Through NASCAR's first four decades, the South churned out champion stock-car racers as efficiently as Detroit's assembly lines spat out automobiles.
From 1949 to 1988, only one NASCAR champion hailed from outside the South. And for a 25-year span, from 1956 to 1980, every champion came from one of three states: South Carolina, North Carolina or Virginia.
In his 1965 essay on stock-car-racing legend Junior Johnson, "The Last American Hero," Tom Wolfe argued that men reared in the small Southern towns that dotted the Appalachian foothills shared uncommon valor. North Wilkesboro, N.C., which spawned Johnson, was one of these "pockets of courage," as Wolfe characterized them. As a region, it produced an inordinate share of Medal of Honor recipients in the Korean War, Wolfe documented. So it stood to reason, he implied, that it would produce the best competitors for the hard-charging, white-knuckled sport of stock-car racing.
But there won't be a southerner in contention for NASCAR's 2005 championship when the season-ending Ford 400 gets underway at Homestead-Miami Speedway Sunday. Points leader Tony Stewart, who will start 20th, is from Rushville, Ind. And his three challengers grew up west of the Mississippi: Jimmie Johnson, in El Cajon, Calif.; Sunday's pole-sitter Carl Edwards, Columbia, Mo.; and Greg Biffle, Vancouver, Wash.
With a 52-point lead over Johnson, Stewart is a favorite to clinch his second NASCAR championship for car owner Joe Gibbs. But regardless of who wins the title, it will mark the fifth consecutive year that NASCAR's champion has come from outside the South. To many, the metric is the latest testament to stock-car racing's booming success.
"It's the pinnacle of motor sports in North America, and it just has everyone's interest," says racer Jeff Burton, 38, of South Boston, Va. "So there are a lot of people raising their hands saying, 'Hey! I want to be doing that!' "
Even seven-time champion Richard Petty, whose North Carolina accent and cowboy hat are synonymous with stock-car racing, embraces the influx of Yankees, Californians and midwesterners.
"NASCAR is no longer a Southern sport, so it don't need Southern heroes," says Petty, 68. "Now it needs national heroes because we're an operation that's in the growing stage, and we need to create new fans. In order to create new fans, we need people from all over the country for these people to pull for."
But to others, the changing face of NASCAR champions is a bittersweet window on the new South, which they see as having lost its idiosyncratic claim on the sport -- a claim that mainly grew out of the bootlegging tradition.
It's also a window on the new NASCAR, in which the skill of being able to blurt out a half-dozen corporate sponsors in a 15-second interview is valued more highly than the skill of knowing which combination of shocks and springs will make the car go faster at Darlington (S.C.) Raceway.
"It's just a different sport than it was in the day when I was growing up in it," says Junior Johnson, 74, who won six NASCAR championships as a car owner before quitting NASCAR in the early 1990s. "The big sponsors are bringing in guys who are jumping in them cars, and they have no idea how to build 'em or nothing else. It's almost like you went out and got an airplane and sit 'em in it because anybody can fly an airplane that runs 3,000 miles an hour without knowing how it got to 3,000 miles an hour. You just get in the seat and mash the pedal, and if you don't hit nothing, you're winning the race."
Johnson, who won 50 races in a driving career that spanned 1953-66, had what he considers the ideal apprenticeship for racing stock cars: running moonshine through the western North Carolina hills.
"It gave you experience in driving in all kind of conditions -- rough roads, dirt roads, a lotta curves and stuff. And you had to get good on that or you got caught and got put in jail," Johnson said. "You practiced that just like you would football, basketball, baseball or whatever."
Not only did running liquor teach you how to drive, it taught you how to build a car that could out-run the revenuers -- tuning the engine to churn out three times its normal horsepower, using stiffer springs in the suspension and slapping on bigger wheels and eight-ply tires. "That's where I learned a lot about making cars stay together in NASCAR," Johnson says.
Johnson ended up serving time for bootlegging in the 1950s but was granted a full pardon by President Ronald Reagan in 1985. But even today it's no small point of pride that he was nabbed while guarding his daddy's still; he was never out-run in a car.
Like Johnson, 1973 NASCAR champion Benny Parsons was reared in Wilkes County, N.C. His childhood heroes were stock-car racers Curtis Turner and Joe Weatherly, and his dream wasn't to play football or basketball. "It was to go around corners fast!" says Parsons, 64, now a NASCAR analyst for NBC.
Parsons came of age in the 1950s, when early rock-and-roll ruled the radio and a fast car was a teenager's pride. So it was a crushing blow, Parsons recalls, when he finally got to visit Detroit -- home of the American automobile! -- in 1960 and found that cars were regarded there as utilitarian objects.
"They used an automobile to get from Point A to Point B!" Parsons shrieked, recalling his disbelief. "It was not the treasured piece! They had four-door cars and six-cylinder cars. Man, in Wilkes County, N.C., every kid worth his salt had a two-door coupe with two exhaust pipes and two carburetors! Cars were awesome!"
Parsons still worships cars today but realizes the cult is dwindling.
"Now, even North Carolinians use cars to get from Point A to Point B," he says, shaking his head. "The kids don't wash their cars four times a week. In the '50s, kids washed their cars every day! Every day! Not only did you have to have a hard-top with two exhaust pipes and two carburetors, it had to be the cleanest car in town!"
The landscape of auto racing has changed just as radically.
Fortune 500 companies now pony up $16-$18 million a year to sponsor front-running race teams. Track operators and car owners reap the benefits of a $2.8 billion national TV deal. And Sunday's Nextel Cup champion will collect a $5 million bonus.
All that money has served as a magnet, luring drivers from all forms of motorsports to try their hand at stock cars. The exodus has been hastened by the collapse of open-wheel racing in North America. That's what led Stewart, the 1997 Indy Racing League champion, to NASCAR. And a host of racers followed his tracks.
"The same thing could be said about the NBA: There are a lot of international players now," Burton says. "As sports become worldwide or nationwide, whichever transformation they're going through, they start to recruit and interest other people."
And even Johnson sees the good in that. "I understand that the sport has gotta grow," he says. "If they don't spread out, it's going to be a stagnant sport."