Fathers, Sons and Checkered Flags

Families spanning generations add a special element to auto racing.
AP Photo/John Raoux
Dale Earnhardt Jr. greets fans before the NASCAR Daytona 500 auto race at Daytona International Speedway in Daytona Beach, Fla., Sunday, Feb. 26, 2017.

Sports provide many great moments, and the greatest is the connection made between generations. One generation passes down their enthusiasm, knowledge and expertise in a sport, in hopes that younger generations will develop a love for it as well.

While not easily accessible in Southeast Louisiana, auto racing far outpaces most sports in the number of father and sons, and more and more often, a third and even fourth generation of family members have reached success at the sport’s top levels.

The speed and the deafening roar of the cars — not to mention the potential for a hair-raising crash at any moment — make the sport captivating. With the thrill, number of races, and multimillion-dollar purses at each race, there is a natural draw for those involved in racing go into the family business. But knowing the history of the sport, and the families involved in making racing what it is today adds an added bit of lagniappe and sentimentality that make the sport worth recognizing, especially in the month in which we honor our fathers.

NASCAR was founded in the mid-20th century by the France family in Daytona Beach, Florida. “Big” Bill France led the sport for decades before his son, William, took over from 1972 to 2000. Bill Jr.’s son, Brian France, assumed the role of NASCAR CEO and chairman in 2003. While the Frances built the sport off the track, on-track racing has also been passed down the family line. Today, as many as three or four generations of a single family may be involved in a race team from ownership to driver to crew member.

The biggest family names in the sport are Petty, Earnhardt and Jarrett.

With 200 victories and the first driver to win seven NASCAR championships, Richard Petty earned the title of “The King,” but before he was made monarch, he learned from his dad, Lee, winner of NASCAR’s very first race, the inaugural Daytona 500, as well as 54 total races and three championships. Richard’s son, Kyle, drove for years, but a wreck on a practice lap killed his son, Adam, a young driver breaking into the top racing circuit. The crash also pushed Kyle to give up the cockpit for the TV studio. Richard and Kyle are still involved in NASCAR and are generally treated like royalty at tracks across the country.

Dale Earnhardt became the sport’s biggest star after “The King” retired. “The Intimidator” followed his father, Ralph, into racing. Earnhardt matched Petty’s seven championships and dominated NASCAR long enough to share the track with his son, Dale Jr. After Dale Sr.’s untimely death on the track at Daytona International Speedway in 2001, “Junior” became, and remains, the sport’s most popular driver despite never winning a championship.

“Gentleman” Ned Jarrett is equally well known as a driver and race announcer. He won two championships and 50 races in his career, but the highlight of his life may be the day he gave voice to the coverage of his son, Dale, winning the 1993 Daytona 500. Both Jarretts are in the NASCAR Hall of Fame.

Right now, the Elliotts are the family to watch. NASCAR fans remember “Million Dollar” Bill Elliott for being the first to win a $1 million bonus for winning at Daytona, Talladega, and Darlington, three of NASCAR’s four Crown Jewel events, in the same season. Elliott won one championship, but retired in the early 2000s. His son, Chase Elliott, is a second-year NASCAR driver, who took over the No. 24 car when Jeff Gordon retired after the 2015 season. A rising star at Hendrick Motorsports and teammate of NASCAR’s only other seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson, Chase Elliott has the pedigree and the team in place to challenge for championships for a while to come.
 


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Did You Know?

Dale Earnhardt Jr. announced on April 25 that the he will retire following the 2017 NASCAR season, which began on February 18 and ends November 19.