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Southern Cultures 7.2 (2001) 8-33

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The Most Southern Sport on Earth
NASCAR and the Unions

Dan Pierce



"Gentlemen, I won't be dictated to by the union." Six-foot-five, 240-pound Big Bill France loosened his tie, removed his glasses, and proceeded to put the "fear of God" into his workers. Before he had "this union stuffed down [his] throat," he swore, he would shut down his entire operation, plow it up, and plant corn.

France also pledged that no known union member could work in his organization. "And if that isn't tough enough," he vowed, "I'll use a pistol to enforce it. I have a pistol, and I know how to use it. I've used it before." 1

For most observers of the piedmont South in 1961, this was an all-too-typical scene in the region's textile mills, furniture factories, and tobacco processing plants. As late as 1976, only 7 percent of the nonagricultural labor force in both Carolinas belonged to a union. As the majority of Bill France's workers knew, the threat to shut down his operations was not an idle one. Other business owners in the region--such as textile magnate Roger Milliken in Darlington, South Carolina--had shut down rather than submit to unionization. The setting for Bill France's tirade was not a mill, however, but Bowman-Gray Stadium in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. France's workers were not mill hands, but the drivers of the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing's (NASCAR) elite Grand National Division, now known as Winston Cup. 2

Perhaps no better metaphor exists for both the changes and lack of change in the piedmont South in the past fifty years than NASCAR stock car racing. A product of post-World War II economic and social transformations, NASCAR Winston Cup racing has become the second most popular spectator sport in the United States. Despite its national growth and ever-widening appeal, NASCAR's top division remains firmly rooted in the red-clay soil of the region. Although NASCAR's headquarters is located in Daytona Beach, Florida, the vast majority of Winston Cup team garages, crews, and drivers are located within a hundred-mile radius of Charlotte, North Carolina. The relationship to the piedmont South extends to the language, the customs, even the religion practiced in the typical NASCAR garage. Perhaps the most glaring example of NASCAR's deep regional roots is its unique form of management and the lack of union representation for its drivers and mechanics: NASCAR's style of management is more typical of a cotton mill than a modern, billion-dollar, professional sporting enterprise.

Stock car racing in the South originated just before World War II in a mill-village environment with few choices and little excitement besides moonshining. "Trust me, there was nothing to do in the mountains of North Carolina back in the 30s, 40s, and 50s," North Wilkesboro native and former Winston Cup driver Benny Parsons recently asserted. "You either worked at a hosiery mill, a furniture factory, or you made whiskey." It was also a question of lifestyle for these young men, many of whom "would rather die violently in [a] car than of boredom in a production line somewhere, punching a time clock to begin the day." 3 [End Page 9]

As many observers have recorded, southern stock car racing evolved out of informal competitions between moonshiners who tested their skills as mechanics and their courage as drivers. As the popularity of these events grew, local entrepreneurs bulldozed tracks out of the red clay and the sport became more formalized, offering an escape from working-class realities. "[Bobby] Isaac didn't have any education whatsoever," former Grand National driver Paul "Little Bud" Moore recently observed. "He came out of the mills, just like David Pearson and a lot of other people. Stock car racing was a way to get away from that." The same type of escape applied to race fans as well, who, according to historian Pete Daniel...


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