Tennessee race car drivers have become a vanishing species

Sunday, February 21, 2010 at 11:04pm
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Bobby Hamilton's yellow Kodak car was a national icon

As I watched the racing season kickoff with the Daytona 500 I noticed something was missing: Tennesseans.

With this year’s retirement of Columbia’s Sterling Marlin there’s not a Volunteer State driver left in NASCAR’s top series — a series that once bustled with area racers.

For decades, the Volunteer State didn’t just produce quantity, it produced quality. Marlin won two Daytona 500s. Nashville’s Bobby Hamilton won Cup races and a truck title. Franklin’s Darrell Waltrip won 84 races and three championships.

Other prominent Tennessee natives or resident racers included Bobby Hamilton Jr., Casey Atwood, Jeremy Mayfield, Jeff Green, Jeff Purvis, Coo Coo Marlin, David Sisco, Grant Adcox, Joe Ruttman, Marty Robbins and Gary Baker.

Heck, it was Nashville’s “Bullet” Bob Reuther who set a speed record on the old Daytona beach course. And Indy champ and Franklin homeowner Dario Franchitti dabbled in NASCAR before returning to open wheels.

Sadly for the Southeast, Tennessee is not alone in this driver drought.

Alabama, once home base for such giants as Bobby, Donnie and Davey Allison, Neil Bonnett and Red Farmer, blipped off the NASCAR radar years ago.

It seems that the decline is regional. There aren’t many top-tier Southern drivers left in what was originally a Southern sport.

Dixie drivers dominated NASCAR’s first half-century. They won the majority of the races and most of the championships. No more.

It’s been a decade since any Southerner — Texan Bobby Labonte — claimed a Cup title.

Since then Californian Jimmie Johnson has won four, Indiana’s Tony Stewart two, and Wisconsin’s Matt Kenseth, California’s Jeff Gordon and Nevada’s Kurt Busch one each.

Part of the reason for this drought may well be tied to the fact that historic old tracks such as Nashville’s Fairgrounds Speedway are fading and folding across the South. If drivers don't have tracks to drive on, the sport of racing stops calling.

Surprisingly, California is a new racing hotbed, with the Midwest and Northwest warming up as well.

NASCAR’s Southern roots are drying up, and with them much of its identity, color and élan. The original stock-car drivers were moonshine runners who rambled through Georgia and the Carolinas. Remember Bruce Springsteen extolling the lyrics “Junior Johnson runnin' thru the woods of Caroline…' on “Cadillac Ranch”? That's the genesis of racing and its birth was in the South.

There is no Thunder Road in California. Hauling wine coolers down the San Bernardino Freeway truly lacks moonshiner panache.

In the early days, stock-car racing provided country boys an escape from the drudgery of the farms and factories. Johnson was plowing barefoot behind a mule one afternoon when his big brother pulled up asked him if he wanted to go racing. Junior parked his mule, put on his shoes, and headed off to make history as Tom Wolfe’s “Last American Hero.”

Racing was not only exciting but there was good money to be made. As Dale Earnhardt once said, it beat the heck out of eating lint for minimum wage at the Kannapolis textile mill.

It seems that those days — and those drivers — are about gone.

Racing’s current struggle for survival in Nashville is a microcosm of the battle being waged throughout Tennessee and across the South. The face of the sport definitely is changing.

Now NASCAR may be focused on new blood, like Danica Patrick's entry into the mix, to increase its draw at the gate, but it is not its draw that is being lost — it's its drawl.