MOORESVILLE, N.C. – NASCAR fans have heard about men like Raymond Parks and Red Byron, stock car racing pioneers who helped shape the sport.
But most don’t know exactly what they did in NASCAR’s early days, and their personalities are even more of an unknown.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. had that in common with race fans until he helped create a new docudrama series, and he hopes fans will be enlightened as well.
Earnhardt is the executive producer of CMT’s “NASCAR: The Rise of American Speed” which debuts at 9 p.m. ET Sunday with the first episode in a three-part series.
The show features historic footage combined with a story told through reenactments, similar to History Channel miniseries like “The Bible,” “The World Wars” and “America: The Story of Us.”
“It almost gives you a sense that you’re watching the real thing happen,” Earnhardt told USA TODAY Sports on Tuesday. “I like that, and I learned a ton. I recognize the names – I know this guy was the first champion we ever had or this guy did this, but I don’t know anything else. And you find out this guy was cantankerous or this guy was willing to work with Mr. France. You get a peek into their personalities a little bit, and you end up becoming a fan of one based on how the stories are being told.”
The series follows NASCAR from its roots to the major league sport it’s become over the last two decades. Sunday’s episode shows how Bill France Sr. brought Southern bootleggers together and helped legitimize racing, while future episodes show NASCAR’s ascension to the mainstream and how TV turned drivers into superstars.
One of Earnhardt’s favorite stories – one he’d never heard – was how the 1979 Daytona 500 nearly didn’t air. A rain delay put network executives on the verge of pulling the plug, which meant NASCAR’s first televised flag-to-flag race – the one that ultimately launched NASCAR into the national consciousness – might not have happened.