It isn’t often that a big government goof leads to the formation of a nation’s most popular spectator sport, but that is exactly what happened with stock car racing. Today, drivers compete in 36 races per year on 23 paved tracks, driving highly-tuned machines crafted by the world’s top engineers and mechanics. However, it didn’t start out that way.
Stock Racing Is Born
On January 17, 1920, the production and sale of alcohol became illegal in the United States, via the 18th Amendment, beginning the era of Prohibition. Not only did this seriously cramp Americans’ style, it gave birth to an industry of moonshiners willing to risk imprisonment to bring good people their homemade liquor. Since these rum runners needed to be able to outrun the law, they started tuning their ordinary daily drivers into monster machines capable of navigating winding backwoods roads at speeds above 120 mph.
Naturally, these moonshiners-turned-auto-mechanics wanted to brag about their automotive achievements, and these bragging sessions turned into, “meet me at so-and-so Saturday night and we’ll see how good that thing is.” Stock car racing was born, and soon became the go-to weekend playtime for hard-working moonshiners all over the country.
Stock Racing Goes Legit
In 1934, an auto mechanic named Bill France decided that sunny Florida was a more attractive place to work on vehicles than his garage in Washington, D.C. Fatefully, France settled in Daytona, Florida, just as the city and the Elks Club had given up on turning a profit on local auto racing. France took over, with the help of restaurant owner Charlie Reese, and in a couple of years was making a significant profit on Daytona races.
World War II temporarily dampened racing activities, but when the soldiers came home in 1945, France decided to rally all national regions into a single racing body, and NASCAR (the National Association of Stock Car Auto Racing) was born in 1948.
Stock Racing Goes Mainstream
In the 1950s, auto manufacturers realized stock cars were a nifty marketing tool and began the concept of factory backing. Their motto was, “win on Sunday, sell on Monday.” Tons of other companies saw the value of advertising via stock cars, and sponsor money brought bigger purses for drivers, better funding for vehicles, and an entirely new fan base.
By the 1960s, car builders had gone about as far as horsepower could take them, and aerodynamics became the competitive edge. This became the era of the “aero wars,” in which Chrysler and Ford dominated races. France eventually imposed rules like engine size limit and restrictor plates at larger tracks to maintain competition among all manufacturers.
Modern Stock Car Racing
Though stock car racing had always revolved around true stock cars, driver and spectator safety demanded that cars capable of going over 200 mph couldn’t be built like ordinary commuter cars. As safety innovations and new technologies changed the cars, they resembled true stock cars less. However, the competition got better. By the late 1960s, only three of the nation’s tracks were dirt. The rest were paved and banked, perfectly engineered for competitive racing.
From the hills of New Hampshire to the desert of Nevada and the wine country of Napa Valley to the Heart of Dixie, stock car racing has become the number one spectator sport in America, largely due to its popularity with female fans. As it turns out, women think heading into an 18-degree banking at 128 mph for the lead is just sexier than first downs or triple plays. And so, a multi-million dollar sport was born from an ill-conceived government regulation.