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What is NASCAR? How it started, grew to today

NASCAR sanctions and produces stock car racing, with drivers, sponsors and passionate fans from all over the world attending events in the United States, Canada, Mexico and Europe.

But NASCAR’s popularity and success didn’t happen overnight.

What is NASCAR

Early stock car racing and the birth of NASCAR

After World War II, stock car racing became one of America’s fastest-growing pastimes. Race tracks throughout the country became more popular than ever, hosting more drivers and races with each passing year.

But, for as entertaining as stock car racing was at the time, it lacked organization. For starters, tracks differed wildly — some facilities were purpose-built for racing, while others were temporary makeshift courses designed around events like county fairs. Rules varied by location. Drivers claimed some race promoters weren’t fair or honest. The experience — both for drivers and for spectators — wasn’t built for the long term.

If stock car racing were to continue to grow in popularity, something had to be done.

On Dec. 14, 1947, Bill France Sr. organized a meeting of drivers, officials and promoters at the Streamline Hotel in Daytona Beach, Florida, to discuss the future of stock car racing. The meeting covered the issues the burgeoning sport faced, and it ended with ambitious plans to create a sanctioning body for stock car racing — what became known as the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing, or NASCAR for short.

Not long after, in February of 1948, the first NASCAR-sanctioned race took place at Daytona Beach and was won by stock car racing legend Red Byron. Less than a week later, NASCAR was formally incorporated. Things were, well, off to the races.

The NASCAR Cup Series and its expansion

It wasn’t until the next year — 1949 — when what is now the NASCAR Cup Series was born. Fans immediately loved watching what looked like ordinary street cars competing at high speeds. They wanted more: bigger tracks, faster cars, prestigious events. Names were made, heroes were born, and people couldn’t get enough.

The 2.5-mile, high-banked Daytona International Speedway — one of the largest in the world — was built just a few miles from the original beach course in NASCAR’s founding city. It was created to satiate the growing craving for fast cars and the very spectacle of racing; it was stock car racing’s home. The first Daytona 500 was held in 1959 and ended in an incredible photo finish, with Lee Petty eventually being declared the winner.

Paved, high-speed race tracks continued to be built throughout the country in the 1960s and 1970s. Racing icons rose in popularity. Richard Petty, Buddy Baker, Ned Jarrett, David Pearson, Cale Yarborough and Bobby Allison became household names. Wendell Scott became the first African-American driver to win a premier series race in 1963 at Jacksonville Speedway. Race seasons stretched to upwards of 60 races per year in length. America still couldn’t get enough of NASCAR.

The modern era

After a successful foundation of sanctioned stock car racing, Bill France Sr. passed the torch to his son Bill Jr. ahead of the 1972 season.

Bill France Jr. continued in his father’s footsteps in leading NASCAR to new heights. The schedule was shortened to 31 races and a new points system was introduced. In February of 1977, Janet Guthrie became the first woman to compete in the Daytona 500.

In addition to hosting over a million spectators per year, appeal broadened even further thanks to television. The 1979 Daytona 500 was covered live from flag to flag, and famously ended in an explosive, unpredictable finish. Cale Yarborough and Donnie Allison tangled on the final lap, crashing and making way for Richard Petty to win his sixth Daytona 500 — followed by a fight that erupted between Yarborough and the Allison brothers, Donnie and Bobby.

Stock car racing had become a mainstream sport.

By the mid 1980s, Fortune 500 companies were sponsoring NASCAR, race teams, and drivers. The next generation of racers — personalities like Dale Earnhardt, Darrell Waltrip and Bill Elliott — began to challenge the longtime mainstays, and representing well-known national brands along the way. In 1984, Richard Petty won his 200th premier series race at the Firecracker 400 on July 4 at Daytona International Speedway with President Ronald Reagan in attendance.

Fans had favorite drivers, those drivers had sponsors — and it turned out that those fans happened to be quite loyal to their drivers, and thus, their sponsors. The 1980s and 1990s marked a new era of major commercial success for NASCAR and its participants.

The sport continued to rise meteorically in the 1990s, including adding a stop to the famed Indianapolis Motor Speedway to the schedule, as well as new markets like New England, Los Angeles, Dallas/Fort Worth and Las Vegas. In 1994, Dale Earnhardt joined Richard Petty as the second driver in premier series history to earn seven championships.

Stars like Jeff Gordon, Bobby Labonte and Dale Jarrett ushered in a new era of racers, going toe-to-toe against the Earnhardt and Elliott types.

An expanded race schedule and new television package in 2001 set NASCAR on a fast track again in the early 2000s. Viewership continued to rise and NASCAR’s profile continued to expand into the new century. Safety became a renewed focus. New brands and new fans flocked to the sport like never before.

The playoffs and continued growth

Starting in the 2004 season, NASCAR made a major shift into the future by implementing playoffs in the NASCAR Cup Series, a new and engaging way of determining NASCAR’s annual champion. Rather than a season-long grand total of points, the playoffs awarded performance throughout the final races of a season, ending the year with a crescendo.

Meanwhile, fans continued to embrace the NASCAR lifestyle. NASCAR’s Drive for Diversity program was created to further attract a diverse audience to the sport.

Yet again, new faces — Jimmie Johnson, Kyle Busch, Joey Logano — made their way to the mainstream, continuing the tradition of rubbing shoulders with established veterans at stock car racing’s top level.

In 2007, NASCAR developed and introduced a new style of car designed to improve safety and maximize benefits for teams. The 2000s also marked international expansion for NASCAR, adding series in Canada and Mexico, then in Europe in 2012.

The NASCAR Hall of Fame was opened in 2010 in Charlotte, North Carolina, to honor drivers, crew chiefs, broadcasters, and other major contributors to the sport.

In 2013, Danica Patrick became the first woman to win a pole by earning the top starting spot in the Daytona 500.

In 2016, Johnson joined Earnhardt and Petty by earning his seventh premier series title.

And in 2018, Jim France took over the role of NASCAR Chairman and CEO. He learned about the sport through his own experiences and in a number of different roles for International Speedway Corporation, including president, as well as from his father Bill France Sr., and brother, Bill France Jr.

The Next Gen car and the next era of NASCAR

Continuing its tradition of innovation, NASCAR, in collaboration with drivers, teams, and manufacturers, built a new generation of car — the NASCAR Next Gen car — aimed to further reduce costs for teams and make racing more compelling than ever for fans.

NASCAR continues to expand its footprint to include esports series as a way to further entertain fans and develop the next generation of driver talent. The national and regional levels of the sport continue to thrive, and NASCAR now holds over 1,000 races per year throughout the United States, Canada, Mexico and Europe.

And NASCAR’s diversity and inclusion efforts continue to create an inclusive environment in all facets of the industry, from drivers, team owners, fans and beyond as the sport continues to race into the future.