While stock car racing’s roots run all the way back to the days of the chariot, in America its history goes back at least to the colonial era. As early as 1760, Earl “Jimmy George” Washington, a cousin of our nation’s first president, was careering through downtown Fairfax, VA in a carriage covered with decals for Boar’s Head Ale Lite, Ye Foxe and Hounde Tavern, Lobsterback Uniforms and Boots, NAPA Buggy Parts, the Colonial Action Army, and Sam’s General Store Clubs.
Because of his aggressive driving style and pugnacious attitude, he was known as “Ye Olde Intimidator” and developed a devoted fan following. Those fans were known for their penchant for drunk and unruly behavior. They would often stand on street corners, yelling “show us thy bosoms” at members of the fairer sex. The less reputable ladies would comply. Each year, Fairfax hosts a National Stock Buggy Racing Re-enactment. You can see a video clip here.
The sport faced an existential crisis when Gen. Andrew Jackson of Tennessee was elected president. Until that time, federal support for wheeled racing had risen and fallen. During the presidencies of southerners, it spiked and when a northerner took office, it plummeted. The thinking going in was that Jackson would be good for racing. Um, not so. As it turned out, Jackson was a big fan of horseracing and he felt that wheeled racing was starting to pose a threat. Jackson revealed his prejudices when he beat a driver to death with a silver-headed cane at a track near Chattanooga, crying “you monstrous cad, you monstrous cad,” as he delivered the rain of fatal blows.
Just before the outbreak of the Civil War/War Between the States, Wayside Chester Garner, a young Iowa bicycle mechanic and tinkerer, invented the first stock car. It was powered by a steam engine, a steering tiller and four wooden wheels. Garner was afraid of the car to drive it. He turned instead to his friend Dale Kenny Petty. Petty was a natural. With incredible vision and magnificent reflexes, he immediately took to the vehicle and was soon playing it like a cello. For two summers leading up to the War, Garner, Petty and their entourage made a comfortable living challenging (and beating) buggies, wagons, carts, phaetons, and even galloping horses pulling nothing at all. Petty and Garner had a falling out over Petty’s demand for more pay and no yellow M&Ms in his dressing room. The Civil War/War Between the States intervened. Neither survived the War. Garner died while being mugged by a gang he had sought out to pay a member $100 to enlist for him in the Union Army. Petty was killed when the heel of his boot caught in a crack in the sidewalk, pitching him directly into the path of an onrushing bicycle with the big giant front wheel. Petty died instantly and the wheel was ruined. It was was repaired by Garner and was the last known bicycle component he ever touched. He climbed aboard the train heading off to his army company and never returned.
Stock car racing maintained an even, if somewhat down-scale presence in the American psyche throughout the last half of the 19th and first half of the 20th century. A major leap forward was the invention of the internal combustion engine in Germany. By World War I, American youth had already begin “hopping up” their cars.
When the Depression hit in the 1930s, a young man named Bill France headed to Florida to 1) find meaning in his life; 2) look for work; and 3) see how fast old cars could go. He ended up in Daytona Beach, which had drawn dozens of similar young people who were biding their time waiting for surfing to be invented. Before long, the sands at Daytona were littered with blown engines, dropped transmissions and abandoned human body parts. Being unable to find work, France invented the National Association of Stock Car Racing (NASCAR) and settled in to wait for television to come.
It wasn’t until after WWII (AKA, “the Big One”) that racing began to go mainstream. Young people, adrift in the 1950s and with a taste for liquor honed in lonely European and Pacific outposts, began learning the ropes from bootleggers in the piney woods of Georgia, the Carolinas and Virginia. Before the decade was over, stock car racing (and its poor cousin, demolition derbies) had spread to county fairs across the country.
NASCAR was officially recognized as an American institution when Jimmy Carter established the cabinet position, Secretary of Stock Car Racing. Carter nominated and the Senate unanimously confirmed Col. Beauregard P. Dayton of Florida as the first secretary. Secretary Dayton, whose great-great-great grandfather had founded the town of Daytona Beach, Florida, served only five weeks in the position before choking to death on a biscuit at a fried chicken restaurant. His body was placed on a catafalque covered with endorsement decals and placed on train to take him home. Millions of Americans lined the tracks all along the route, paying silent tribute to the Colonel. The entourage took a detour to the Bristol, TN track where more than two thousand former drivers, mechanics and pit crew members actually took showers and put on clean clothes for a moving service.
By 1990, NASCAR had replaced thoroughbred racing as America’s Most Popular Sport Where You Watch Stuff Run Around On An Oval. Discussions were underway to open the sport for parimutuel wagering but once regulators realized the general moral turpitude of the average driver, the conversation was quickly ended. The potential revenue was replaced by convincing advertisers such as Tide detergent to spend millions to have their logos emblazoned across the hoods of the cars. Think about it. What does Tide do? It makes your clothes clean. Do stock car fans care about clean anything? I rest my case.
It’s just three days from Christmas (unless you’re Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, or heathen) and you might be panicking about a gift for that Bubba-Who-Has-Everything on your list. Why not give him lessons at the Dale Jarrett School of Stock Car Racing, where he can drive more than 165 mph. It might be a way to cross him off your Christmas list permanently!
In closing, I offer these quick assessments of some prominent stock car figures:
Lee Petty — Richard Petty’s daddy, grandaddy of Kyle Petty. Won the second Daytona 500 and is in the NASCAR Hall of Fame.
Richard Petty — The King. He would have been called The God but that would have been sacrilegious.
Dale Earnhardt –– The Intimidator. Died doing what he did best, which was to be a maniac. Secretly, his peers don’t miss him.
Cale Yarborough — The first driver to appear on the cover of Sports Illustrated. Also appeared in two episodes of the TV show Dukes of Hazzard and also appeared in a movie with Burt Reynolds.
Jeff Gordon — The Mama’s Boy. A wuss. Couldn’t hold The King’s feathered hat. The first driver to earn $100 million. Pretty much hated by other drivers, mainly because he speaks understandable English. Is way overexposed in the media, having hosted Regis and Kelly about 10 times. Also has his own video game.
* We invite you to read the entire Really True History of the USA series:
- The Really True History of the USA, Part 1 (June 29, 2011)
- The Really True History of the USA, Part II: The Story of Our Flag (June 30, 2011)
- The Really True Story of How the White Man Bought Manhattan (July 1, 2011)
- The Really True History of the USA: The Role of Women in History (July 11, 2011)
- The Really True History of the Constitution of the United States (July 12, 2011)
- The Really True Story of the Bill of Rights: The First Amendment (July 13, 2011)
- The Really True Story of the Bill of Rights: The Second Amendment (July 14, 2011)