NASCAR and Nashville have always had much in common—the same down-home values, the same loyal fans. Now a double album called Stock Car Racing's Entertainers of the Year (World Series of Country Music, P.O. Box 1235, Gallatin, Tenn. 37066, $19.95 plus $3.00 for postage and handling) brings the two worlds even closer. Featuring the vocal talents of NASCAR drivers Cale Yarborough, Bobby Allison, Buddy Baker and 18 other would-be Willie Nelsons, this recording is the brainstorm of C & W promoter Mike Hopkins.
Another entrepreneur had tried to make singers out of stock car racers 10 years ago, but that album never left the pits. "The mistake seemed to be having the drivers sing other people's songs," says Hopkins. "Richard Petty sang King of the Road, but good as he was, people were saying, 'Heck, that ain't no Roger Miller.' "
When he approached the drivers, Hopkins promised that the project would be overseen by a professional Nashville producer. There would be topflight studio musicians and recording equipment and, furthermore, each song would be original and tailored to the specific driver.
Last fall, when the drivers were in Georgia for the Atlanta Journal 500, Hopkins began taping interviews, asking drivers about their motivations, fears, dreams, families and heroes. He returned to Tennessee and sent the 21 typed transcripts to each of the 25 songwriters.
June 2, 1985
"Now some of these songwriters had never been to a stock car race," says Hopkins, "but I told them, 'Here are the words of an auto racer, what he believes, what he stands for. You go and write me a song from this material.' The songs we got back were fantastic. We had 80 good enough to put on the record. We narrowed them down and found the 21 that best suited our racers, and then we started flying the drivers in to record."
Ned Jarrett, a two-time Grand National Champion (1961, '65) and now veteran race broadcaster, was chosen to narrate the LP and introduce the singers. Jay Marshall, responsible for many of Tom T. Hall's best albums, was signed on to produce. Each driver was sent a lyric sheet and a demo tape of his song and told to practice.
"Nobody chickened out," says Hopkins. "They attacked the project as if it was a racetrack."
Hopkins alleviated the drivers' nervousness by playing tapes of their colleagues who had recorded before them.
"They'd be listening to a tape of Dale Earnhardt or Ron Bouchard," says Hopkins, "and they'd say, 'Hey, if you can get him to sound that good, maybe there's hope for me!' "
For some drivers there was more than hope—there might be future recording contracts. Petty's son, Kyle, who has the best of the 21 cuts on the album. The People Who Love Me (Worry A Lot), can trade in his crash helmet for headphones anytime. His performance was so good that the Nashville Network, a cable country and western station, invited him to perform live on Nashville Now.
Since the album's release in February, Hopkins figures he has sold almost 20,000 copies to NASCAR's devotees, 60% through mail order and 40% from vending stands at speedways. He is contemplating a sequel.
"There are still a lot of drivers we haven't gotten around to," he says, "and I bet their fans would just love to hear them sing a country song."