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In NASCAR, As In Life, You-Know-Who Knows Best

by Cathy Elliott
Saturday, June 14, 2008

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Cathy Elliott
In no other professional sport is the connection between fathers and their kids more prevalent than in NASCAR.

If you can't wax sentimental about your father, there's simply no hope for you.

The earliest attachments in our lives are the bonds we share with our mothers, formed even before we are born. We spend years either following our mothers around or being followed around by them. As toddlers we are tied to their apron strings. Then, as they are so fond of commenting as we get older, we are tied to their purse strings.

But while we may devote much of our time to following our mothers, we spend our lives chasing our dads.

The term "inheritance" has become nearly synonymous with money. It is true that we may inherit some cash from our fathers (a tradition I wholeheartedly support, Daddy, if you're reading this), but they give us so much more than that.

I have my father's temperament and sense of humor. I have his surname, although I have, shall we say, "enhanced" it a time or two over the years.

My father taught me, with moderate success, to shoot pool and to get my oil changed regularly. He taught me to drive a stick shift, perhaps his greatest challenge and finest hour. He tried to teach me to cook.

And he taught me to appreciate NASCAR, and his favorite driver, Mark Martin.

I once complained to my father that I didn't seem to be able to do things the same way other people did. His advice? Don't be a sheep. People eat sheep. I remember this with a smile every time I dig into a nice juicy plateful of lamb.

I grew up around boats, but for many of the contemporary stars of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, the aroma of their youth was more axle grease than grouper. Since the very moment it came into being, NASCAR has been a family business, passed down and perpetuated from fathers to their sons and daughters.

You Bible readers out there might remember that the gospel of Matthew begins with a section commonly known as "the Begats," a long genealogy incomprehensible to all but the most dedicated scholars. The Begats aren't really all that complicated if you're willing to take the time to sort through them. At their root, they are simply a family tree.

NASCAR, which is often referred to as a "stock car racing family," has an impressive genealogy of its own. A quick stroll through the garage is all it takes to realize this; those family trees are planted around every corner.

In four decades of racing, Carl Edwards Sr. had more than 200 victories in modified stock cars and USAC midgets. Carl Sr. begat Carl Edwards II, the reigning NASCAR Nationwide Series champion and a top contender for the 2008 NASCAR Sprint Cup title.

Roy Kenseth made a bargain with his young son that he would buy a car and race it himself until the boy was old enough to take over. Roy begat Matt Kenseth, who began his racing career at the age of 16 and won the Cup Series title in 2003.

NASCAR pioneer Lee Petty won 54 races over the course of his career, and was one of the sport's first true superstars. Lee begat Richard Petty, the most successful driver in the history of the sport, whose career win record will surely never be broken. Richard begat Kyle, winner of eight NASCAR Sprint Cup races, and Kyle begat Adam. This legendary racing family unfortunately lost Adam in 2000, but his legacy lives on through the Victory Junction Gang, a camp for terminally ill children established in his memory.

Ralph Earnhardt was the NASCAR Sportsman Series champion in 1956. Ralph begat Dale Earnhardt, a seven-time champion and arguably the most revered racer who ever lived. Dale begat Dale Earnhardt Jr., winner of back-to-back championships in the NASCAR Nationwide Series. Dale Jr. is the most popular current driver by a country mile, and another favorite to win the 2008 NASCAR Sprint Cup title. 

The Labontes. The Wallaces. The Jarretts. The list goes on and on. It isn't much of a leap to think of NASCAR as a forest densely populated by such family trees, each with its own deep roots and spreading branches.

Planted firmly in the center, of course, is NASCAR's founding family, the Frances.

In 1948, a former gas station owner by the name of Bill France Sr. was instrumental in bringing a fledgling sanctioning body, christened NASCAR, to life from a hotel room in Daytona Beach. It was a maverick idea. Many people found the idea of promoting events featuring stock cars racing around for a few hundred miles ridiculous, even ludicrous, but “Big Bill” firmly believed in his dream.

Bill Sr. begat Bill France Jr., who inherited his father's love of the sport and his talent for promoting it, feeding and watering it and helping it grow tall and strong. Bill France Jr. in due course begat current NASCAR Chairman/CEO Brian France and his sister, Lesa, who continue to realize the vision of their father and grandfather before them.

No one's laughing now.

At this time of year, set aside to celebrate our dads, it seems only fitting to remember the words of Mark Twain, who said, "When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around.  But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much he had learned in seven years."

Enough said; father really does know best. Now let's grill up some lamb chops and watch the race.

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