NASCAR still holds roots in Dixie despite years of evolution

February 07, 2012 3:03 AM

Growing up some 90 miles from officially being branded as "that Connecticut Yankee," I should be as far removed from NASCAR as, say, Lady Gaga singing Cole Porter.

But life does tend to take some interesting left turns and stock car racing has been that nasty fly you just can’t seem to swat away.

When I worked in Florence, S.C., there was Darlington. I moved on to Daytona Beach flat into Speed Weeks all through February and the Firecracker 400 on the Fourth of July.

"Holy deep in the heart of Dixie, Batman!"

Just when I thought it was safe in "Southern" Nevada, here comes Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Thankfully, Micah Roberts does a jam-up job covering motorsports, but I figure I can get at least one "looking back" column out of this.

So I’ll take you back to a more romantic time in NASCAR when Bill France frowned on illegal bets and the three subjects you never dreamed of attacking in the South were Richard Petty, Bear Bryant and the Confederate Flag.

Jimmie Johnson is a hated man today for winning five consecutive NASCAR driving championships. Richard Petty won a total of seven and was beloved. The cowboy hat, moustache, old 43. Mount Rushmore material.

In Petty’s day, it was not uncommon to win 7, 8, 10, 15 races in a single season. Kyle Busch not withstanding, that’s not happening today. Way too much balance.

When I worked in Florence back in the late 70s and mid-1980s, it was Petty, David Pearson and Cale Yarborough. In that order. Yarborough was as tough a son of a gun as you would ever come across.

And, he lived in the next town – eight miles from Florence in Timmonsville. Not only was Cale a great driver, but he was a member of the county council. Most of my encounters with him were in a business suit instead of Union 66 wear.

When I moved on to Daytona, Petty’s wins were in the rear view mirror and the hot rivalry came from Dale Earnhardt and Jeff Gordon. Earnhardt was "The Intimidator" and the No. 3 in black was a staple everywhere you traveled.

Today, it’s Earnhardt Junior who is far and away the most popular driver on the circuit. Danica Patrick? She would be have been roasted at the stake back in the 70’s for daring to be a woman in a "man’s sport."

The fact Las Vegas has a race indicates how far the sport has evolved through the years both in geography and ideology.

I remember laughing incoherently at one of our sports writers back in the day when he had the audacity to suggest NASCAR would rival the NFL in popularity. While wagering on the Daytona 500, the sport’s Super Bowl, doesn’t nearly approach the real McCoy, I haven’t laughed at that boast in decades.

Kevin Harvick is the early 10-1 favorite at LVH for this year’s running of the 500 on Feb. 26. The Las Vegas race is two weeks later. Junior is in a large group at 12-1. Patrick is 100-1.

Better get your bets in now.