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Economist studies family ties and winning records of NASCAR drivers

BOONE—For years, racing fans joked that the “N” in NASCAR meant nepotism. That was because of the many family connections that permeated the racing industry. For example, almost one third of drivers racing in NASCAR events in 2005 had a family connection.

But it’s winning, not family ties that determine longevity in the sport, according to research by Peter A. Groothuis, a professor of economics at Appalachian State University, and his wife, Jana D. Groothuis, an independent researcher.

Their research, “Nepotism or Family Tradition: A Study of NASCAR Drivers,” is included in the June 2008 issue of the Journal of Sports Economics.

The couple looked at 30 years of career statistics housed in the Stock Car Racing Collection in Appalachian’s Belk Library and Information Commons along with online materials. They created a data set that compared career length and frequency of wins among families such as the Pettys, Jarretts, Allisons and Earnhardts with that of other drivers without family connections.

“Some fans thought family status mattered, that nepotism was occurring,” Peter Groothuis said.

“We thought it would be interesting to see if that was true.”

In addition to data about father and son NASCAR drivers, they also looked at the racing records of brothers of drivers.

“When you look at all drivers and compare their records with those who have family connections in the sport, there isn’t much difference in the length of their records after controlling for performance,” Jana Groothius said.

Career following isn’t just a sports phenomenon. It occurs among actors, politicians, lawyers, physicians and other professions where a son or daughter chooses to follow in a parent’s career footsteps, Peter Groothius explained.

Just like in those professions, sons of NASCAR drivers benefit from growing up in the industry, being at the track with their family, and fan loyalty to the family name.

“We did find that fathers end their careers earlier if they have a son follow them in racing,” Peter Groothius said. “But it’s only really the best racers who tend to have sons who join NASCAR. We think that occurs because the sons are able to extend the brand of the family name.”

The couple next plan to look at whether performance or family status correlates with the amount of television exposure a driver receives during a race.