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CUP: They Came Out Of The South

Article written by Dan Neil, Special to FOXSports.com

Editor’s note: Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Dan Neil, who recently joined The Wall Street Journal as its leading automotive columnist, hosts a new monthly, online-exclusive show for FOXSports.com on MSN called “Wheels Up.” He wrote this essay to salute the NASCAR Hall of Fame Class, which opens today in Uptown Charlotte.

They came out of the South, rattling the pines, lighting up the night with crazy fire dancing from sawed-off tailpipes. The pioneers of NASCAR were hard-handed country boys with something to prove, they were hungry rednecks who figured it was better to die behind the wheel than behind a plow. They were veterans from World War II who had discovered in the war they had a way with speed and machinery.

And it was racing. Sometimes it was just for the promise of a few bucks, on a roundy-rounds bulldozed out of red-clay field, in soil so poor it could only grow heartache. Sometimes the competition wore a badge and carried a revenuers book. At a time when Germany’s Caricciola was wheeling million-Deutschmark open-wheel Auto Unions around the Grand Prix tracks of Europe, the forebears of NASCAR were hanging it out in clapped-out Fords and Pontiacs, ropes for seat belts and football helmets, welded and fused and balled-up and burnt and broke, then towed to the next track, the next Saturday night. But it was racing.

Big Bill France hailed from Washington, D.C., but escaped the Depression to land in Daytona Beach, Fla., where speed – the young racer’s muse – had made a home on the long white sands. From his very first, failed efforts to put on a race, he saw the problem – people couldn’t see the cars, like they could at the 2.5-mile Indianapolis track, and the action was derelict and slow. But Bill had seen his answer in the high-bank board tracks up north. He had a vision. Now all he needed was a race. He formed a sanctioning body that would manage competition, guarantee the purses, corral the racers, sort of, and put on a good show. – the National Association of Stock Car Automobile Racing. And the coliseum of this new Rome would be the Daytona International Speedway.

People ask how NASCAR got to be so big and successful. The answer isn’t simply the tough business acumen of Big Bill, or his son and fellow inductee to the NASCAR Hall of Fame, Bill France Jr., who lead the sport into the Modern Era on a river of tobacco money, who swung the big camera of national sports coverage to NASCAR and took it to Wall Street. The answer is also in the nature of the speedway itself, and Southern culture. For four hundred years, since the very discovery of the region Americans call “The South,” there was a tradition of dualing, of settling scores publicly, with fearlessness and honor. Challenges that were laid down had to be satisfied, according to a ritual of manhood. This was Big Bill’s historic moment of clarity. The speedway – wide and long, with grandstands wrapped around – would be a theater of public honor. Essential truths of Southern manhood are there affirmed. Stock-car racing isn’t a blood sport anymore but make no mistake – when Carl Edwards turns Brad Keselowski into the wall – its pistols-at-dawn all over again.

NASCAR is the one true Southern sport, a mirror of Southern culture, and you only have to look at the other inductees to see it’s true. Southerners prize family above all else. From Mark Twain to William Faulkner to Pat Conroy, family is tribe, blood is bond. And NASCAR is a sport dominated by fathers and sons. Bill and Bill Jr.; Richard Petty, the King, son of Lee and father of Kyle. Dale Earnhardt, son of Ralph, father of Jr. It’s Biblical.

There are many men who could have been named to the inaugural class of Hall of Fame inductees – Fireball Roberts, Curtis Turner, DW – but maybe no other grouping could so well sum up the born-in-the-South DNA of the sport.

Consider Junior Johnson, nicknamed “The Last American Hero” by Tom Wolfe, and who’s to argue? Fifty wins, superstar, bootlegger, ex-con, backwoods aerodynamicist. A Southern rebel, through and through, a character literally out of a piece of fiction. Southerners respect and admire law-abiding, good Christians souls, but they root for the dangerous man, the man who pushes back against the system, especially the government tax man. Hell no, we don’t forget.

Dale Earnhardt is the most complicated figure of the group: outlaw, trickster, father, champion, martyr. The purest competitor. He drove like the world was against him. He drove like he hadn’t eaten in three days. He was angry, he was hungry. He was the quintessential Southern Man. Coming of age as a driver at a time when the sport was growing bigger, richer and more popular nationally – and that popularity made old-school fans uneasy – Earnhardt’s brawling driving, his on-track hell-raising, was a throwback to the early days. Fans loved him for it. It’s ironic that Earnhardt also pioneered the modern business of packaging, of merchandizing a driver’s image. The Intimidator, Incorporated.

To this day, Richard Petty is the one NASCAR driver most Americans can name off the top of their head. The King, seven-time champion, 200 wins, the sport’s complete gentleman and good-will ambassador. The man in the black hat, figuratively, wears the white hat. Petty was a better man that even most race fans know for when the bigots came after African-American racer Wendell Scott, to this day the only black man to win a top-level NASCAR race, Petty was one of the few stood up for him. Charismatic and cool, with a drawl that would charm fish out of the water, Petty was ideal transitional figure, the Southerner who could make the rest of the country care about stock car racing in faraway, exotic-sounding places like North Wilkesboro, Bristol and Darlington.

Petty represents, then and now, all that is good about the South. Its deep roots in the land – Petty still lives in Level Cross, where he was born. The sense of gratitude – Petty signs autographs for fans like a farmer goes to church, mindful that of his good fortune, knowing it can all go away. The decency, the good humor, the quiet righteousness.

NASCAR belongs to the nation now, with as many fans in California as in South Carolina, and to the extent the sport has been embraced by the wider culture, it suggests the values, the romance of the South, has risen again. The inaugural class of the NASCAR Hall of Fame made it all happen. They came out of the South. And it was racing.

The NASCAR Hall of Fame Grand Opening is set for May 11, 2010. Outdoor Opening Ceremonies are May 11th from 9 to 10 am ET free of charge, open to the public. Outdoor festivities including driver appearances and concerts May 11th from 10 am until 8 pm ET open to the public, free of charge. Tickets to enter the NASCAR Hall of Fame are on sale now at www.NASCARHall.com or by calling 877-231-2010. The countdown to the NASCAR Hall of Fame is on! Visit www.NASCARHall.com/50days for daily updates about the NASCAR Hall of Fame.