NASCAR is still rooted in the South, but southern drivers have vanished
The rebel yell that once echoed throughout NASCAR nation has turned into more of a yelp.
Sure, there is a still a strong Southern presence in terms of the tracks on the circuit, especially this weekend at Darlington Raceway, a 62-year-old throwback nestled among the tobacco farms of rural South Carolina. This track in so many ways represents the heart of Dixie that its primary NASCAR Cup Series race has long been known as the Southern 500.
And while the sport has branched out in recent years to glistening new facilities in such distinctly non-Southern locales as Los Angeles, Las Vegas and Chicago, NASCAR still keeps one foot planted firmly in the South. Most of the race shops are located in North Carolina, and races continue to be held far off the beaten path in Bristol, Tenn., Martinsville, Va., and Talladega, Ala.
The place where NASCAR has lost much of its Southern accent is on the racetrack. There are a handful of Sprint Cup regulars from North Carolina, Virginia and Florida (though hardcore traditionalists will claim that Florida isn't really part of the true South). But drivers seemingly have disappeared from the Deep South states -- Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, Tennessee, Kentucky -- that once produced many of the sport's stars. There currently are as many full-time Cup Series drivers from Tasmania (Marcos Ambrose) as there are from those five states combined (Georgia's David Ragan, who is barely hanging on with the under-funded Front Row Motorsports team after being dumped last year by Roush Fenway Racing).
Instead, the weekly racing fields are now full of drivers from California, Nevada, Washington, Wisconsin, Michigan, Indiana and even New Jersey and Connecticut. Of the drivers currently in the top 17 of the Sprint Cup point standings, only two were born in Southern states (Dale Earnhardt Jr. of North Carolina and Virginia's Denny Hamlin).
The history of NASCAR is filled with champions and superstars who hailed from the Deep South. Bobby Allison, Red Byron and Tim Flock all used Alabama as their home base. David Pearson, Cale Yarborough and Rex White were from South Carolina. Darrell Waltrip came from Kentucky, Bill Elliott raced his way out of the mountains of northern Georgia and Sterling Marlin was born in Tennessee. The South gave birth to those drivers and dozens more like them, who helped transform regional racing into a national sport. Now the path to NASCAR stardom seems to take a detour around those states.
So what exactly in the name of Bo and Luke Duke is going on here? How could NASCAR have gone a dozen seasons, since North Carolina's Dale Jarrett in 1999, without crowing a champion from one of the traditional Southern states?
The primary reason is that the South is a victim of NASCAR's success. It used to be that few drivers outside the region attempted to compete in NASCAR primarily because the sport had a limited fan base outside of the South. There were probably more fans around the small town of Rockingham, N.C., than there were in all of the Rocky Mountain states. In the era before national television coverage and Internet access, NASCAR was out of sight to much of the country, and therefore out of mind.
"Growing up in California [in the 1980s], I didn't follow a lot of NASCAR," four-time Cup champion Jeff Gordon said. "I was really more into open-wheel racing and watching the Indianapolis 500. I didn't even realize what NASCAR was all about. ... There used to be a stigma around stock car racing, especially if you were an open-wheeler. Those are taxi cabs, those aren't race cars."
Gordon helped change the perception of NASCAR as much as any driver. His success in the 1990s helped start a reverse California gold rush, as drivers from west of the Mississippi River took interest in stock car racing and began flocking to North Carolina. At the same time, the sport was increasingly gaining a true national appeal. Suddenly, youngsters from all corners of the country were becoming fans and began dreaming of growing up to be NASCAR drivers. Twenty years later, some of those young dreamers are the ones filling out the NASCAR fields, at the expense of drivers from the Southern states.
"To me, that just shows how much our sport has grown," Virginia native and Nationwide driver Elliott Sadler said. "Years ago we were definitely a Southern sport, so most of the drivers came from the Deep South. This is what we did growing up. We raced go-karts, we were at the track every weekend. It was in our blood. I don't think any place else in the United States, especially west of the Mississippi, raced like they did in the Deep South.
"All this does is show that the sport is touching new people and new areas across the United States. As NASCAR broadens out, so do the drivers. As we become more of a national sport, our drivers are going to come from a lot of different areas throughout the United States. To me that just goes hand in hand."
Still, that doesn't completely explain the total lack of drivers from many Southern states. Shouldn't a state such as Alabama, which two decades ago regularly had three or four racers on the Cup circuit every year, at least have one these days?
One possibility is that the primary path to NASCAR, go-kart racing followed by short tracks, has grown bumpy in parts of the South. When NASCAR grew into being a national sport, new short tracks and other racing facilities began to pop up in places that had never truly embraced stock car racing. At the same time, some of the historic facilities in the South began to fall into disrepair. The number of races dwindled, fans stayed away and opportunities for aspiring young Southern drivers began to dry up.
Birmingham International Raceway, for example, was once a thriving short track that was home to the Alabama Gang (Bobby and Donnie Allison, Neil Bonnett, Red Farmer and later Davey Allison). But the track slowly began to lose its luster in the 1990s and finally shut down in 2008. The facility was demolished a year later, and now there is an indoor swimming and track and field facility on the site.
"We need to do something to try to get local short track racing back to what it was, because it's tough right now," said Hamlin, who holds an annual Short Track Showdown in Virginia. "The car counts are even struggling in the Virginia and North Carolina area, and that's what you think is the heart of short track racing."
At the moment, the best hope for the return of the Deep South driver might come from Mississippi, which actually never has had much of a presence in NASCAR. Ricky Stenhouse Jr., who hails from the northern Mississippi town of Olive Branch, is the defending Nationwide Series champion, and he likely will move up to Sprint Cup next year with Roush Fenway Racing. Stenhouse said he definitely has a significant number of fans who support him because of his Southern roots.
"I talk with fans all the time who say they love that I'm from the South," Stenhouse said with a smile. "The South is a different area of the country. They all stick together. So it's cool to have them behind me.
"I think our core fan base is still in the South, where it [racing] started. It's those people who help our sport keep going. They're dedicated. They're the ones who are traveling and taking their campers and tents to a bunch of tracks. They're the die-hard fans. Being from Mississippi, I feel like we have that connection with them. So I would like to be able to step up and do them proud."
And in the process, return a true rebel yell to a sport whose drivers once considered the South to be their home sweet home.