In 1996, the first NASCAR race I ever saw was the final race ever at North Wilkesboro Speedway.
Most of the guys in a class I was taking at the time were quite upset over a NASCAR race taking place soon. I didn't know what they were talking about until that weekend when a friend of mine told me we had to watch this race because he was a fan and it was important to him.
That Monday, I found out the conversation I overheard was about this track and began to reflect on why this made them so upset a few days before. I didn't however realize its impact until around 2004 when I officially became a NASCAR fan.
Those who read my articles know that I long for these days when NASCAR was a traditional Southern sport, with a Southern sponsor, majority Southern drivers, a race-heavy Southern circuit when the majority of the tracks were from the Southeast.
Basically, I got into NASCAR too late to truly enjoy what I now miss. But in reality, having grown up with it only to see it evolve and die over the years would probably have made it all the harder for me.
Up until 1996, NASCAR to me consisted of Richard Petty on cereal boxes and a few hints and whispers of stock car racing which I knew existed but didn't care about.
1996: The Worst Year in NASCAR History
NASCAR was just about to pop on to the national scene, not long later getting a big nationwide television deal that would take it from largely, but not exclusively, a regional niche Southern sport, to the all-powerful, politically correct, corporate monster we know and see today.
In order for that transition to happen, a few short items of business first had to be cleared up, the biggest being that tiny "redneck" track in the very hills of NASCAR's birthplace, North Wilkesboro Speeway in desolate Wilkes County, North Carolina.
This track was seen as the exact image NASCAR no longer wanted to be associated with, despite it was the heart of NASCAR's very roots and inception: moonshine running, rural, and certainly not sophisticated, with a penchant for confederate flags, lack of hotel amenities, a lack of night-racing lights, and of course, limited seating.
To anyone from Wilkes County reading this, I am not trying to paint you one way, but I have to use imagery to tell the story.
That Was Then, This Is Now
You have to realize that back when NASCAR started, racing wasn't done just on the weekends. You didn't have just one Saturday or Sunday feature (points) race. You had midweek races all over the circuit.
How else do you think Richard Petty got 200 career wins in his 34 years at this level?
Math shows this equates out to 5.8 wins per year on average, an incredible average and we all know after 1984 he never recorded another win, even though he officially retired after the 1992 season. Given this, he actually amassed these 200 wins in just 26 years time, which would push his career average to 7.6 wins per season. Now a days, a driver is lucky if he alone gets seven wins a season and this pace certainly couldn't be kept up the way it was in Petty's era.
The circuit back then was set up with many small tracks in many rural areas: Richmond, Martinsville, and South Boston, Virginia. In North Carolina were Hickory, Concord, Rockingham, and Hillsborough among many others and so on down the line across many states, most notably in the South.
The majority of these tracks were where the real fans were, in the backwoods of some single stoplight town in the middle of nowhere. Big Bill France had the correct vision to put tracks where the fans were and not in major metropolitan areas that we see today where viewership and marketing are forced (Auto Club Speedway).
Don't get me wrong, France also realized the importance of mixing some urban tracks and he certainly valued glitz and the like, evidenced by his baby in Daytona Beach, Florida that likely serves as his proudest crowning achievment.
Still Daytona with its Speed Weeks celebrations and Daytona USA will hardly be mistaken for the ChicagoLand's, Las Vegas', or Auto Club Speedways of today. When you are there, fans know they are still in the South and in a racing hotbed.
To Understand NASCAR's Evolution, First Look at the Sponsorship
Needing to generate more revenue, and just because he could, in 1970 France reached an agreement with the RJ Reynolds tobacco company to officially sponsor what would from then on known as the Winston Cup Series.
The tobacco giant is and was headquartered in NASCAR's heart of Winston-Salem, North Carolina which had to make for easy negotiation and marketing. Who uses tobacco?
Aside from the obvious answer of "anyone" it's still largely considered a rural, or perhaps more accurately stated "rebellious" practice of deviance since most people know, especially today, that using tobacco is bad for your health. Back then, people didn't know, and the ones that did, much like today, clearly didn't care. But this admission isn't an anti-tobacco advocation, rather its to demonstrate tobacco's appeal to NASCAR's largely rural base and their ability to identify with the product.
Today we see that NASCAR's premier sponsorship, Sprint, is based not in the South, but in Kansas, which not coincidentally just got a second Cup race for 2011. Yes, they can say its because a fancy but unnecessary casino was built, but its likely a favor being repaid to the sport's most important investor.
Who uses cellphones? Like its forebearer, tobacco and the quick response of "anyone and everyone", it's rather understood that business types would flock to the newest and latest gadgets. Not to say rural people wouldn't, because we all know they do, but everyone knows that NASCAR's target audience is made up of the very suits and blazers that govern boardrooms of today. The corporate crowd, the businessman crowd, the Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson clean-image, smooth-talking, vanilla, corporate butt-kissing crowd.
Now do you see my point? Not to discredit rural people, but to show how far the sport has changed. I also realize that due to recent FDA rulings and the growing controversy over the RJ Reynolds brand in its later years, it is no longer possible for a tobacco or alcoholic company to sponsor NASCAR like in the days of old, but it would just be nice, for nostalgia sake only, if they could.
I know that NASCAR lost its Winton cigarettes sponsorship in 2004 to the Nextel corportation which eventually became Sprint. However, 1996 was the last year NASCAR truly had it all together and they willingly messed that up.
Next, Lets Look at the Schedules
In 1996, NASCAR ran 31 races, to today's 36, including the non-points race, The Winston, which compares to the All-Star Challenge of today. They also had another exhibition race.
Of these 31 races here is how the schedule broke down by state and region:
- Michigan International Speedway (2) Miller 400 and GM Goodwrench Dealer 400
- Pocono (Lake Pond, Pennsylvania) (2) Miller 500 and UAW-GM Teamwork 500
- California (1) Sears Point 300 (even though they only had one race, NASCAR has had a long history with multiple races and venues in the state)
- Delware (2) Dover Downs International Speedway Miller 500 and MBNA 500
- New York (1) Watkins Glen Interntional The Bud at the Glen
- Arizona (1) Phoenix International Raceway Dura Lube 500
- New Hampshire (1) New Hampshire International Speedway Jiffy Lube 300
- Indiana (1) Indianapolis Motor Speedway Brickyard 400
That's it. 11 races or roughly 35 percent of the schedule was run in the North. In addition to the much cooler sounding events ("The Bud at the Glen"), there were shorter races (note the 300-milers), which I note only because today the 600 is the wildcard, as most are 500 with small exceptions to Richmond, road courses, and the Brickyard. Also, the scheduling was done for more travel efficiency. The distances covered were shorter. Events were also sponsored by blue-collar companies like tire shops, beer distributors, and rural corporations (Tyson Farms located in the South).
Pocono? I like the tricky triange with its long straight-aways. Had I been a fan back then, you wouldn't hear a complaint out of me with them having two dates. Sears Point? No, road courses are cool and necessary to test driver skill and vary the track venues.
Indy is self-explanatory, Michigan rivals Pocono with its long straights and fuel-conservation x-factor which make for a unique venue, and at least New Hampshire isn't a cutter. You can read what I think of cutter-tracks here in my last article Jimmie Johnson: Is JJ Fading or Simply Waiting In the Weeds For the Chase?
Speaking of which, how many cookie cutter tracks were on the schedule in 1996? One, and it was Charlotte who had two races.
Next, Consider the Variety the Tracks Offered
The tracks broke down like this, from biggest to smallest.
Short tracks (under one mile):
- Richmond (2)
- Bristol (2)
- North Wilkesboro (2)
- Martinsville (1)
- Phoenix (1) 1.0 miles
- Dover (2) 1.0 miles
- Rockingham (2) 1.017 miles
- New Hampshire (1) 1.058 miles
- Darlington Raceway (2) 1.366 miles
- Charlotte (2) 1.5 miles
- Atlanta (2) 1.54
- Michigan (2)
- Indianapolis (1) 2.5 miles
- Daytona (2)
- Talladega (2)
- Sears Point (1)
- Watkins Glen (1)
- Talladega Superspeeedway
North Carolina (6):
- Charlotte (2)
- North Wilkesboro Speedway (2)
- Rockinhgam (2)
South Carolina (2):
- Darlington Raceway
- Richmond (2)
- Martinsville (2)
- Atlanta Motor Speedway
20 races (64 percent) of the races were run in the South, not including The Winston which was run at Charlotte. That only increases the percentage and exposure more.
Tracks have also changed:
- 1996: eight races
- 2010: six races
- 1996: Charlotte (1)
- 2011: Kentucky (1), Chicago (1), Charlotte (2), Texas (2), Las Vegas (1), Homestead (1), Kansas (2)
There are now 10 cookie cutter races, a 1,000 percent increase, and now 27 percent of total schedule.
And they wonder why interest is waning.
Not only did 1996 offer more variety, but the intermediate tracks of the day, had they had a word for them at the time-Rockingham, Darlington, Atlanta, all offered unique challenges that made up for the fact you could tolerate two Michigan, Dover, or Pocono races.
- California (2) Infineon (Sears Point) and Califonia,
- Phoenix (2)
- Las Vegas (1)
- Michigan (2)
- Pocono (2)
- New Hampshire (2)
- ChicagoLand (1)
- Kansas (2)
- Dover (2),
- New York (1)
- Indiana (1)
18 races or 50 percent.
- Virginia (4)
- South Carolina (1)
- North Carolina (3)
- Georgia (1)
- Kentucky (1)
- Tenneessee (2)
- Alabama (2)
- Florida (3)
- The All-Star Race in Charlotte
17 races or 47 percent.
Of this 47 percent, three races hardly count. Homstead-Miami is basically Cuban Florida and some would argue Kentucky doesn't count, not only because its basically suburban Cincinatti, Ohio but more importantly, since it came as a direct result of Atlanta losing its race.
Basically the Old South has 14 races or 38 percent.
The Final Analysis, the Drivers Themselves
Back in 1996, here is the final grid of driver breakdown for the last race ever race at North Wilkesboro.
Listed by home state, here is the results: 37 men finished the race.
Northern drivers (12):
- California (2) Ernie Irvan, Jeff Gordon
- Connecticut (1) Ricky Craven
- Pennsylvania (2) Jimmy Spencer, John Andrettti
- Illinois (1) Ted Musgrave
- New York (2) Geoff Bodine, Todd Bodine
- Michigan (1) Johnny Benson
- Wisconsin (1) Dave Marcis
- Colorado (1) Wally Dallenbach Jr.
- Washington (1) Derrick Cope
Southern drivers (25):
- Texas (3) Terry Labonte, Bobby Labonte, Bobby Hillin Jr.
- North Carolina (5) Dale Jarrett, Dale Earnhardt, Morgan Shepard, Robert Pressley, Kyle Petty
- Virginia (3) Jeff Burton, Ricky Rudd, Rick Mast
- Tenneessee (2) Sterling Marlin, Bobby Hamilton
- Arkansas (1) Mark Martin
- Missouri (3) Rusty Wallace, Kenny Wallace, Ken Schrader
- Kentucky (4) Michael Waltrip, Darrell Waltrip, Jeremy Mayfield, Jeff Green
- Mississippi (1) Lake Speed
- Alabama (1) Hut Stricklin
- Georgia (1) Bill Elliott
- Florida (1) Joe Nemechek
Of these 37 drivers, 25 or 67 percent were from the Land of Cotton. Also, I think everyone back in the garage would have considered the Bodine brothers as well as Jimmy Spencer to be one of their own.
Irvan also wasn't the vanilla corporate drivers we see from the California GQ Gang today at Hollywood, I mean, Hendrick Motorsports, which is only going to get worse when glamour boy Kahne gets there in a year.
Eight of the top 10 final points finishers were Southerners with the exception of pioneer Gordon who finished the season second to "Texas Terry" Labonte and Irvan. Only six of the top 20 hailed from the South.
Today lets look at the breakdown using the last race at Michigan:
Northern Drivers (26):
- California (8) Kevin Harvick, Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, Robby Gordon, PJ Jones, Scott Speed, AJ Allmindinger, David Gilliland
- Washington (2) Greg Biffle, Kasey Kahne
- Wisconsin (3) Matt Kenseth, Travis Kvapil, Paul Menard
- Connecticut (1) Joey Logano
- New York (1) Regan Smith
- Ohio (1) Sam Hornish Jr.
- Indiana (3) Tony Raines, Tony Stewart, Ryan Newman
- Nevada (2) Kyle Busch, Kurt Busch
- Michigan (1) Brad Keselowski
- Arizona (1) Michael McDowell
- New Jersey (1) Martin Truex
- Iowa (1) Landon Cassill
- Kansas (1) Clint Bowyer
Southern Drivers or other (13):
- Virginia (3) Jeff Burton, Elliot Sadler, Denny Hamlin
- Missouri (2) Carl Edwards, Jamie McMurray
- Florida (2) David Reutimann, Joe Nemechek
- Arkansas (1) Mark Martin
- Georgia (3) Reed Sorenson, David Ragan, Bill Elliott
- Texas (1) Bobby Labonte
- North Carolina (1) Dale Earnhardt Jr
- Foreign (4) Patrick Carpantier (French-Canadian), Juan Pablo Montoya (Columbia), Marcos Ambrose (Tasmania), Max Papis (Italy)
Of these drivers exactly two thirds or 67 percent were from a Northern state. A direct flip from a half a generation before. An alarming eight (18 percent of the 43 car field) were from California alone, a 400 percent increase from 1996's two.
While Bowyer takes the role of Spencer as honorary Southerner, drivers like Edwards, Earnhardt Jr. and Sorenson hardly count since they are not only New South, (i.e. politically correct pansies who say and do all the right things 99 percent of the time) but are camera savy marketing machines. Also notice the foreign impact, nine percent of the grid.
Using the current point standings as a comparion to 1996 because this season isn't over, only three Southerners, Burton, Hamlin, and Edwards, are in the top 10, and seven of the top 20, again almost a polar filp from 14 years ago. How sad.
As NASCAR continues to make stupid decisions with the Chase in not listening to fans, the percentage of Southern tracks and drivers keeps decreasing with the opposite spectrum decrease across the board and NASCAR wonders, "Why?"
Isn't it obvious?
Starting in 1996 with the closing of the circuit's most adored and now I argue most popular track, North Wilkesboro Speedway, to Rockingham, the cutting of the real Southern 500, Atlanta losing a race to a cutter of all places, sponsorship's corporate backflips, to an influx of Northern and foreign drivers, the sport has indeed evolved and changed, and done so for the worse. Given how popular short track races are today, its not hard to argue NASCAR made a big mistake.
Is it ever going to change?
Information and statistics from Ask.com, wikipedia, Jayski.com, NASCAR.com, and Youtube directly contributed to the content of this article.