National Geographic : 1998 Jun
PHOTCJGHAPHF E~ .L.!E) .!i]IlAiY' FTER CLINT ELKINS, 21, won the First race of his stock car rac Sing life at Cherokee Speed Sway ("The Place Your Mama SWarned You About") in Gaff ney, South Carolina, he parked his car, num ber Cl, at the end of the straightaway and posed for the requisite photo holding the big plastic trophy and the frayed checkered flag. And he did the run along the fence grazing the outstretched fingertips of the kids who sprint down from the bleachers at the end of every feature. Then, in a traditional but sud den ceremony ministered by his crew, he was knocked down and rolled and dragged and rubbed into the red Carolina mud that has yielded the sport's most legendary drivers, from Herb Thomas and Buck Baker to Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt. His baptism was so complete that it took a week to get the grit out of his black racing suit. "I soaked it in a bucket," says Elkins, "then I put it up against a wall and blasted it with a high-pressure hose." According to the historians, there are several reasons why stock car racing started in the Southeast. There was the inspiring example of teenage bootleggers like North Carolina's Junior Johnson, who loaded up their '39 Fords with backwoods tax-free moonshine and out ran the revenuers all night long from Wilkes boro to High Point to Greensboro to Charlotte. Their jug carriers, unremarkable on the outside so as not to attract attention but with enough motor to do a hundred in second gear, were essentially the first racing stock cars. There was also the crying need for entertainment violent and stimulating enough to get a rise out of the veterans returning to quiet towns after the four years of mayhem of World War II. PETER DE JONGE, who lives in Manhattan with his two sons, is a frequent contributor to the New York Times Magazine. This is his first GEOGRAPHIC article. DAVID ALAN HARVEY, who grew up in Virginia, has photo graphed 30 articles for the magazine. Prime-time speed sters blaze around the track at Martins ville, Virginia, for a Winston Cup event, top rung of the stock car racing world. Nationally televised and backed by name brand corporations, Winston Cup compe titions have trans formed the pastime and its moonshiner's roots into one of the richest, fastest grow ing sports. Explains champion driver Darrell Waltrip, "It's this tremendous love affair we have with the automobile." The most crucial link to this region, how ever, wasn't money or history but geology. It was the availability wherever the eye turned of the Earth's greatest natural racing surface, the red-clay soil of the Piedmont Plateau that swerves along the eastern flank of the Appala chians from Alabama to New York. What began when a bunch of bootleggers got together in a dusty cow pasture for the novel pleasure of racing each other instead of the law is now America's fastest growing spectator sport. Since 1991, attendance at races spon sored by the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR) has grown by 70 percent-almost four times faster than profes sional basketball. The Winston Cup, NASCAR's elite 33-race series, which includes the Daytona 500, the first and biggest event of the year, at tracted six million fans last year, and many mil lions more watched on television. NASCAR has become a two-billion-dollar-a -year industry. NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC, JUNE 1998 BYt -. S3 Ji L.13. J! U!