'Stock Car Racing's Entertainers of the Year' Is The NASCAR Country Album You Didn't Know You Needed To Hear
What is it about being at the top of one's game—be it professional sports, the entertainment biz, or even politics—that seems to generate an aura of invincibility? No matter how many abandoned music careers, half-baked movie sequels, or bizarrely enthusiastic workout tapes are out there serving as warnings, history is littered with examples of those who figured their mastery of their own domain would translate seamlessly into another, completely different arena, with predictably cringe-worthy results.
Sometimes, however, this kind of cross-cultural synergy is mandated by an outside force in a bid to tap into the zeitgeist of the moment. Such was the case with 'Stock Car Racing's Entertainers of the Year,' the best (but somehow not the only) country music album recorded entirely by NASCAR's leading lights.
Let's get this out of the way: we're relatively certain that almost none of the drivers immortalized on this 22-track magnum opus harbored any secret dreams of dominating the music charts. Truth be told, we can only say that with confidence because professional ham, Darrell Waltrip, somehow avoided being roped into this unusual sonic enterprise (although it's worth noting that Kyle Petty would sign a contract with RCA Records shortly after this particular recording, before walking away from the music biz after recording a lone single).
No, the genesis of 'Entertainers of the Year' is much more unusual than that. It began as the brainstorm of Mike Hopkins, a country music promoter living in Nashville who wanted to create a 'concept album' that would allow each of NASCAR's biggest stars the opportunity to express themselves musically, despite their complete and total unfamiliarity with a recording booth.
In an era where the World Wrestling Foundation was trying to make pop stars out of its muscled-up TV warriors through Rock 'n' Wrestling Connection releases like 'The Wrestling Album,' this kind of opportunism might at first seem like par for the course. It's important to remember, however, that in 1984 when the seeds of 'Entertainers of the Year' were planted NASCAR's profile was far lower than that of televised wrestling, and nowhere near the cultural saturation it would reach by the end of the 1990s.
The other, more striking difference between this particular record and other vanity projects before it was the amount of detail invested into it by Hopkins. Rather than simply lasso a bunch of good ole boys into belting out a pack of well-worn cowboy standards (which had already been done in 1975 by way of the disastrous MCA Records release 'NASCAR Goes Country'), Hopkins instead hired 25 professional songwriters to compose tracks based off of a series of in-depth interviews he had recorded with each of the drivers about their personalities, pasts, ambitions and what drove them to excel at their sport. He also promised—and delivered—royalties to each performer.
According to an interview with Sports Illustrated at the time of the record's release, Hopkins received a whopping 80 potential songs from his roster of writers, none of whom had any familiarity with racing. Jay Marshall, a veteran of the country music business, was hired to produce the record, adding a further sheen of respectability.
Honest And Sincere
It was this respectful and professional approach that would galvanize the drivers who were tapped to appear on the album. Rather than having to inhabit a character and sing a song about something they couldn't relate to, each custom-tailored track came straight (by way of a third-party songwriter) from the heart. Bobby Allison got to sing about his Jekyll and Hyde personality in the pits and behind the wheel in 'The Race Car Makes A Demon Out Of Me,' Dale Earnhardt was able to explore his reputation as a rough-and-tumble competitor in 'Hard Charger,' and Bobby Hillin Jr. gave a shout out to his first crew chief in 'Thanks For The Ride, Harry Hyde.'
Despite the limitations imposed by having zero musical experience, the performances on the album are earnest and sincere, with not a single track winking at the listener or phoned in from the hauler. Every participant even practiced along with a demo out on the road prior to coming into the studio to lay down their part. Hopkins told Sports Illustrated that in addition to the professionalism and respect drawing each of the drivers to the project, there was also a fiercely competitive element during the recording process that worked well to squeeze out the best possible performances, with the ensemble listening to each other's songs and then stepping up their own games in order to out-do their rivals.
A Cultural Artifact
After pouring $200,000 of his own dollars into the project, Hopkins' NASCAR musical experiment landed with a resounding 'thud.' Just over 20,000 copies were sold from its 1986 release until it was pulled from shelves by the label World Series of Country Music a couple of years later, and it has passed largely into obscurity. NASCAR itself certainly never went out of its way to support the album, an unusual oversight from an organization that had yet to embrace its full promotional powers.
Still, there are faint echoes of 'Stock Car Racing's Entertainers of the Year' reverberating through the decades if you listen closely enough. Kyle Petty's brief foray into the country music world would include not just the abortive recording career mentioned above, but also a live performance of his song on The Nashville Network, and years later a collaboration with Rodney Crowell on a song about his father. Current NASCAR driver Chase Elliott, Bill Elliot's son, would also occasionally hear his father Bill Elliot's 'Crazy Racin' Man' used as his intro song more than 30 years after the fact.
It's a passion project that could only have existed through the dedication of a man with a singular vision like Mike Hopkins (who later re-released the record in the mid-90s as a fundraiser for cancer research). It's the furthest thing from Shaq rapping about, well, being Shaq, or Guy Lafleur singing about how no one could stop him, in French and English, to a disco beat. In our current world of GIFs and ringtones, it's unlikely that anyone will ever again invest this kind of effort into capturing the life of the mind of any group of professional athletes, let alone get sponsors to sign-off on the finished product. 'Stock Car Racing's Entertainers of the Year' exists as a largely undiscovered, and completely inimitable time capsule of rich 80s nostalgia.
Looking for more stock car racing fun? Check out our take on the best NASCAR movies ever made.