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DAZE of THUNDER Once around the track is never enough for the feverish fans of stock-car racing

THE BALTIMORE SUN

"There are only three real sports. Mountain climbing, bull fighting and auto racing. Everything else is a game . . ." Ernest Hemingway.

Seen on a sweat shirt at a stock car race It's hot. Noses are burning. Shoulders blistering. Knees turning as red as a steamed Maryland crab, but those facts never register with fans of major-league stock car racing.

Cold, rain, snow fail to deter them, too. Hands may numb and lips turn as blue as the Chesapeake Bay, but the fans grip their cups of coffee or hot chocolate in one hand, tuck their blankets around their legs with the other and never complain.

They are a hardy, determined lot. The weather runs hot and cold during the February-to-November season for Winston Cup races, but the passion never changes. It's always hot.

Like the ringing in fans' ears after they watch three to five hours of race cars careening around the track -- the sensation lingers for hours. As former Winston Cup champion Bobby Allison once said as he cocked his head toward his race car's engine, "I love the way the motor makes my ear drums tingle!"

He said it with a smile of pure joy on his sun-leathered face. Maryland's true race fans can relate. They are a rabid breed. They have to be.

In the 1960s, they had a taste of the National Association of Stock Car Racing (NASCAR) professional series at Beltsville Speedway. The sport was still in its infancy. But as stock car racing grew in stature, its schedule went from 61 mostly small races in 1964 to today's 30 major events. The little tracks up and down the East Coast, like Beltsville's half-mile oval, were left behind.

R. J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. became stock car racing's sponsor in 1971. And though the Winston Cup circuit detoured around Maryland, fans here never gave up. They pack their bags and drive off to Pennsylvania, Delaware and Virginia -- and even North Carolina and Florida -- to watch races that independent attendance and marketing surveys now describe as "the fastest-growing spectator sport in the country."

It took a while for the sport with the revving engines to take off. Some of the men and women who love racing today didn't in the early years. I was like that.

As the sports editor at the Journal Messenger in Manassas, Va., in 1975, I'd pay a free-lance contributor out of my own pocket just to avoid going to Old Dominion Speedway, the local race track. It didn't matter how many hours track owner Dick Gore would spend at my desk, telling me of the wonders of racing, he had never been able to open my eyes -- or my mind -- to its fascinations.

It took Winston Cup racing and its seasoned drivers, years later, to do that. How was I to know that one day I would find myself unabashedly carrying a life-size cardboard cutout of Bobby Allison onto an airplane for transport home to my basement -- where his presence still surprises unsuspecting maintenance men?

In 1976, as a new reporter at The Evening Sun, one of the sports I was assigned to cover was auto racing. What a blow! My friends laughed. My co-workers derided it -- some still tease, saying "Vroom, vroom" as I pass by.

Going to my first Winston Cup race in Dover, Del., I was convinced it would be miserable. There would be a rough crowd. Everyone associated with the sport would have dirt under their fingernails, be wearing white socks and drinking Blue Ribbon beer.

"Here," said a stranger along the pit road at Dover, that first day in 1976. "Take these, you'll need them."

Expecting the worst, I held out my hand and he placed the filter ends of two cigarettes in my palm. I still was stunned.

"What are these for?" I asked.

"You'll find out soon enough," was the answer. Moments later 40 stock cars started their engines. The sound seemed to beat against my chest and bore into my eardrums -- where had I put those filters?

It was the beginning. Women hadn't been reporting on racing very long. Only a year or so earlier, a few of the pioneers found themselves ushered out of the garage areas almost as soon as they'd entered. By 1976, women were allowed in and treated well by the drivers and crews, who were mostly Southern gentlemen.

But there were still shocks along the way. At Darlington International Speedway in South Carolina, no one had bothered to remove the demoralizing words on the bottom of the badge issued to reporters: "No dogs or women allowed."

Respectability -- and big money -- came with progress, which washed some of the colorfulness out of the race scene of the "good old days" (someone now manufactures sanitary ear plugs).

When corporate America went to the races, it also attracted new fans by the thousands. Ticket sales document the fervor of Maryland fans. At Dover International Speedway, 16 percent of ticket buyers are from Maryland. The average ticket buyer on the Winston Cup circuit buys four tickets. Translated, that means about 49,000 of the expected 77,000 fans at the Peak Antifreeze 500 race next month will be from Maryland.

In Daytona Beach, the computer shows 2 percent of ticket

buyers are from Maryland. That's about 12,000 fans. Charlotte (N.C.) Motor Speedway, which sells tickets in all 50 states and nine foreign countries, says Maryland ties with five other states at 11th in sales.

Those are thousands of Marylanders' dollars going out of state. As veteran racer Richard Petty says, what the state's missing out on by not building a speedway is, "Money, a lot of money."

Maryland, of course, did consider it. The state looked at Bainbridge, the old Naval base in Cecil County off Route 95 North. There, a multipurpose motor sports complex would produce $146 million in annual spending at the track and nearby businesses, says a state economic impact report issued in December 1988.

A later study found granite under the site. That study says disposing of the granite would increase the cost of construction, making it economically unfeasible -- especially because there were no guarantees that the sanctioning body would grant Maryland a major race.

"If Maryland was smart it would build its own track," says Mike Kennedy, who drove with friends from Baltimore to Richmond for a Winston Cup race in March. "I can't believe William Donald Schaefer got all that money approved for a football stadium -- when we don't have a team and may not get one -- but he can't get a motor sports complex built."

Because they have no speedway to call their own, Maryland' race fans take to the highways. By car, camper and bus, the fans get rolling each weekend at 55 mph, so they can see the superstars of the sport do 190, side by side, inches apart, battling toward a distant finish line. They go for the dream that says given the chance, they, too, could get behind the wheel of a Winston Cup stock car and beat their favorite drivers to the finish line.

Anyone who drives can relate to stock cars. The stock car looks like everyman's personal car.

They are Chevrolet Luminas, Ford Thunderbirds, Oldsmobile Cutlasses and Pontiac Grand Prix. They look like they're just off the showroom floor -- except for a few details, beginning with the colorful paint job and ad logos on their sides. There are no side mirrors, no windshield wipers, no passenger seats and no air conditioning. The doors -- if they are outlined at all -- don't open. The seat doesn't recline and under the hood is an eight-cylinder, 358-cubic-inch engine (compared to a regular Lumina's six-cylinder, 191-cubic-inch, multi-fuel-injected engine). In terms of power, it is the difference between a Mack truck and a bicycle.

It's not enough to say that the fans adore the autos. Jim and Patti Elliott of Catonsville, who honeymooned last month at the Winston Cup race in Sonoma, Calif., are building a house with display space for Jim's race souvenirs. These include the crumpled red, white and blue hood of an AC Delco Pontiac that had been crashed by rookie driver Steve Christman during a race at the North Carolina Motor Speedway.

"I saw it leaning up against the fence inside the garage area, and I yelled to a crewman to ask if I could have it," says Mr. Elliott, 33, a 6-foot-2, 165-pound, Montgomery Ward mechanic. "He said to come back later."

He paced. He snagged autographs from drivers Bill Elliott, Sterling Marlin and Alan Kulwicki. Then, at an unguarded back entrance to the garage, he strolled in, asked again, and lugged the wreckage away.

"It was a little heavy," he says, "But I managed. I hauled it across the infield and put it in my truck. I drove the 40 miles back to my hotel slowly, so it wouldn't bump around too much, and then carried it into my room for the night.

"It took a little effort," he says, satisfaction in his voice. "But I got a hood!"

Patti, 31, and a fan long before she met Jim, views stock car racing as an art.

"I know this sounds crazy," she says, "But to me, auto racing is all form and texture. What I really like about it is the sound and the feel of it. To me, it's something like a rock concert."

In 16 years, I've found I'm most curious about the drivers' privat domain. I've spent many hours squeezing between mechanics and work benches, sitting in the huge tractor-trailer transports equipped with small sitting rooms, talking to the men who own and drive the race cars.

Years of conversations and experiences tell me former Winston Cup champion Terry Lebonte is a low-key man who would rather say nothing than get involved in a controversy; that Dale Earnhardt always says what he thinks and relishes a good debate; that Bill Elliott is strong-willed, but diplomatic; that Darrell Waltrip, after years of brashness has become an insightful thinking man and that Davey Allison has an indomitable spirit.

As I watch them go to work, to the pre-race drivers' meeting, to the pre-race church service; as I watch them climb into their race cars and buckle up, I know what kind of race they will drive.

The fans also know. They have studied their men: The drivers' personalities are reflected in their racing styles.

They know Mr. Lebonte will drive a steady, conservative race; that Mr. Earnhardt will barge to the front if he can; that Mr. Elliott will hold his ground, take good care of his car and combine power with intelligence for a good finish. They know Mr. Waltrip will study what's happening in front of him, lay off the pace and then try for a strong finish. And they know Mr. Allison, like his

father Bobby before him, will battle for every inch he can get for the pure enjoyment of it.

This is one of the subtleties that sets motor sports apart from "games." Subtleties in stock car racing? Oh, yes. They are the true treasures of the sport.

One is the fact that a burly, powerful, 3,500-pound stock car is fragile.

"Like an egg," says crew chief Harry Hyde. "If you don't handle them gently, they'll break."

Another is the chance that a dedicated driver can be defeated, not by a faster car, but by the failure of a 10-cent part.

The difference between winning and losing also can be made by the pit crew -- the men who can gas a car, wash the windows, change four tires and give a driver a drink in 13 seconds. In the pit, the chief mechanic frantically works out fuel mileage to the very last drop.

All of this is known by race fans. They learn by watching everything that moves at a race track; by reading every little racing publication; by listening to the play-by-play on a Walkman radio; or by tuning in their own hand-held scanners to a racing team's radio communications.

I'm one of them and I'm not. A few weeks ago, I made my firs trip into the race infield at a Winston Cup race, but I didn't want to go. What I like about motor sports is what goes on inside those garages and inside the heads of the men who race. But to find out what the hard-core race fan feels about this sport, I had to make a foray. I told myself I'd get it over with, be back in an hour. I had such a good time, I nearly missed the start of the race.

The infield, like the garage area, is its own community with its own personality. A neighborhood, really, created when the fans drive their RVs and campers through the tunnels under the race tracks into the infields on Friday or Saturday nights.

In the early 1950s, a rough-and-tumble crowd would descend on race tracks for a wild weekend of drinking and fighting. In those days, a woman wouldn't dare walk alone through an infield, and if she did, she needed to be prepared for anything.

In the 1990s, however, infields are filled with family groups. Pick-up softball games can be spotted among the campers on Saturday afternoons and Sunday mornings. Before and during races, fans relax in lawn chairs and cook out on the family grill. The smell of a typical infield is a potpourri of steaks, burgers, chicken and even fish simmering over charcoal mingled with the nose-pinching odor of spent sulfur from firecrackers. Adding to the medley is coconut suntanning butter and on a dry, hot afternoon, the smell of good old dry earth.

There is still some rowdiness. Most infields develop a mud bog in some corner, where jacked-up pickup trucks go barreling through. And there is an inordinate amount of firecracker popping heard throughout the day and night. During the day, some young men delight in chanting "Hoot! Hoot! Hoot!" at women wearing racer Alan Kulwicki's "Hooter's" T-shirts.

"But really, it's all good fun," says Becky Menefee of Silver Spring, who works for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. "Everyone gets along out here. It doesn't matter where you're from or how much money you make."

The Menefees are the kind of fans the sport loves. They drove 5.5 hours to Pocono International Speedway in June and again in July. They've been watching races on television for 10 years. They spent $70 to $100 on shirts, mugs and refrigerator magnets while at the June race. They saw the Tom Cruise racing movie "Days of Thunder" and liked it so much they bought the video game. They have radio-controlled cars, "so we can have our own races at home in the driveway," says George Menefee, 47, who locates and sells big truck parts for Central Truck Co. in Landover. "Our children, John and Pamela, are into it, too.

"Stock car racing is our life," he says. "We like to smell the smells and be in amongst it."

When the Menefees parked their camper between the third and fourth turns at Pocono on a Friday night, they didn't know anyone. But it wasn't long before Jeff Kirk of Brielle, N.J., popped over to see if he could borrow a cooking pot. Sunday morning he was back returning it.

"About four years ago, I decided to bring a few clients out here for the race," says Mr. Kirk, a marketing manager for Albis Canada Inc., an engineering plastic compounder. "Now, they insist on coming and I can't get out of it. It's a lot of work. But I've found a lot of new neighbors out here. There will be burgers on the grill all afternoon and cold drinks in the cooler -- you all come by."

Moving on through the campers, it is hard to miss Ron Ortman's motor home. Under its awning sits a contented man.

"I probably average seven races a year," says Mr. Ortman, seated in a lawn chair, his feet on green outdoor carpeting. Bright red and white Budweiser suspenders travel over his shoulders and down the sides of his ample belly, perfectly framing a Bill Elliott T-shirt. There is a Budweiser in his hand and behind him stands a life-size cardboard cutout of racer Elliott and his car owner, Junior Johnson.

Mr. Ortman is surrounded by friends and family. The women are suntanning and reading. The men, all Bloomsburg, Pa., policemen, are laughing and discussing the coming race. Mr. Ortman's friend Al Wagner is rooting for Elliott's rival, Dale Earnhardt. He is wearing an Earnhardt racing cap.

"You're either for Earnhardt or you wanna be," Mr. Wagner says, eliciting a howl of disagreement from Ortman.

"Yeah," says Mr. Ortman, waving his hand at Mr. Wagner, "I brought old Dale Earnhardt here along, because one of the good things about racing is the arguments."

In most mainstream sports, it is the game that is all-important. I auto racing, there is more. Stock car racing is about winning and losing, but it is also about the men who compete, the people who follow it and the culture that has grown up around it.

Maybe that's what Hemingway meant.

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