PIKE: NASCAR’s North Carolina Connection

James Pike James Pike Blog, NASCAR, Staff Columns Leave a Comment

Dale Earnhardt Jr. (88) leads Austin Dillon (3) and Daniel Suarez during the 2017 Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway. (Jeremy Thompson photo)

With the facility in place for North Carolina to host racing events on a national scale, the creation of a race was next on the checklist. Ever the decisive businessman, Smtih was quick to design his centerpiece event for the new racetrack. Charlotte would host NASCAR’s version of the Indianapolis 500, to be held on the same final weekend of May as the more established race in the Midwest.

However, to ensure that the two races were different, the Charlotte race would run for 100 extra miles and be billed as the greater test of endurance and strength. Thus, the World 600 was born.

The first World 600 was not actually held on Memorial Day weekend in 1960 as intended – it moved to June as construction delays kept Charlotte Motor Speedway from being completed on time. It moved back to its intended date on the final Sunday in May the following year, and has been held on that date ever since.

Now known as the Coca-Cola 600, it is one of four “crown jewel” races on the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series calendar, and is North Carolina’s largest single-day sporting event of the year, drawing around 150,000 people to the Queen City.

The presence of Charlotte Motor Speedway and the World 600 cemented North Carolina’s place as the heart of the NASCAR world. It was larger in population than both Darlington and Daytona Beach, and was geographically-centered to most of the tracks that were already on the schedule.

As such, it made for a convenient place for race teams to build their permanent shops. Driven by the powerhouse Holman Moody team, most of NASCAR built roots in the Charlotte area during the 1960s.

When NASCAR established a plan to expand from the Southeast in the early 1970s, their first step was to get the Grand National Series sponsored. Fittingly, it was a North Carolina-based company – the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company of Winston-Salem – that became the Grand National Series’ first major sponsor.

The partnership between the two companies lasted from 1971 to 2003, and in that time, NASCAR expanded from a predominantly regional sport to a national one. When the final Winston Cup Series race was run in November 2003, NASCAR had expanded to Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston, Kansas City, and Miami, amongst other places.

Though the sport has changed significantly since the days of the shine runners, North Carolina’s status as the epicentre of the NASCAR world has not changed. To this day, over 90% of NASCAR teams are headquartered within a 50-mile radius of Charlotte.

In addition, over 700 motorsports-related companies are based around the city, contributing more than $6 billion annually to the North Carolina economy. NASCAR’s largest office in the United States is in Uptown Charlotte, and the sport’s Hall of Fame sits adjacent to it.

The Hall of Fame’s membership also stands as evidence to North Carolina’s significant place in NASCAR. One of the five inductees in the inaugural Class of 2010, Junior Johnson, got his start in racing as one of the shine runners from the Prohibition era, and is a North Carolina native.

Two other men in that class, Dale Earnhardt and Richard Petty, were also born and raised in the Tar Heel State, and are widely considered to be the two greatest NASCAR drivers of all-time. Since then, 15 other North Carolina natives have been inducted into the Hall of Fame, representing over a third of its entire membership to this point.

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