By George Garza
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Cars on race track
The Daytona Raceway, now home to the Daytona 500, was built in 1956
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How did NASCAR begin, and what makes it such a hit with the public?

How was NASCAR Started?

At a hotel bar in 1947, an ex-car mechanic and occasional car racer, Bill France, took out a napkin and began to describe the point system for winning car races. He talked for a while, answering questions, taking in his fellow racers and other racing promoters to a new trip to sports entertainment. No one had heard of the things that France was proposing, but in the end all that mattered was that there was now a way to make money racing cars it was not just a sport, it was entertainment.

This was Florida, near Daytona Beach, which already had a car racing reputation. If Nashville was the country music capital of the world, Daytona Beach was the speedster capitol. And it was about to change even more.

What is NASCAR?

What was lacking in car racing was organization. It needed a league that was there to promote the sport, and to protect the drivers and racing teams from unscrupulous promoters. NASCAR was formed to meet those two goals. It was short for the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing. Stock meant that the parts were to be picked up off the stock shelf at a car parts and supply store. Cars were supposed to be built from ordinary car parts. But that didn't last long.

Determining Championships

Another big change was how championships were determined. Winning a race was one way: win many and you were going to be a shoe-in for sure. But France was smart enough to know that winning a race was not easy, even if you lead the race all along. You could find yourself in a pile up, of no fault of your own. So he created the point system, where you were awarded points for winning, for the laps you led, for the laps you met and even for showing up with a car. Now every race, the car, the team and the laps were important. All could give you points towards the championship.

NASCAR Divisions

At first NASCAR was divided into three divisions: the Modified, Roadster and Strictly Stock divisions. The Modified was the one that succeeded in the early years. The Roadster was rejected by the public as being Midwestern, and the Strictly Stock could not launch for several years because automobile manufacturers were not able to produce enough sedans to allow NASCAR teams to build the stock cars needed for the races. Today the three divisions of racing are the Nextel Cup Series (formerly Winston Cup), Busch Series and Craftsman Truck Series.

NASCAR Race Tracks

France had in mind to build state-of-the-art race tracks which would allow cars to get to unimagined speeds. This would increase the excitement and danger of the sport, but highlight the drivers and team skill needed to allow a car to compete and win.

In 1948, the first year of NASCAR, the schedule had 52 Modified dirt track races. This worked well enough at the beginning, but by 1953, France wanted to build a permanent track. It would attract large crowds, but it would also make racing safer.

The first super speedway built was in 1956. It was the 2.5 mile oval track, the Daytona Raceway, now home to the prestigious Daytona 500. It was built on a swamp.

The sport grew slowly, making most inroads in the South. There were many dirt courses and smaller 100-mile paved courses. But these could not support the speeds that crowds wanted and expected from a NASCAR event. But the sport was growing; there was a NASCAR sanctioned event in California, and one in Ontario, Canada.

In 1970 the R. J. Reynolds Tobacco Company became the title sponsor and changed the series to the Winston Cup. Reynolds executives also convinced France that the events worth having were the large paved oval racetrack events. He agreed to drop all dirt tracks and races less than 100 miles from the NASCAR schedule in 1972. Many believe that the modern era of the NASCAR began with that change.

Growth of NASCAR

Television played an important factor in the growth of the sport. In the 70s, ABC's Wide World of Sports carried several races. In 1979, CBS carried the complete Daytona 500 race. It was televised from flag to finish. But more importantly, in the east coast on the day of the race, there was a snowstorm, keeping many TV viewers at home. At the end of the last lap of the race, two drivers, Cale Yarbourogh and Donnie Allison crashed into each other, allowing Richard Petty to by pass them both and win the race. But after the race, Yarborough and Allison got into a fistfight on national TV. This cemented the national appeal and drama of the sport.

Today NASCAR races are broadcast in over 150 countries. It holds 17 of the top 20 attended sporting events in the U.S. and has 75 million fans that purchase over $3 billion in annual licensed product sales.

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