Saturday, April 14, 2012

A Short History of Auto Racing during the 1990s

Auto racing (1990s)

As a consequence of new sponsors, personalities, race tracks, and television exposure, automobile racing – and in particular NASCAR – reached unprecedented heights of popularity during the 1990s. Indeed, NASCAR, with its cafes and memorabilia, became a “way of life” for many Americans.

While automobile racing has its origins at the turn of the 20th century with the beginnings of the industry, at certain levels the sport was radically transformed during the 1990s. First, and particularly as a result of the spectacular success of NASCAR ( National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing), automobile racing brought in enormous amounts of money. Secondly, it was no longer the automobile manufacturers that made the key decisions related to auto racing, but rather those controlling business aspects and the organization of the sport.

The influx of money was not true across the board, however. At the second level, beneath NASCAR and Formula 1 (primarily a European-based activity), stood races organized by CART (Championship Auto Racing Teams) and the IRL (Indy Racing League). Conflict between these two organizations diluted fan interest and profits.

At a third level were those engaged in sports car road racing, governed by the SCCA (Sports Car Club of America) and IMSA (International Motor Sports Association). Finally, grass-roots level racing, either at the club level, or at oval dirt and asphalt tracks located in rural America, thrived, but more a labor of love than a way to make money for those involved.

The NASCAR Boom

During the 1990s, NASCAR exploded on the American scene. Once confined to the Southeastern United States, NASCAR became a national sport, with high paid drivers, a large and increasingly diverse fan base, extravagant sponsors and broad media coverage. And money was everywhere.

For example, during the decade of the 1990s, sponsorship contributions rose seven percent annually. By 1998 more than fifty companies invested more than $10 million each year. Top sponsors included Phillip Morris, Anheuser-Busch, Coca-Cola, General Motors, PepsiCo, AT&T, RJR Nabisco, and McDonalds. New sponsors in sectors with little direct connection to the automobile business – fast food, home supplies, detergents -- became commonplace.

Consequently top drivers like Dale Earnhart and Jeff Gordon earned more than $10 million a year, and successful crew chiefs $300,000 to $500,000. Ultimately the money was due to the fact that NASCAR was highly adaptable to TV, and thus it was media executives rather than the auto industry that was now calling the shots in this business.

The 1990s also witnessed the rise of a new generation of NASCAR drivers. Heroes from the 1960s and 1970s, including Richard Petty, Bobby Allison, Cale Yarborough, David Pearson, and Buddy Baker gave way to Jeff Gordon, Dale Jarrett, Ernie Ervin, Mark Martin, Bobby Labonte, and Jeff and Ward Burton, Ricky Craven, Johnny Benson, and Jeremy Mayfield. Symbolically, Richard Petty’s 1992 “Fan Appreciation Tour” ended winless. Petty’s last race in Atlanta found him running his final laps at half speed, the consequence of an earlier crash.

New owners were also a part of the NASCAR scene during the 1990s. Included were stars from other sports, including NFL coach Joe Gibbs, and the NBA’s Julius Erving and Brad Daugherty. With new tracks located near Fort Worth Texas and Fontana, California, NASCAR was seemingly being transformed in virtually every possible way.

Perhaps the most dramatic event of the 1990s was NASCAR’s coming to the legendary Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the inaugural Brickyard 400 in 1995. With NASCAR founder Bill France and longtime Indy track owner Tony Hulman now dead, their successors could bury long-term differences and realize the potential of such an event in terms of media coverage and fan enthusiasm. Thus, on August 6, 1995 Jeff Gordon won the inaugural 160 lap event in front of 300,000 fans.

CART vs. IRL

Despite the great success of the Brickyard 400, during the 1990s controversy swirled around the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and its owner, Tony George. During the 1980s CART and USAC had been the two sanctioning bodies that governed racing at Indianapolis, and these two groups had an uneasy relationship. In 1994 George announced that the Indianapolis 500 would leave the CART series and become the centerpiece for George’s own IRL series. Whether the decision was motivated by ego, a concern over the increased presence of foreign drivers, or a perception that Indy was dropping in status as a race is unclear. The upshot of all of this, however, was that in 1996 a group of unknown drivers raced at Indianapolis, while CART organized its own race, the U.S 500, held in Michigan on the same day. The split greatly affected this level of racing, as it led to decreased television revenues and waning fan interest. In the end, the Indianapolis 500 prevailed, and after shifting the race date of the U.S. 500 to July, in 1999 CART canceled the race altogether.

The end of tobacco company sponsorship of racing

Since the early 1970s, tobacco companies had played a critical role in automobile racing through its sponsorship of teams and events. No longer able to advertise in print or on television, it could advertise on the side of cars, however, and it did so freely. This investment came to an end in 1998, however, when after litigation involving the companies and the states’ attorney generals an agreement was reached that eliminated cigarette companies from automobile racing. After 28 years the NASCAR’s Winston Cup ended, but racing continued, now known as the NEXTEL series.

Despite America’s wavering love affair with the automobile, auto racing remains one of the nation’s most popular sports, on the level with football, baseball and basketball. A huge and vibrant business, its fan base draws from virtually every class segment in society.

Further Reading

Assael, Shaun. Wide Open: Days and Nights on the NASCAR Tour. New York: Ballantine Books, 1998. An account of the 1996 NASCAR racing season.

Fleischman, Bill and Al Pearce. Inside Sports NASCAR Racing. Detroit, MI: Visible Ink, 1998. A most useful compendium on NASCAR that contains many important facts about racing events and personalities during the 1990s.

Hagstrom, Robert G. The NASCAR Way: The Business that Drives the Sport. New York: John Wiley, 1998. A business perspective to a $2 billion sport.

Levine, Leo. “The Business of Racing.” Road & Track 51, no.4 (April, 1999):146-149. A very perceptive analysis of automobile racing as a business. Sponsors, advertising, and the role of the media, especially TV, are discussed.

Poole, David and Jim McLaurin. NASCAR Essential. Chicago,Il: Triumph Books, 2007. A fun read that contains many statistics as well as interesting stories.

John Heitmann

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