Originally created 02/13/98

NASCAR success story always a family affair



DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- There's Bill France Jr., the president of NASCAR. His father, Bill France Sr., is the former president of NASCAR. And his son, Brian France, is the future president of NASCAR.

And right over there, those are the two pole sitters for Sunday's Daytona 500 -- , Bobby and Terry Labonte. They are brothers.

And isn't that Kyle Petty over there? Kyle is the son of legendary driver Richard Petty and the grandson of legendary driver Lee Petty. Kyle has a son, 17-year-old Adam, who also drives race cars.

And there's Michael Waltrip, the kid brother of aging legend Darrell Waltrip. Michael finished second in Thursday's second Twin-125 qualifying race at Daytona International Speedway. In first place was Dale Earnhardt, who is the son of NASCAR Hall-of-Famer Ralph Earnhardt and the father of Dale Earnhardt Jr., who races on the Busch Grand National Series.

And there's Sterling Marlin, the winner of Thursday's first Twin-125. He made his Winston Cup debut in 1976, when his father, former Winston Cup star Coo Coo Marlin, was injured in a crash and let Sterling have the keys to the family-owned race car.

In second place behind Marlin was Dale Jarrett, who, if you watch the 500 on TV, is the son of CBS racing analyst and former Winston Cup star Ned Jarrett. And by the way, one of Ned's broadcast partners in the CBS booth will be former Winston Cup star Buddy Baker, who is the son of former Winston Cup star Buck Baker.

Are you starting to get the drift here at NASCAR? From its executives to its drivers to its pit crews to its TV commentators, the corporately slick boom sport of the 1990s remains, in many ways, a simple family business.

"This sport was built on family," says Petty (Kyle, not Richard). "Back when the sport first started, there were brothers and cousins and uncles running against each other. And you look around today, and there are still brothers and cousins and uncles running against each other.

"It's kinda neat after 50 years that some things haven't changed. The sport may have gotten more popular and the cost may have gone up, but it's still got that family feel to it."

Relatively speaking, there is no doubt that NASCAR's family tree has very few forks in it. Certainly, there are other examples (Bobby Bowden and his brood of Division I-A college football coaches come to mind) of multiple family members reaching the highest level of their sport, but they remain a rarity. In stock-car racing, there are more guys with the same last name than you'd find in the Smith section of the local phone book.

NASCAR is not just a sport of jeans; it's a sport of genes.

If professional football were like NASCAR, Tom Coughlin's son would be quarterbacking the Jaguars, his nephew would be the middle linebacker and his brother would be the assistant vice president in charge of food and beverage.

In other sports, athletes advance up the ladder based almost solely on athletic ability. In racing, the quality of equipment and financial backing is just as important -- if not more so -- than the skill of the guy behind the wheel.

Which is why there are so many second-generation drivers in NASCAR. Because they were raised in the family business and progressed through the ranks largely because they had better cars than their competitors.

In basketball, it wouldn't matter if Michael Jordan wore $10.95 hot-bottom sneakers from Pic 'N' Save, he would still be the best player on the planet. But put Jeff Gordon behind the wheel of Dave Marcis' car and he's no longer Jeff Gordon, defending Winston Cup champion. He's Jeff Marcis, just another middle-of-the-pack grinder.

Not that many of today's racing stars aren't skilled drivers, but aren't there hundreds of others who are more skilled and simply don't have the benefit of a racing name? Take Michael Waltrip, who is winless in 362 career Winston Cup starts. In what other sport can you go 0-for-362 and keep your job? If you could, Darrell Mudra would still be the football coach at Florida State.

And can you imagine another major sporting event, where a full one-fourth of the competitors are siblings? Amazingly, 14 of the 56 drivers who attempted to qualify for the Daytona 500 this week were brothers, including three Bodines, three Wallaces, two Labontes, two Waltrips, two Burtons, two Greens ... and a Petty in pear tree.

This could only happen in NASCAR:

The Nepotism Association for Stocking Cars with Appreciative Relatives.