During a week in which the stars of NASCAR head to a quintessential Southern race track, allow me a geographical observation. There must be something in the water beyond the Mississippi, River, because NASCAR talent sure does seem to be headed west.
And it’s not just me. The numbers bear it out. Compared to just 10 years ago, fewer and fewer top drivers hail from the home of the Confederacy.
At the end of the 1998 season, eight of the top 12 Winston Cup drivers were from states below the Mason-Dixon. Guys like Bill Elliott, Dale Earnhardt and Terry Labonte were at the top of the heap. And NASCAR talent was still predominantly Southern. Of course there were a few interlopers — like Rusty Wallace and Geoffrey Bodine — but by and large, the top drivers were Southern-born and Southern-bred.
Ten years later, the geographical terrain of NASCAR talent has seen a seismic shift. Instead of Southern drivers ruling the points standings, the guys from California, Missouri and Washington state are snagging the top spots. In 2008, only three of the top 12 drivers were from the South. And, so far in 2009, only two of those in the top 12 are Southerners by birth.
And the talent isn’t just diverse on the track. More and more folks in the garage are hailing from non-rebel states as well–seven of the current top 12 crew chiefs hail from up North or out West.
It’s ironic that a sport viewed by many Americans as simply catering to its good ol’ boy fan base is actually pretty diverse when it comes down to who’s succeeding at the highest level. And that’s good for NASCAR. The more diversity the sport can get within its ranks, the more new fans will be drawn to the races.
Now if we can just get a chick in the driver’s seat …