'Filling Their Shoes'
February 1998

The National Basketball Association is currently in a state of crisis behind closed doors. The league is worried who will fill Michael Jordan's shoes if he decides to retire at the end of this season. Nobody can fill his shoes on or off the basketball court. League officials are worried that the fans will turn away from the game after Jordan retires. The NBA concern that the game will deteriorate after Jordan retires has been a subject of recent debate. For NASCAR, such a situation has rarely existed. When legends retired, others stepped in to fill their shoes.

When NASCAR started in the late 1940's and early 1950's, the driving heroes were drivers like Lee Petty, Junior Johnson, and Curtis Turner. Soon came the Flock brothers, Joe Weatherly, Ned Jarrett, and Fireball Roberts. Weatherly was a character; quick with a joke and also in the car, he captured two Winston Cup titles in 1962 and 1963. He was tragically killed at Riverside in 1964. Curtis Turner was the hardest driver NASCAR has ever seen. He was banned from the sport by Bill France Sr. in the mid-1960's for aligning himself with the Teamsters in the hopes of unionizing the sport. Jarrett won two Winston Cup titles, then retired while still in his 30's to raise his family. Fireball Roberts was as shrewd a driver as there ever was. He was a naturally born racer and won everywhere. He lost his life in a Charlotte hospital after a fiery 1964 crash. All of the aformentioned legends departed within a few years of each other in the 1960's. NASCAR had to wonder who would take their place? It was the first transition period.

Along came Lee Petty's son, Richard. "The King" drove the only factory sponsored car on the circuit to a record 27 wins in 1967. A NASCAR record that will likely stand forever. Around the same time, a driver from Spartenburg, South Carolina burst on the scene. David Pearson was as smooth a driver as there was. The Petty vs. Pearson rivalries had started. In addition, the "Alabama Gang" came into NASCAR in the mid-60's. Bobby Allison would go on to battle Petty for years and rack up 84 victories. Soon after came Cale Yarborough; as tough a driver as there ever was followed by Darrell Waltrip. Needless to say, the new stars filled the shoes of the legends quite well. The new stars would become legends in their own right.

In the mid-1970's, Ralph Earnhardt's kid started in Winston Cup racing. Ralph was a legendary dirt track racer; had he been given a good car in Winston Cup, there's no telling how great he could have been. However, his son had a less than great beginning running in a handful of races in the mid-1970's usually finishing as a backmarker. Dale got a break in the late 1970's with Mike Curb and Rod Osterlund and won the Rookie of the Year award in 1979 and the Winston Cup the following year. As the 80's came, the legends of the 60's and 70's began to slow down. Richard Petty's last win was in 1984, Cale ran a limited schedule after 1983, likewise with David Pearson. However, drivers like Tim Richmond from Ashland, Ohio and Bill Elliott from Dawsonville, Georgia a burst upon the scene to capture the fans attention. Soon came the second transition period.

Pearson retired in the mid-80's and Cale retired in 1988. Allison won the Daytona 500 in 1988 at the age of 50, but was forced to retire after a 1988 crash at Pocono. Richard Petty continued to drive through the 1992 season albeit with few solid efforts. Waltrip was winning races up until 1992 and then struggled to make the field. Richmond contracted the AIDS virus and died in 1989. NASCAR was in the midst of a transition period.

Enter Davey Allison, Rusty Wallace, Alan Kulwicki, and Mark Martin in the mid-late 1980's. Along with Earnhardt and Bill Elliott, they battled for the Winston Cup title through 1992. However, Davey and Alan were killed in aviation accidents in 1993. New stars were needed. Where would they come from? Transition period number three had begun.

Pittsboro, Indiana's Jeff Gordon came into Winston Cup in 1993 and captured two Winston Cup titles before the age of 27. If there was ever a driver born to race, it was Gordon. Raised on sprint cars, he made the transition to NASCAR and began lighting up the track in 1994. Along with Bobby Labonte and Jeff Burton, the three make up the future of NASCAR. Ironic that Gordon drives a Chevy, Burton a Ford, and Labonte a Pontiac? Probably... but for manufacturers and fans alike, it couldn't have been scripted any better.

There was some concern in NASCAR circles in the mid-1960's when the legends left the sport. Concern whether the fans would remain interested in it. Every generation breeds its own superstars. Car owners are now looking for the "next Dale Earnhardt" to come along the same way that previous car owners were looking for "the next Joe Weatherly" or "the next David Pearson" to come along in years past. Obviously, the next Joe Weatherly, or Pearson, or Earnhardt won't come along. You can't clone a legend; the hope is that a future driver will possess some of the qualities that made those drivers legends. NASCAR never seems to run out of drivers with a passion to race; it's likely that they never will.

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