There's no sport more closely associated with a single region of the country than stock car racing. It's as Southern as grits and peach pie.
Or at least it used to be.
Today, NASCAR is just as likely to be in Michigan or Arizona as it is Tennessee and North Carolina, part of a strategic plan to diversify the fanbase of a growing sport.
This week NASCAR takes its traveling carnival show to Sonoma, California. Wine country. To the early pioneers of the sport, it would have been all but unthinkable.
From Lloyd Seay to Dale Earnhardt, NASCAR was built on the backs of Southern heroes. Junior Johnson, who learned to drive running 'shine for his daddy in North Wilkesboro, N.C., became the "Last American Hero." He was the most successful and famous race car driver in America before the mustachioed Richard Petty took his title in the 1970s and Earnhardt usurped them both in the 1980s and 1990s.
The common thread among all these men, legends who built the sport of NASCAR from the ground up, is their point of origin—the traditional South. Once, no one north of Virginia could even imagine winning a NASCAR championship. For the first 35 years of its existence, NASCAR, in fact, had only one champion born outside the South: Bill Rexford from New York.
Even into the 1980s, Geoffrey Bodine—also a native New Yorker—didn't travel to a single race without hearing fans chant and seeing the signs at every stop—"Yankee go home." Bodine thought of it as good-natured ribbing. Others might have called it jesting on the square.
Race car drivers didn't just perform for a Southern audience. They were that audience, fighting and cursing and crashing into each other with a reckless abandon only family could love.
Jeff Gordon, a driver from Indiana by way of California, might as well have been an alien to many NASCAR fans. He faced even more scorn than Bodine when he debuted in NASCAR in 1992, perhaps because of his greater success. The booing that rained down on Gordon at tracks in the South, booing even when he crashed his car, reached what Sports Illustrated called "the point of cruelty."
Today Gordon is a respected veteran, and you'll be hard pressed to hear a "y'all" on pit road or see a single RC Cola or moon pie. Of the top 20 drivers in the Sprint Cup standings, only three are from the South, and one of them, Aric Almirola, is from Florida. That hardly even counts.
The Southern drawl that once defined NASCAR is gone, and the Southern racer is a dying breed. The last driver from the South to win a NASCAR Sprint Cup championship was North Carolina's Dale Jarrett.
California's Jeff Gordon and his protege, Jimmie Johnson, have led a West Coast invasion of the sport, while Tony Stewart leads a pack of hard chargers from the Midwest. As the sport has imported racers from outside the South, it has exported races beyond its borders as well, most regrettably replacing the famed Southern 500 in Darlington, S.C., with a race emanating from California wine country.
Longtime NASCAR fans were not amused.
The NASCAR schedule was soon dotted with dates around the country, moving west and north in pursuit of new fans, new television viewers and a new image. NASCAR President Mike Helton, perhaps a bit too glibly candid, explained it this way in a 2006 interview prior to the Daytona 500:
We believe strongly that the old, Southeastern redneck heritage that we had is no longer in existence. But we also realize that there's going to have to be an effort on our part to convince others to understand that.
Yet as much as Gordon has rubbed off on NASCAR, bringing unprecedented corporate polish and a bright white smile, perhaps NASCAR has rubbed off on Gordon just a little bit too. Last year he instigated a good old-fashioned donnybrook with Clint Bowyer, the kind of fight the Allison brothers might have been proud of.
“Enough was enough,” Gordon said.
Could it be Southerners aren't losing NASCAR as much as sharing its ethos and lifestyle with the rest of America? And maybe, just maybe, a sport that can bring the wild-eyed Southern boy out of a pitchman like Jeff Gordon is exactly what they need in Las Vegas, California and Michigan.
Can I get a yeehaw?