you don’t like the party, just wait 15 minutes.” Turner once said. “Another one will be starting.”

Turner flew a twin-engine Aero Commander 508, an airplane designed for business executives, and used it for his own unique purposes. Turner sometimes landed on the infield of dirt racetracks, then stepped straight into his car. Another time, he landed on the main street of Easley, S.C., because he wanted to buy liquor for a party, only to clip the town power line on his way out, destroying his plane and temporarily killing Easley’s electrical supply.

DARLINGTON, SC - 1950'S: (L-R) Fonty Flock, Tim Flock, Junior Johnson, Herb Thomas. Two Oldsmobiles and two Hudson Hornets race in Darlington, South Carolina in the 1950's. (Photo by ISC Archives via Getty Images)

Fonty Flock, Tim Flock, Junior Johnson, Herb Thomas race in Darlington, South Carolina in the 1950s.

RacingOne/ISC Archives via Getty Images

Early stock car racing was loaded with risk and thrill. Races were held on dirt tracks and beaches (Daytona Florida quickly turned into a major event). The crowds grew, drawn by the spectacle. The cars on the track were identical to the ones the spectators drove themselves, and fans were divided into manufacturer-based camps – there were Ford, Chrysler and GM fans, and arguments over the cars’ relative merits sometimes ended in trackside fistfights. Racing had a direct commercial spinoff. Cars that won races got an instant sales boost, which gave rise to stock car racing’s mantra: “Win on Sunday, sell on Monday.”

Businessmen like Bill France and Bruton Smith quickly recognized the commercial potential of stock car racing. In 1947, France held a meeting of bootleggers, promoters, drivers and track owners at the Streamline hotel in Florida. NASCAR was officially formed the next year.

France ruled the sport with an iron fist and had the Midas touch, guiding NASCAR through decades of exponential growth. By the 1990s, the sport had found a crossover audience, and grown bigger than almost anyone could have imagined. Some thought it might even surpass baseball or football.

Related: Timeline of important NASCAR moments

That seemed entirely possible at the time. NASCAR had a common-man touch other forms of car racing lacked. As one early NASCAR organizer said, stock car racing was “like country music: Nobody likes it except the public.”

Between 1997 and 2007, NASCAR added tracks in new markets: Los Angeles, Dallas-Fort Worth, Miami and Chicago. It was no longer just a southern sport. There was a new breed of driver, epitomized by Jeff Gordon, who was born and raised in California.

Gordon’s racing career began with go-karts, and he was quickly identified as a child prodigy. Gordon’s uncle, who managed his career, signed him up for Buck Baker’s stock car racing school, and within two laps, instructors knew that Gordon was going to be a superstar. “It was like hearing Mozart play the piano,” said Buz McKim, a long-time NASCAR observer who now works as an official historian for the NASCAR Hall of Fame.

Gordon won his first NASCAR race in May 1994, when he was 22 years old, kicking open the door to a youth movement that continues to this day. Gordon changed the face of stock car racing. He didn’t grow up fixing cars in his driveway, he didn’t chew tobacco and he didn’t have a southern drawl. Gordon hosted Saturday Night Live, did movie cameos and married a model.

Jeff Gordon walks down pit road with wife Ingrid Vandebosch, daughter Ella and son Leo before the start of the Daytona 500.

Jeff Gordon walks down pit road with wife Ingrid Vandebosch, daughter Ella and son Leo before the start of the Daytona 500.

Stephen M. Dowell/AP

The early Gordon era saw continued growth. Crowds were bigger than ever, ticket prices went up and teams cashed in on their young superstars – fans could buy Jeff Gordon jackets and Jimmie Johnson dog bowls.

But by the mid-2000s, attendance began to slide. Then came the recession, which occurred just as NASCAR made what may have been the worst marketing decision in the history of stock car racing by introducing the Car of Tomorrow (COT).

The COT introduced a new, standardized car, virtually eliminating the difference between the cars run by each team. Every car had to conform to a rigid set of specifications that determined its body shape and chassis design. Except for the decals, the cars were indistinguishable.

In theory, the COT made sense, because it made racing safer and eliminated aerodynamic differences that had given some teams an advantage when the cars were more closely based on street machines.

But fans hated it. The traditional, manufacturer-based rivalry was gone. “Who wants to root for a Ford when it’s the same as a Toyota Camry or a Chev?” one fan rued.

NASCAR stopped publishing attendance figures and it was clear that it was in trouble. In 2006, television audience numbers tumbled. NBC dropped out of negotiations for broadcast rights after deciding the audience was no longer large enough to justify costs. The racing schedule was cut back, and the A.G. Edwards brokerage firm recommended a “sell” rating on stock in the public companies that owned 29 of the 36 races on the Nextel Cup schedule.

“It was a wake-up call,” said McKim. “The sport had to figure out where to go next.”

(Return to table of contents)


Chapter 2

2 Dale Earnhardt Sr., From Kannapolis, N.C., waves in Victory Lane Feb. 9, 1986 in Daytona Beach Fla. after winning the Busch Clash. Earnhardt, one of the greatest stars in auto racing history, died Sunday, Feb. 18, 2001 from injuries in a last-lap crash at the Daytona 500, NASCAR officials said.(AP Photo/chuck Luzier)

Dale Earnhardt Sr., From Kannapolis, N.C., waves in Victory Lane Feb. 9, 1986 in Daytona Beach Fla. after winning the Busch Clash.

CHUCK LUZIER/Associated Press

The last of the good old boys

Fan favourite Dale Earnhardt rose from the blue-collar, busted-knuckle tradition that defined racing’s old-school heroes

It’s hard not to notice that NASCAR’s decline closely coincided with the death of Dale Earnhardt, a man who embodied the up-from-nothing, blue-collar glory of old-school stock car racing.

The crash that killed Earnhardt in 2001 was a coda to one of the most colourful and compelling lives in the history of car racing – Earnhardt was battling his way to the front on the last lap of the Daytona 500 in the take-no-prisoners style that had made him an icon, only to lose control and smash into another racer, then the wall.

Earnhardt was not the product of marketing meetings and demographic analyses aimed at broadening the sport’s appeal. Instead, he came from the same deep well that had produced old-school racers like Richard Petty, Bobby Allison and Benny Parsons. Earnhardt was the last of the good old boys.

Earnhardt’s race car was a black Chevy Monte Carlo, and he had a series of nicknames, including “Iron Head,” “The Man in Black” and “The Intimidator.” He earned them all.

Earnhardt connected fans with the roots of the sport. He was the antithesis of the polished, marketing-package racer that now dominates NASCAR. Earnhardt came from the blue-collar, busted-knuckle tradition that defined American racing’s authentic, old-school heroes, who had grown up poor, learned how to rebuild a carburetor, and raced cars like the ones that fans drove themselves.

Earnhardt was raised in the heart of NASCAR country, in small-town Kannapolis, N.C. He quit school in Grade 9 to work as a mechanic, and patched together race cars in his driveway, using the money from his job to pay for parts. Unlike the current generation of NASCAR stars, who generally follow the same path as budding Formula One drivers, starting out with go-karts before moving on to open-wheel race cars, Earnhardt’s race training was in the grand southern tradition: He learned to drive fast on dirt back roads, like the moonshiners once had, and raced beaters on the stock car chitlin’ circuit, where crashes and fistfights were part of the action. Prize money rarely covered the cost of repairs, fuel and getting to the track.

Earnhardt’s strength was sheer determination: He smashed his way to the front of the pack, leaving a trail of wrecked cars in his wake. He was all or nothing. After his death, someone pulled up the NASCAR driver information sheet he had filled out when he applied for his competition license in the 1970s. One of the standard questions asked the applicant driver what his other ambitions were. Earnhardt wrote “None.”

Coverage of Earnhardt’s death showed the extent of his fame – he was on the cover of every newspaper and magazine in the country, “Just like Elvis and Marilyn Monroe,” as NASCAR historian Buz McKim puts it. “He was a crossover star.”

Here in NASCAR country, Earnhardt’s legend endures. Countless fans wear Earnhardt’s Number 3 as a talisman and paint their cars to match his black Monte Carlo. His son, Dale Jr., is consistently ranked as NASCAR’s most popular driver, even though he’s never won a championship. Thousands of fans troop to Earnhardt’s hometown to travel a circuit known as the Dale Trail: They visit the tire shop where he worked, touch the nine-foot bronze statue of their hero and eat at the restaurant where Earnhardt did, ordering his favourite meal – a tomato sandwich with mayonnaise.

Even though racing made Earnhardt a millionaire, his public persona never changed. To NASCAR’s most die-hard fans, he was both the future of the sport and a living link to its past. They could imagine Earnhardt fishing, drinking a beer on the deck, or changing oil out in the driveway while listening to country music. As good as they might be in a race car, Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and Danica Patrick just don’t give the same vibe.

“Dale was a true good old boy,” said McKim. “The average fan could relate to him, and he was the guy they wanted to be. He had the black car. He was the Intimidator. He was Number 3. It was mythical.”

(Return to table of contents)


Chapter 3

3 during practice for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Crown Royal Presents The John Wayne Walding 400 at the Brickyard Indianapolis Motor Speedway on July 26, 2014 in Indianapolis, Indiana.

Andy Lyons

The King and his court

Richard Petty’s move from the backwoods to racing’s centre stage

To get a better understanding of where stock car racing came from, and where it might end up, a visit to Richard Petty, also known as The King, was vital. Petty is to stock car racing what Muhammad Ali is to boxing, reigning over his sport for decades.

The journey to Petty’s race shop in Mooresville, N.C. goes through countryside that’s home to some of his most diehard fans. His iconic “43” racing number is everywhere, and the dusty roads are lined with welding shops and board-sided country churches. This is Petty country.

Petty is 78 years old, but he’s sharp as a tack, easily remembering details of races that stretched back into the 1940s when he watched his father Lee duke it out on dirt tracks with competitors like Fireball Roberts. Petty’s story is much like Junior Johnson’s and Dale Earnhardt’s – the details vary, but the themes are the same.

“We lived on a dirt road,” Petty said. “We didn’t have electricity, no radio, no running water, no indoor plumbing. But the neighbours didn’t have it either, so we didn’t know we didn’t have it.”

A sit down with the King

2:22

Petty’s father was one of stock car racing’s first superstars. When young Richard was 11, his dad borrowed their neighbour’s new Buick to enter his first NASCAR race. He loaded up the family and drove to the track, stopping at a nearby garage to race-prep the Buick: He changed the oil, unbolted the muffler and pulled off the hubcaps. During the race, the elder Petty rolled the Buick, destroying it. The family hitchhiked home.

Petty was soon introduced to the rough and tumble world of stock cars himself. In his first race, his father pushed him out of the way, causing him to crash. “That’s the way it was,” Petty said. “You didn’t take nothin’ personally.”

By the time he retired in 1992, Petty had won 200 NASCAR races – more than anyone else. He also won seven NASCAR championships, a feat matched only by Dale Earnhardt.

3 1969: Richard Petty surprised his fans by switching to Ford for the 1969 NASCAR Cup season. Petty drove his Torino Talladega to 10 wins during the year and finished second to fellow Ford driver David Pearson in NASCAR Cup points. (Photo by ISC Images & Archives via Getty Images)

Richard Petty surprised his fans by switching to Ford for the 1969 NASCAR Cup season.

RacingOne/ISC Archives via Getty Images

Petty’s success was anything but easy. He drove a race with a broken neck once, and survived a long series of crashes. “It was the life,” he said. “It was all we knew.”

Petty’s rise corresponded with that of that of the sport itself. Post-war America was living through an unprecedented boom – cars were selling in record numbers, and returning GIs in the south were looking for an outlet.

“If you lived in the north, whatever, they had professional football, professional baseball, professional basketball,” Petty said. “The south had nothing. So they just jumped on the racing because we were so rural everybody had to go somewhere in a car. So it was just a natural deal.”

(Return to table of contents)


chapter 4

Occoneechee raceway

Occoneechee raceway

Classical American Homes Preservation Trust

From humble beginnings

Welcome to Occoneechee Speedway, the birthplace of stock car racing

Occoneechee Speedway is one of the tracks where legendary racer Richard Petty’s career began. Today, all that’s left of the speedway is an oval-shaped dirt path through the woods. But Occoneecheee is the Bethlehem of stock car racing – it was on tracks like this one that the sport began its incredible rise.

Gene Hobby, is a Second World War veteran who started his racing career at Occoneechee in the 1960s and survived a famous, end-over-end crash in front of the grandstand. He described how they made tracks back then: “You got a bulldozer, ran it around, and then you went racing. That was it.”

NASCAR’s Bethlehem: NASCAR legend Gene Hobby shares stories about the golden age of the Occoneechee Speedway

2:15

Hobby raced against some of the biggest names in the business: Junior Johnson, Fireball Roberts and Richard Petty. Early stock car racing paralleled the life of its fans – it was raw, real and hard. Red Byron, a driver who had returned from the Second World War with a badly damaged left foot, drove with a steel brace that allowed him to work the clutch.

The machines on the racetrack were the same as those the fans drove to the track. Fixing them was like repairing a tractor or a hay baler. Many racers did repairs in the parking lot with vice grips and a screwdriver. Hobby once rebuilt a V-8 in his motel room, using the bathtub as a parts washer.

In the 1950s, the crowds at Occoneechee grew every month. Grandstands were added, along with a concession stand, then a broadcasting booth. Many fans sneaked in by swimming across a river at the far side of the track and climbed up trees to watch the races. When a car crashed into the trees at one race, four spectators were knocked loose from the branches above, and rained down on the wrecked machine.

The gallery below shows the exact same spot during the heyday of the Occoneechee Speedway and today

      Related: Use our before and after slider tool to see how the golden age of the track compares to today

      Bets were laid and fans cheered for their favourite driver, and their preferred brand of car. Rooster tails of dust hung over the track and almost every race was spiced up by crashes and trackside fistfights. The racing scene was a natural extension of the culture it had developed in.

      The roots of NASCAR can be traced back to the 1930s, when moonshiners honed their skills on the back roads of the Deep South. Before long, it turned into a competition, and outlaw drivers laid bets on who was fastest. Promoter Bill France was one of the first to recognize the sport’s potential and set to work organizing paid races.

      In 1949, the first official race was held at Occoneechee. France worried that he’d lose money on the event, but a surprisingly large crowd turned up. In the 1940s, racing was a hit-or-miss business, riddled with crooked promoters who collected fans’ money, then took off with the cash during the race, leaving drivers high and dry.

      More photos: What the Occoneechee Speedway looks like today

      One of France’s backers was Raymond Parks, a bootlegger who controlled a major chunk of the liquor trade. Parks sent a sack of money to every race to ensure the drivers were paid. Even so, the rewards were meagre – as one driver put it, “I took first place and all I got was a damned ham and a jug of moonshine.”

      (Return to table of contents)


      chapter 5

      5 FILE - In this Feb. 18, 1979, file photo, Bobby Allison holds race driver Cale Yarborough's foot after Yarborough, right, kicked him following an argument when Yarborough stopped his car during the final lap of the Daytona 500, in Daytona Beach, Fla. The brawl in the closing moments of the first race to be broadcast live in its entirety was a monumental moment for NASCAR, and the lasting image as the traditionally Southern sport officially announced its arrival on the national scene. (AP Photo/Ric Feld, File)

      Ric Feld/The Associated Press

      The fistfight that changed the world

      Cale Yarborough’s dust-up with the Allison brothers – live on TV – propelled the sport to greater heights

      By the 1970s, stock car racing was a southern cultural phenomenon, but canny observers like promoter Bill France believed it could be more than that. In 1979, Daytona was the first 500-mile race to be broadcast live on national television in the United States. This was a turning point for NASCAR. Sponsors were buying into the sport, bringing in an influx of cash and turning the cars into rolling billboards.

      Television coverage was critical to growing the brand and expanding into new markets. Then came the fistfight.

      On the final lap of the 500, Cale Yarborough tried a slingshot pass on Donny Allison, who was leading at the time. Allison blocked him, and the pass turned into a high-speed confrontation that destroyed both cars and handed the win to Richard Petty. After their cars slid to a stop, Yarborough and Allison had a dispute that was joined by Allison’s brother, Bobby.

      Fists flew, and it was all captured live on national television. To anyone who understood the roots of the sport, the fight wasn’t a surprise – at tracks like Occoneechee, fistfights were part of the draw. But NASCAR executives saw the Daytona fight as a disaster – they signed a new contract with CBS, and wanted to market stock car racing as a telegenic, family-friendly sport.

      But the fight turned out to be marketing gold. “Nobody knew it then, but that was the race that got everything going,” said motorsports announcer and editor Dick Berggren. “It was the first water cooler race, the first time people had stood around water coolers on Monday and talked about seeing a race on TV the day before. It took a while – years, maybe – to realize how important it was.”

      (Return to table of contents)


      chapter 6

      6 CONCORD, NC - 1956: Car owner Carl Kiekhaefer (L) confers with his mechanic Ray Fox (R) as he works on one of the engines in one of Kiekhaefer’s powerful Chryslers at a NASCAR Cup race at Concord Speedway. (Photo by ISC Images & Archives via Getty Images)

      RacingOne/ISC Archives via Getty Images

      Some call it cheating, some call it innovation

      Illegal modifications could be the difference between winning and losing

      Modern NASCAR is a corporate masterpiece, scripted and controlled in ways that the old-school racers could never have imagined. Gone are the days when racers duked it out next to the track, promoters made off with sacks of cash and cars were built in wooden shacks at the end of a country road.

      The NASCAR Research & Development Center – where every race car on the circuit must be inspected to confirm that it meets the rules – best illustrates the difference between then and now.

      It resembles a spacecraft manufacturing operation. Shining body templates hang from the ceiling like giant Transformer toys, and the rooms are filled with high tech equipment, including segmented robot arms with digital heads that scan each car to create a three-dimensional map.

      6

      Jordan Chittley/The Globe and Mail

      It’s an amazing sight. And it brought to mind a lost era – the Golden Age of Cheating. It began with NASCAR’s first official race, in 1949, when the winner was disqualified after a post-race teardown revealed illegal rear springs. By the 1960s, stock car cheating had evolved into an art form, driven by the collective genius of NASCAR’s builders, a rough-hewn but brilliant collection of moonshine runners, dirt-patch farmers, Second World War pilots and shade tree mechanics. These were the men who could make a car magically weigh 300 pounds more on the scales than it actually did, and make a 500-cubic-inch engine measure out at 358 when when the inspectors checked displacement.

      The king of the cheaters, by all accounts, was Smokey Yunick, a NASCAR crew chief who used to write a column for Popular Science magazine. Yunick came up with lightweight wooden roll bars painted to look like steel, frozen springs that dropped the car below legal height as they warmed up and gas tanks with inflated basketballs hidden inside to magically decrease their capacity when an inspector did a volume measurement.

      In 1966, Yunick built a Chevelle that looked exactly like one off the production line, but was actually one-eighth smaller, reducing aerodynamic drag and making the car dramatically faster. To conceal his subterfuge, Yunick always rolled the Chevelle out to the start line at the last minute, giving officials limited time to see it next to the other cars.

      That same year, Junior Johnson showed up with a Ford Galaxy that became known as the Yellow Banana, due to both its colour and its deceptively revamped body – Johnson had cut the car apart and rebuilt it with a tail that slanted slightly upward, reducing drag.

      The Banana and the mini-Chevelle soon led to the use of body templates that were dropped over every car before a race to ensure it was the same size and shape as the original. But NASCAR tech inspectors found themselves in a losing arms race against some of the best, most determined cheaters ever born. Instead of obvious body modifications, builders installed windows that subtly shifted at speed, and panels so subtly reshaped that the differences disappeared.

      Builders made helmets and radios out of solid lead, and left them in the car when it went onto the scales. Some teams filled their cars’ frame rails with shotgun pellets that could be dumped during the race through a secret hatch. Others used liquid mercury that drained out through hidden ports that the driver could open with a wire.

      Yes, it was against the rules, but in the golden age of NASCAR, cheating was elevated to an art form. And it added an extra dimension – for engineering buffs, this was beyond cool.

      (Return to table of contents)


      chapter 7

      7 Dale Earnhardt, left, and his son Dale Earnhardt, Jr., right, from Kannapolis, N.C., watch from the pit area at Daytona International Speedway as their GTS class Corvette powers through the grandstand straightaway Thursday, Feb. 1, 2001, in Daytona Beach, Fla. Earnhardt Sr., one of the greatest stars in auto racing history, died Sunday from injuries in a last-lap crash at the Daytona 500, NASCAR officials said.Daytona.(AP Photo/Amy Conn)

      Dale Earnhardt, left, and his son Dale Earnhardt, Jr., right, from Kannapolis, N.C., watch from the pit area at Daytona International Speedway.

      AMY CONN/Associated Press

      Dale Jr. and the quest for a new formula

      The key to getting back on track: authenticity

      NASCAR has come a long way since Richard Petty raced his dad on dirt tracks, and Junior Johnson outran federal revenue agents on back roads. NASCAR is bigger and slicker than its founders could ever have imagined – Taylor Swift flies in to hobnob with executives for charity causes, country stars perform in the infield and the drivers commute by helicopter and corporate jet.

      So why are the numbers falling?

      Racetracks are removing hundreds of thousands of seats, but NASCAR has some ideas how to bring back the fans

      3:04

      “I think there was a couple things that happened,” said Steve Phelps, NASCAR’s chief marketing officer. “Obviously there was some overbuilding that happened and the difficulties that come with that. … The economic downturn in 2009 hurt NASCAR probably more than any other sport because the dependence on sponsorship, and because our race fans travel greater distances to our events.

      “That was a little bit of a wake-up car to our racetracks and I think our racetracks have done a really good job of making facility upgrades,” he added. “When you are taking out these seats, most of these racetracks are still far larger than any of the other facilities at other major sporting events. We are still the largest spectator sport in terms of people coming on average to visit our racetracks on a weekly basis.”

      Phelps made sense. But the explanation was still missing something. Was NASCAR’s slide part of a larger cultural shift? Is racing still relevant to generations that focus on smartphones instead of cars? Formula One has also experienced a major decline – between 2008 and 2014, its TV audience fell from 600 million to 425 million.

      “What made the sport was veteran drivers, stock cars, some hot tempers, and affordable tickets,” fan Steve Taylor posted to an online NASCAR forum. “You just can’t turn a shade tree garage event into an elitist affair and expect the fans that made the sport to keep on liking it. … There was a sincerity in the sport that got lost with the helicopter fly-ins, the $120 tickets, and the sameness of the cars.”

      There’s something else at work here, too. NASCAR’s key personality is Dale Earnhardt’s son, Dale Jr. Even though he’s a middle-of-the-pack racer, Dale Jr. is number one in the hearts of fans – he has won the Most Popular Driver poll every year since the mid-2000s, and is often described as “the face of NASCAR.”

      Dale Jr. comes across as a great guy. He’s a good driver, too. But his most important quality is the fact that he is the heir of Dale Sr., the last of the Good Old Boys. NASCAR is searching for the formula that will make it grow again. But what made the sport so big can never be improved upon: authenticity and relevance.

      My journey through the world of stock car racing has taken me to a lot of places. I’ve visited Junior Johnson’s farm, Richard Petty’s garage, the Hendricks racing shop, the childhood home of Benny Parsons, the Occoneechee dirt track, and the twisting back roads where moonshiners like Willie Clay Call made late-night runs.

      More photos: Willie Clay Call’s 1961 Chrysler New Yorker

      1961 Chrysler New Yorker Moonshine car

      1961 Chrysler New Yorker Moonshine car

      Jordan Chittley/The Globe and Mail

      I couldn’t stop thinking about the early fans who stood by the track and drove cars just like the ones their heroes drove; the generations of southern boys who prided themselves on their ability to tweak an axle ratio, squeeze a few more horsepower out of a flathead V-8, or carved a perfect power slide, foot to the floor.

      The southern back roads are still there, but driving fast on them isn’t cool any more. Young people aren’t out in their driveways, wrenches in hand, bolting on a new intake manifold in their quest for a little more power.

      NASCAR boomed in an era when the car and personal mobility were cutting edge. It didn’t compete with the countless entertainment options that would arrive with the Internet and the thousand-channel television universe.

      I fell in love with stock car racing back when it was dominated by moonshiners, outlaw engineers and brilliant rule breakers. I loved Smokey Yunick, Richard Petty and Bobby Allison. I even loved the fistfight of 1979, which was about as far as you can get from today’s scripted sound bites, where drivers and crew chiefs ritually list their sponsors.

      “I think that’s what the sport was built off of,” said Petty of the 1979 fight. “From time to time, we get stagnated by the rules. … You have to be politically correct, and I think that took a lot out of the sport.”

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