Nicknames are a time-honored tradition dating to the earliest days of organized sports. From "Babe" Ruth to "Shoeless" Joe Jackson and from "Air" Jordan to Wayne "The Great One" Gretzky, nicknames have added color and personality to America's sports heroes.

Monikers such as "Intimidator," "Silver Fox," "Fireball" and "The King" simply built upon the legend of stock car racing's brightest stars.

For racers on the grassroots level, like those who compete each Tuesday night in the Summer Shootout Series at Charlotte Motor Speedway, a catchy nickname can be the deciding factor in whether a driver is a crowd favorite or just another name on the results sheet.

"Come out one Tuesday night and look at the signs the fans have in the stands," said Steve Post, the Summer Shootout's lead public address announcer. "I don't think it's a coincidence that a majority of the signs are for guys like Phil 'Razor' Sharpe and 'Flyin' Ryan Zeck. Those nicknames stand out and people remember them. Ask the fans who George Spry is and they won't know. But ask them who 'Cotton' is, and everyone can tell you."

"Oh yeah, it's true," said 52-year-old George "Cotton" Spry, a Summer Shootout fan favorite and championship contender in the Legends Car Masters division. "I've raced in Dodge City, Kan.; Las Vegas; Florida; Indiana; and everywhere I go people know the name 'Cotton.' Heck, I've raced against guys who wanted to beat me just because they'd heard of me."

In many cases, the only thing more innovative than a race car driver's nickname is how he or she earned it.

"I got the name 'Cotton' several years ago when I went to work for a contractor in Salisbury (N.C.)," Spry explained. "I had really long blonde hair, almost to the point of being white. Of course nowadays, I don't have much hair left but the nickname stuck."

Scott "Napalm" Knox, who races in the Summer Shootout's Peach Auto Body Legends Car Pro division, claims absolutely no responsibility for his nickname.

"I have my crew chief and my teammates to thank for that," the Cornelius, N.C., resident said with a big smile. "It's a movie reference about how everything around me seems to get blown up, as evidenced by my inability to sometimes finish races."

John "The Shark" Gottsacker, a Legends Car Pro division racer from Dallas, Texas, and one of Knox's teammates at Nick Pistone Racing, proudly confesses his contribution to the "Napalm" legend.

"When we came out for our first Shootout test, Scott's car was painted in primer," said the 14-year-old Gottsacker. "So we got some sharpies and some spray cans and painted 'Napalm' on the side of his car. At that point, everybody in the pit area was asking, 'who the heck is this guy?' But from then on, everyone knew."

While nicknames are still commonplace at Summer Shootout, they have faded into virtual obscurity among auto racing's major leagues.

"Everything's just so vanilla now," said Post, who also works as a pit reporter on numerous NASCAR radio broadcasts. "Historically, look at the top levels of this sport. Guys like Dale Earnhardt, the "Intimidator," and Richard Petty, "The King"-the real legends always had nicknames.

"Nowadays, the entire industry has gotten so image conscious that drivers are afraid to say or do anything that could be perceived as controversial. As a result, everything's the same, from the drivers right down to the cars, and I think there's truly something lost in that."

Even though it may ruffle a few feathers somewhere along the line, history has proven there will also be a place in the hearts of race fans for a good nickname.

"The guys that are fast, and have a lot of fans, will always get tagged with a nickname by somebody," said Knox. "People like to pull for Tony 'Smoke' Stewart, Kevin 'Happy' Harvick or Ryan 'The Rocket' Newman, not just because they have cool nicknames, but because they feel like they can relate to them."

The 13th annual Summer Shootout Series, which runs each Tuesday night through Aug. 8 on the frontstretch quarter-mile oval at Charlotte Motor Speedway, features three classes of Bandolero racing, three divisions of Legends Cars and the Thunder Roadsters.

Tickets are just $5 for adults with children 6-12 admitted for $3 and kids under 6 are free. Tickets are available in advance at the speedway ticket office and at Gates 4 and 5 the night of the event. Parking is free.

Spectator gates open at 5 p.m. with preliminary action at 5:30 p.m. Feature racing begins at 7:30 p.m. and is scheduled to conclude by 10:30. For information, call the speedway ticket office at 1-800-455-FANS.