NASCAR’s Sprint Cup down to 1 Tar Heel

jutter@charlotteobserver.comFebruary 23, 2013 

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(L-R) NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driver (88) Dale Earnhardt Jr. and crew chief Steve Letarte talk prior to the start of practice on Saturday, February 23, 2013 at Daytona International Speedway. Jeff Siner - jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

JEFF SINER — jsiner@charlotteobserver.com Buy Photo

— Dale Earnhardt Jr. stands alone. And for two races last season, even he was missing.

When Earnhardt was forced to miss two weeks of the 2012 Sprint Cup Series while recovering from a concussion, it left a gap in the field. With Earnhardt out of his No. 88 Chevrolet, there wasn’t a driver in the race with a North Carolina heritage – for the first time since 1961.

Before last October’s Bank of America 500 at Charlotte Motor Speedway, every Cup race had at least one driver from North Carolina since May 27, 1961, at Ascot Stadium in Los Angeles – the day before that season’s World 600 in Charlotte.

NASCAR was founded in Daytona Beach in 1948, but many of its original drivers and fans hailed from the Tar Heel State. Most of the race teams in the Sprint Cup series are still based in North Carolina.

But when the 55th Daytona 500 gets under way Sunday, Earnhardt will start the 2013 season as the only full-time driver in the Cup series born in the state.

“I never imagined that one day there wouldn’t be North Carolina-born driver in the races,” said Hall of Famer Ned Jarrett, who raced in NASCAR in the 1950s and ’60s. “The sport has grown so much and attracted drivers from all over the country, and even all over the world.

“At least 50 percent of the people I regularly raced against were from North Carolina – many were like neighbors.”

The first race in what is now the Cup series, which took place in Charlotte in 1949, featured a field of 33 cars. Of those, 15 were piloted by N.C. natives, including two from Charlotte (Sterling Long and B.E. Renfro).

The first Daytona 500, in 1959, featured eight drivers from North Carolina – NASCAR Hall of Famers Richard Petty, Junior Johnson and Lee Petty, plus Speedy Thompson, Roy Turner, Jimmy Thompson, Ken Rush and Bob Welborn.

Sunday’s Daytona 500 has two – Earnhardt and Austin Dillon, who is running a partial Cup schedule this season and was born in Lewisville.

Where did all the Tar Heels go?

It’s always about money

Ironically, more money in the sport has led to fewer North Carolinians.

“Between 1946 and 1980, the big money was in IndyCar racing,” said longtime track president and NASCAR promoter H.A. “Humpy” Wheeler. “NASCAR drivers in those times, except for the top six or seven, just made a living.

“In the 1980s as the popularity of Indy car races diminished and NASCAR hit live TV and the big sponsors began to arrive, everything reversed.

“By the 1990s, the big money went to NASCAR.”

Wheeler said in the 1990s, a top NASCAR driver could make $1 million or more a year, about twice the average IndyCar driver. After 2000, top NASCAR drivers were making from $2 million to $8 million a year. By 2008, Wheeler said, NASCAR’s best could take in $15 million in annual salary.

“The winner of the Indy 500 and the IndyCar championship combined would make half that at best,” he said.

That disparity pushed the best drivers from all over the country toward NASCAR.

“If they were still getting big money for running the big cars at Indy, we probably would have never gotten the likes of Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Matt Kenseth or Greg Biffle,” Wheeler said.

New audience

The shift NASCAR’s audience has been a factor, too.

“NASCAR started as a North Carolina sport, and then it spread out a little at a time,” said seven-time Cup champion Richard Petty. “It was 15 to 20 years before people in Iowa or New Jersey even heard of NASCAR.

“There were fans, yes, but as far as drivers thinking they needed to race here, they were more looking at Indy. NASCAR wasn’t on the radar.”

As NASCAR’s reach grew, so did the number of aspiring drivers – from everywhere. Team owners searched for whoever would win.

“It was owners who first started looking at drivers from other parts of the country,” Petty said. “As NASCAR got bigger, we spread to the rest of the country and people in the rest of the country became interested in NASCAR and interested in running in NASCAR.

“The change didn’t come overnight. As I lived through it, it was hard to notice the change, actually.”

But the names did change.

Joining the Pettys, the Thompsons, the Buck Bakers and the Jim Paschals were drivers from across the country, such as Tom Pistone, Johnny Beauchamp, Marvin Panch and Jim Reed.

Petty said the change isn’t bad, but he said it’s important to have drivers who still hail from NASCAR’s “Southern base.”

“You need at least a sprinkling of local talent – the Carolinas or Virginia and such,” he said.

‘A return of the drawl’

The North Carolina pipeline isn’t empty.

“There is hope on the horizon for a return of the drawl,” Wheeler said.

Among the most prominent:

• Austin Dillon and Ty Dillon, the grandsons of NASCAR legendary car owner Richard Childress, have several noteworthy accomplishments. Austin won the 2011 Truck series championship and will compete fulltime in the Nationwide Series this season. His younger brother, Ty, won the championship in the Automobile Racing Club of America series championship in 2011 and is competing in Trucks.

• Ryan Blaney, who became the youngest winner in Truck series history last season, is the son of NASCAR veteran and dirt legend Dave Blaney.

• Corey LaJoie, a talented driver in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East, is the son of Randy LaJoie, a two-time champion in what is now the Nationwide Series.

• And Darrell Wallace Jr., who has lived in the Charlotte area since he was two years old, became the first African-American driver to win a pole last season. He’s competing full time in Trucks this year.

“Most of these guys came from the Legends and then dirt late models and are terrific talents,” Wheeler said. “I think Dale Jr. will soon have some fellow competitors from North Carolina.”

That, Wheeler said, is good for the sport.

“This shift in money and the expansion did a lot to make NASCAR a more national sport,” he said, “but it also took a lot of the charm away.”

Utter: 704-358-5113; Twitter: @jim_utter

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