Real NASCAR: White Lightning, Red Clay, and Big Bill France, by Daniel S. Pierce, is hot off the press and hitting bookstores now. If you’re a racing fan or southern history buff, this book is the can’t-miss backstory behind what has become a billion-dollar industry and one of the most popular spectator sports in America. Pierce writes as a historian and a fan, focusing on the sport from the 1940s to the 1970s. This is the NASCAR of sandy beaches and dirt tracks, racing for fun by day and racing from the law by night. NASCAR legend “Humpy” Wheeler calls this book “NASCAR 101,” and he ought to know.
No other book gives the full early history of this wildly popular sport. Pierce knows his stuff. But his history doesn’t end with the last page of his book. He’s blogging at realnascar.com, so you can check in every week for Pierce’s historical insight into what’s happening on the track today. So far he’s blogged about the new History Channel reality series Madhouse and the Bowman Gray Stadium in Winston-Salem where it is filmed, Danica Patrick and the surprising history of women stock car drivers, the rising and falling fortunes of the sport and its on-again/off-again courtship with Detroit automakers.
In his most recent post, he kicks off the 2010 racing season at an annual Daytona 500 viewing party with old friends and describes the earliest races on that city’s sandy beaches. Some excerpts:
On Sunday I watched the “Great American Race” with a group of friends that I have shared this event with for the past fifteen years. We get together at my friend Larry Ward’s house for way too much food, great fellowship, and for making fun of the Tony Stewart fans. There have been some moments at our Daytona party over the years that I’ll never forget. [ . . . ]
Indeed, our Daytona party reminds me that kicking off the racing season at Daytona Beach is not only an important part of a very short tradition of a group of old friends, but one of the greatest—and one of the longest running–traditions in American sports history; one that for much of its history—up until 1958–was at least partially run on the beach itself.[ . . . ]
The early competitions featured a wide variety of automobiles including steam-powered and electric vehicles. Exotic names like Darracq, De Dietrich, Peerless, Napier, Christie, Winton, and Autocar competed alongside more familiar models made by Ford, Mercedes, Renault, and Fiat. By 1905 the fastest cars were topping the 100 mph barrier with Arthur McDonald becoming the first man to do so in a Napier. By the end of the so-called “beach tournaments” in 1910, drivers like Barney Oldfield were topping 130 mph and annually setting world speed records.
Those early Daytona events also began traditions—some not so appealing to modern sensibilities–that fans would talk about for years afterward. Many a race on the beach began with a scattering of sea gulls and other beach birds and the occasional splattering of the same on wind shields. Besides the visual impairment of seagull entrails on windshields, the sand combined with the salt water often scoured them and blinded the drivers. This created the common feature of racing on the beach at Daytona of cars ending up in the surf; a rarely fatal occurrence, but one the fans always enjoyed. Perhaps the most amazing thing, given the proximity of fans—who often stood right on the edge of the race course–to the action and the visual hazards for drivers, is that a race car did not take out a huge number of fans.
To read an interview with Pierce, click here.