This might come as quite a surprise to NASCAR aficionados around the country, and especially in the stock-car crazed Southeast. But if anyone is looking for the pulse of motor sports today, look no farther than the Kansas City area.
Two Missouri-born drivers, Rusty Wallace and Carl Edwards, are in the top six in the Nextel Cup Chase for the Championship, and another Show-Me State native, Jamie McMurray, is just 14 points out of 11th place, which pays a $1 million bonus.
Three Midwest drivers are in the top six of the Busch series standings, including Kansas-born rookie Clint Bowyer, who is in second place, just 26 points from the lead.
And Kansas City is considered a front-runner to land the NASCAR Hall of Fame, which would sit adjacent to Kansas Speedway, the sport's newest and swankiest facility, where more than 100,000 fans will watch the Banquet 400 on Sunday afternoon.
"Kansas City represents the new model for NASCAR," said Don Hinchey of The Bonham Group, a national sports/entertainment marketing firm. "It was formally restricted to the Southeast, but it has made a major push to expand its footprint beyond its traditional base, and the heartland of America is a prime target for it."
While Kansas Speedway did not open until 2001, the Kansas City area has a racing tradition dating to the 1920s when a banked, 1.25-mile track made entirely of wood known as the Million Dollar Speedway had a brief run. But the passion for racing was fueled on Friday and Saturday nights at the dozens of short tracks, especially dirt tracks, within a three-hour radius of Kansas City.
"I think there are more race tracks per capita in this part of the world than anywhere else, especially dirt tracks, because the quality of the dirt in this part of the country is better than down south," said Kirk Elliott, a longtime observer of Midwest racing.
"Knoxville Raceway in Iowa is considered the best dirt track in America. You go to a dirt track down south or in Florida or Georgia and you've got to wear goggles because it's so dusty. You get up into Iowa where you have this black, gumbo dirt where the soil is so good, that it makes for a really good quality racetrack. A lot of the best drivers up there were from Kansas City."
During the 1980s, thousands of fans would attend short-track races and follow the exploits of Wallace and his brothers Mike and Kenny of St. Louis; as well as Mark Martin from Batesville, Ark., and Kenny Schrader of Fenton, Mo.
The powers at NASCAR and International Speedway Corporation, which owns or operates 12 major speedways in the United States, including Daytona International Speedway, recognized the grassroots support of racing at places like Lakeside Speedway in Kansas City, Kan., and I-70 Speedway, an asphalt facility in Odessa, Mo.
Research showed as many as 12 percent of the fans that attended the Daytona 500 each February migrated from the Midwest states of Kansas, Missouri, Iowa and Nebraska, so it was a no-brainer to build a $260 million facility in Wyandotte County.
It's been a rousing success from the beginning. Major Midwest corporations such as Overland Park -- based Sprint Nextel and Yellow Roadway are heavily involved in NASCAR and were the underwriters for yesterday's United Way 300 Busch race. ConAgra Foods, Inc., headquartered in Omaha, is the parent company of Banquet, the title sponsor for today's Banquet 400. Nearly 82,000 grandstand seats were sold for the weekend races at Kansas Speedway, which has added 5,000 seats during the last three years.
When Rusty Wallace of St. Louis burst onto the NASCAR scene in the mid-1980s and won the 1989 Winston Cup championship, Midwest drivers found a role model. Kenny and Mike Wallace have had solid careers with most of their success in the Busch series.
Mike Mittler of Foristell, Mo., who worked on Rusty Wallace's teams, started a NASCAR Craftsman Trucks Series team, and two of his discoveries were McMurray, a short-track whiz from Joplin and champion at I-44 Speedway in Lebanon; and Edwards, a wide-eyed kid from Columbia who won two NASCAR Dodge Weekly Racing series championships at Capital Speedway near Jefferson City.
"Truth be told, my brother Rusty was totally responsible ... he was the first pioneer ... him and then Schrader," said Kenny Wallace, who is sixth in the Busch standings. "We all owe a lot to my brother, Rusty. He's the one who said you could come out of a stick-and-ball town and (make it in NASCAR).
"You look at guys like Jamie McMurray and Carl Edwards. They're a lot younger than me, they raced a lot of dirt tracks around here. They got in touch with the right people. Mike Mittler was the one man who was totally responsible for Carl and Jamie."
Edwards, a cousin of Schrader's, remembers the influence of Rusty Wallace when Edwards was turning wrenches and learning the business while working at Mittler's race shop.
"Rusty Wallace achieved a dream that me and so many other short-track racers around this area have," Edwards said. "I heard Rusty Wallace stories two or three times a week working at Mike Mittler's. I looked at Rusty's picture every day when I walked in the shop. Rusty's presence was always around us for sure."
Edwards' breakthrough race was an eighth-place finish in Mittler's No. 63 in the 2002 NASCAR Craftsman Trucks race at Kansas Speedway. Jack Roush took notice of Edwards and signed him to a contract, and two years later, Edwards was backflipping off the rear of his truck that won at Kansas Speedway and accelerated his career to Nextel Cup status.
In fact, when Edwards qualified for his first Daytona 500 last February, six of the 43 drivers in the field -- the three Wallace brothers, Edwards, McMurray and Schrader -- were from Missouri, the most of any state.
Now, Bowyer, one of Edwards' contemporaries and former rival at Lakeside Speedway, is trying to make a similar jump. Bowyer, from Emporia, Kan., signed with Richard Childress Racing last year and became a full-time driver this season. He's won one race, at Nashville, has collected $1.15 million in prize money and can overtake defending champion and points leader Martin Truex this weekend at Kansas Speedway, just a few miles from Lakeside.
"The level of competition in the Midwest is second to none in my opinion," Bowyer said. "I'm proud to say I came from the Midwest, and I'm one of those guys fortunate enough to get the opportunity. There are several other drivers who could have done the same thing."