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Flying School Busses and Rings of Fire: NASCAR’s Greatest Promoters

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Race and racetrack promoters have always been major players in the story of the growth of NASCAR. While early promoters had the foresight to see what the sport could and should be, the next generation saw how to get the casual viewer invested in coming to the track year in and year out. Though some were more prevalent than others, their individual impacts must be remembered for growing the sport. So, who are some of these masterminds of marketing?

Harold Brasington

In 2015, one of Darlington Raceway’s introduced a new idea to race fans. What if Richard Petty, Bobby Allison, and A.J. Foyt’s cars were on the track just one more night? This began one of NASCAR’s most beloved recent traditions: Darlington throwback night. At the time, Darlington was known by fans as The Lady in Black, an original track to the NASCAR circuit or the site of what was the closest finish in NASCAR history. All that aside, the fabled egg-shaped oval in South Carolina is, at its core, an authentic site of legendary moments in NASCAR history.

North Carolina Moonshine and Motorsports Trail

Harold Brasington is a name many NASCAR fans walking around the infield may not know off the top of their heads. However, his same egg-shaped oval legacy is known to both diehard and casual fans. When analyzing the greatest track promoters of all time, you must return to the beginning. Like those later promotors who would help grow the sport in the 1990s, Brasington saw the future of stock car racing early on. His focus on his hometown, the small town of Darlington, South Carolina, still to this day, could be seen as questionable, but he knew a fast, high-banked 1.366-mile oval in the heart of the southern coastal states would be a success.

Brasington was inspired to build a track by the massive crowds seen in the early days of the Indy 500. He knew the people’s need to see the will of a man battling for glory would draw the needed crowds. He planned to build his track on a plot of farmland with some extra space, which would be the right spot for his future track. Sherman Ramsey was the owner of the land and sold the land to Brasington. Many know this transaction included a clause that Ramsey’s minnow pond would remain unbothered by the Speedway, giving Darlington that now iconic egg shape.

As we now know, the gamble paid off for Brasington. The 1950 Southern 500 had 75 entries, with Johnny Mantz leading 351 laps of the scheduled 400 on his way to the win. While Brasington sold off his stake in the track soon after, his impact on the sport has not been forgotten. In a world without Daytona or Talladega, Brasington’s dream supplied the young sport with a cathedral of speed that caught the eye of many fans. That same track continues to provide fans with memories of throwback nights and bumping fenders to this day.

Brasington’s legacy would be enshrined in the NASCAR Hall of Fame as the 2016 Landmark Award winner; despite not having the flair that promoters in the latter half of the century had, Brashington set the standard for taking a risk and making it pay off.

Larry Carrier

Modern fans know Bristol Motor Speedway as one of the crown jewels of Speedway Motorsports track lineup. However, before Bruton Smith purchased the 0.533-mile oval, one man ruled over Bristol, Tennessee. Larry Carrier, who had grown up in Bristol, was a well-known contractor in the area. Along with being a businessman, Carrier had an affinity for racing and wanted to build a racetrack in the area.

In 1961, Carrier, alongside Carl Moore and R.G. Pope, founded the soon-to-be-known Bristol International Speedway. The track, which cost $600,000 to construct, around $6.42 million in 2024, was smaller yet high-banked and tested a driver’s skills with the throttle and behind the wheel. The first NASCAR Cup Series race held at the track was on July 30, 1961, and it was won by Jack Smith’s Pontiac.

Early in the track’s life, a promotional tactic would utilize an element of Bowman Gray Stadium, and the track would host a football game in the infield. While Bristol was much larger than Bowman Gray, the concept would take shape in the form of the reigning NFL champion Philadelphia Eagles facing the then-Washington Redskins in Week 5 of the NFL preseason. The game would leave the grandstands half full with around 8,500 fans. Despite this, SMI would use this same tactic in 2016 when the Tennessee Volunteers defeated the Virginia Tech Hokies 45-24 with 156,990 in attendance at the short track.

Carrier also promoted drag racing in the area, building Bristol Dragway next to the speedway in 1965. This, along with the founding of the International Hot Rod Association in 1970, would cement his future in multiple forms of racing. This success in promoting drag racing would also create a domino effect, leading to Carrier selling off his track shares in 1977. Before selling, Carrier’s time promoting drag racing brought R.J. Reynolds to drag racing, a promotional relationship that would remain in the sport until 2001. In the early 1980s, Bristol found itself in hard times, and Carrier would buy his way back in by early 1985.

This would be the prime of Carrier’s promotional career. Many credit Carrier as a true believer in the idea that if fans enjoyed watching racing on television, they would want to see it in person. Some promoters today still worry this promotional tactic doesn’t work; however, as the 1980s rolled on, Bristol’s night race featured proudly on ESPN, and the grandstand capacity continued to grow. Carrier’s second stint as owner would be highlighted by grandstands that consistently sold out and races dominated by the outstanding personality of 12-time Bristol winner Darrell Waltrip.

In 1996, Carrier sold the track while it was still growing to new heights. Bruton Smith and SMI would be the new owners, and this growth would continue building on the foundation Larry Carrier left for them. While Carrier isn’t a household name in racing, he is truly a legend of the business side of NASCAR and drag racing.

Humpy Wheeler

To many NASCAR fans, Humpy Wheeler is the man that comes to mind when thinking of a promoter. Why is this? To answer that, we must dive into how he got people to come out to the track. Humpy’s ability to promote Charlotte Motor Speedway not only grew his track but garnered him a reputation with fans as someone who always put on a quality show in return for their time and money.

Humpy grew up in the heartland of stock car racing and played sports growing up. After a short stent as an amateur boxer, he attended The University of South Carolina, where he would play football for the Gamecocks before suffering a career-ending injury. After college, Wheeler found work in public relations and would spend time promoting small tracks across North Carolina. Into the 1970s, he would maintain different public relations jobs in and out of motorsports, including stints at Darlington Raceway and Firestone.

Humpy’s most well-known stint began in 1975 when Bruton Smith, a founder of Charlotte Motor Speedway, who had recently gained a majority stake in the track, hired Wheeler. Wheeler would be president of the track by early 1976, beginning a tenure that would last until 2008.

From a facility standpoint, the combined efforts of Wheeler and Smith would turn Charlotte into the blueprint for a successful modern racetrack. This included ideas like more suites, larger grandstands, modern track offices, and amenities like the Speedway Club, a luxury race-watching experience for fans. The trackgoing experience was a significant part of the success of Wheeler’s tenure, and the ideas implemented at Charlotte would carry over to facilities like Texas Motor Speedway and Atlanta Motor Speedway.

Speaking of the trackgoing experience, Wheeler had a flair for the dramatic. Some of the promotions that Wheeler had are legendary among NASCAR fans. For example, he would have a three-ring circus performing for a pre-race show which might be interesting. That being said, Wheeler hosted quite the opposite once, a race between Taxi Drivers across the United States.  What about Robosaurus, the 40-foot-tall robotic fire-breathing dinosaur that destroyed small cars? What if you want to see a bus, ice cream truck or garbage truck jump over rows of cars off a ramp? What if the bus jumped over balls of fire and explosions? These were commonplace before Wheeler’s races in Concord, North Carolina.

Looking at the more serious side of promoting, racing was still significant to Wheeler. He wanted people to come for the races, not just the entertainment. The NASCAR All-Star Race, then known as The Winston, was held yearly at Charlotte Motor Speedway. For a promotion in 1992, Wheeler, alongside Eddie Gossage, would attempt to hold The Winston at night for the first time. This was monumental as lighting a mile-and-a-half track was an innovation in racing that would forever change the future of the sport. The race wouldn’t disappoint either, as Davey Allison dominated and dramatically collided with Kyle Petty on his way to victory that night.

Humpy Wheeler set the standard for modern track promoters, and his multidecade run as the president of Charlotte Motor Speedway is a shining example of growing the sport through fan experiences. Even in his retirement, Wheeler remains one of the most beloved businessmen in stock car racing history.

Eddie Gossage

In Bruton Smith’s westward expansion for SMI, one of the most important markets was the Dallas-Fort Worth area. NASCAR had historically come to the Lonestar state by way of Texas World Speedway in College Station, Texas. The track was a two-mile speedway akin to Michigan International Raceway. However, the fast speeds wouldn’t be enough to draw crowds, and the track would host its last NASCAR Cup Series race in 1981 and left to bake in the Texas heat.

Facing the challenge of a market that had already been tapped before was an uphill battle, but Bruton had a trick up his sleeve. Eddie Gossage grew up in Tennessee, and like Humpy Wheeler, he had a background in journalism and public relations. So, when Gossage was hired at Charlotte Motor Speedway in 1989, it was a natural fit to work under Wheeler. During this time, Gossage is accredited as one of the leading forces behind the aforementioned 1992 Winston and all that encompassed that captivating night of racing.

When Texas Motor Speedway was being built, Gossage was a natural fit for promoting races for th North Texas track. The similarities between Gossage’s promotional style and Wheeler’s were uncanny; Gossage was always willing to take it to the next level. Having been given a world-class facility, Gossage could go above and beyond as often as he wanted.

Before the green flag dropped in April 1997, the facility had already hosted concerts to promote the upcoming race, the Interstate Batteries 500, which over 150,000 fans would attend. While the race had many problems, primarily due to the dual banking system, the bar was already set high and would continue to climb as the tracks of early life continued. The early years of racing would be highlighted by rising race purses and high attendances, reaching upward of 200,000 fans.

So, what about those classic promotional tactics? An early staple of races at TMS was a pack of seven horses and riders carrying the traditional racing flags just before the call to fire the engines. Unlike Humpy Wheeler in Charlotte, Gossage was also given the opportunity to promote yearly IndyCar races. Before the first IRL race at TMS, true to his fashion, Gossage would have the green flag delivered via a trapeze artist hanging off the bottom of a helicopter.

As the track’s life continued, Gossage’s methods got even more innovative, creating a laundry list of eye-catching sites at the track. There were the six shooters given to the race winner to fire off in victory lane, a victory lane that, might I add, is surrounded by a literal ring of fire. Have you heard about Big Hoss, the Guinness World Record-holding video board that can be seen crystal clear during the brightest Texas sunshine? Gossage even promoted bull riding in the infield in 2011, during which Kyle Petty would find himself in the dirt after getting thrown off. Gossage also used driver personalities in extraordinary ways, such as when he surprisingly rode Dale Earnhardt Jr’s retirement gift, a buckskin horse, into the media center.

Gossage would retire from his role in 2021 and sadly passed away in May of 2024. Gossage is remembered fondly by both fans and drivers. His ability to promote himself, the drivers, and his track was a throwback to the greats of yesterday and an example for those growing the sport today.

Bill France Sr.

Who else would cap off this list? Big Bill France, the patriarch of the first family of NASCAR, knew how to promote the sport and its races in a way that was well before its time. As many may know, France began his racing career by promoting and racing at the Daytona Beach circuit, the half-highway, half-sand track that had once been used for land speed records.

With the rise in popularity of spectator sports in the booming post-World War II United States, Bill saw the future of what stock car racing could be. In late 1947, at the now legendary Streamline Hotel, a meeting led to a joint effort between the then-stakeholders of what was at the time a series known as the National Championship Stock Car Circuit, that joint effort resulted in NASCAR being founded with France, ever the visionary, at the helm.  

France still foresaw more of the sport’s potential. NASCAR had continued to race on the Daytona Beach circuit in its infancy, but much like the races in the Carolinas, there was a need for a proper track. This, of course, would become the now 2.5-mile-long Daytona International Speedway. While the track wouldn’t be complete till 1959, the wait was well worth it. The vertiginous banking and long back stretch allowed incredible speeds, and the long sweeping tri-oval for close finishes.

In the early days track promoting wasn’t what it is today, fans would come just to see drivers doing death-defying feats in machines going faster than they were supposed to. A concept and early root of the sport that, to this day, Daytona still reminds fans of. The first 500-mile race was held at the track in February 1959 and resulted in a photo finish that showed three days later Lee Petty of Randleman, North Carolina, was the first champion of the Daytona 500.

Daytona wouldn’t be the only superspeedway France would build. Early on, Alabama had held a consistent slot on the NASCAR schedule, and a retired Air Force base in the state would be the site of the next 2.5-mile track, then known as Alabama International Motor Speedway, now known as Talladega Superspeedway. Once again France knew how to thrill fans. Compared to its sister in Daytona Beach, Talladega would be even steeper banked, wider, and featured a longer front stretch with the start-finish line outside the trioval headed into turn one. History has proven these decisions have created some of the most awe-inspiring racing on the circuit. 

Bill France Sr. handed the reigns to his son Bill France Jr. in 1972. Bill Jr. took the sport to new heights, and the France family is still at the top of the sport today. While Bill France Sr. didn’t have the most flair, he had the foresight and knowledge of what fans wanted to see, and without this foresight, NASCAR would not be what it is today.

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