Racing into fast lane NASCAR: It's a stock car market with unparalleled growth as new tracks and new fans put Winston Cup races on the map from coast to coast.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

It used to be a laughingstock, a sport whose players wore so many advertising patches on their uniforms you could hardly see the cloth, a sport whose fans were viewed as roughnecks, grease monkeys and Southern rednecks -- a sport whose very status as a sport was questioned.

Now, Winston Cup stock car racing is no laughing matter. It has become a giant, a corporate playground and a family sport that attracts fans from all economic levels across the country.

How big has it grown? A few months ago, Eddie Gossage, the vice president and general manager of the new Texas International Raceway near Fort Worth, sat down in the middle of his then-unpaved, 1.5-mile speedway and surveyed its 150,061 seats. The track's owner, Bruton Smith, had just told him they were going to sell 36,000 preferred seat licenses and he didn't like it.

"But I looked around and realized that still leaves 114,061 seats," Gossage said.

In Texas, those PSLs are selling for $750 to $2,000. All 58 condominiums built around the track have been sold at prices ranging from $275,000 to $575,000. And there are 45,000 names on a season-ticket waiting list.

"Who would have believed this 10 years ago?" Gossage said.

Another new speedway is being built by Roger Penske 40 miles from downtown Los Angeles. Penske's California Speedway, like the one in Texas, joins the Winston Cup schedule next season.

There are now Winston Cup races dotting the map from Watkins Glen, N.Y., to Brooklyn, Mich., to Sonoma, Calif. Tomorrow, the series stops in Rockingham, N.C., and next week it's in Phoenix, before winding up in Atlanta.

Despite the party atmosphere, there are a couple of sour notes. With growth has come change. North Wilkesboro (N.C.) Speedway, a NASCAR track since the circuit's inception in 1949, held its last Winston Cup race in September. It closed, a victim of its inability to keep up with larger, better facilities.

"You can't put 150,000 seats around a half-mile track," said driver Mark Martin, after running a test lap at Texas on Monday.

The other discordant sound comes from Washington, where President Clinton and the Food and Drug Administration are pushing to eliminate tobacco advertising at sports events.

"There is no way to know how that kind of legislation will impact us," said Brian France, NASCAR's vice president of marketing. "It certainly won't help us. R.J. Reynolds has been our partner for 26 years, and they've been very good to the sport of NASCAR. All I can say is it's in the hands of the courts, and we'll have to wait and see what happens."

Estimates of how much money tobacco companies spend on motor sports advertising range from $100 million to $250 million.

R.J. Reynolds' visible contributions total more than $10 million in posted prize money, "and that's just getting started," said Wayne Robertson, president of RJR Sports Marketing Enterprises. He would not say what R.J. Reynolds' total expenditure is.

"NASCAR Winston Cup racing is the fastest-growing sport in the country, and the fact of the matter is for tobacco to be taken away from the sport would not stop it in its tracks," Robertson said. "Would it hurt it? Yes.

"No matter how you figure it . . . if you took a 10, 20 or 30 percent reduction in salary overnight, you would have to change your lifestyle. Would the sport have to change its lifestyle some? Yes, it would."

R.J. Reynolds has been the main sponsor of NASCAR's elite racing series since 1971. Robertson said it probably would be easy to find a company to pay the $6 million to sponsor the Winston Cup series, but that's only a small portion of the money R.J.Reynolds spends on motor sports.

"They do the farm system and the Winston Racing Series [which supports 105 small race tracks, like the one in Hagerstown]," France said. "They've historically tried to do what is good for the sport, knowing in the long run that would benefit them. It wouldn't be an easy thing to replace."

France said NASCAR is not rushing to find alternative sponsors. And, no one, it seems, is being slowed by concerns about the future.

In addition to new tracks in Texas and California, two others already have been built in Las Vegas and outside Miami. Though Winston Cup races are not yet scheduled at those tracks, NASCAR's two other circuits, its Grand National series and its truck series, are. NASCAR officials say they are watching how those series draw, in consideration of expansion.

The first sign of stock car racing's appeal beyond the traditional South may have been observed by Phoenix International Raceway owner Emmett "Buddy" Jobe, an Arizona rancher, who bought the track in 1985 and staged his first Winston Cup race in 1988.

"The first Winston Cup race we ran here, the crowd surpassed anything we'd seen for our Indy car races," Jobe said. "Running Winston Cup was like flipping on a switch to success."

In 1985, 20,000 was a sellout at Phoenix. Next weekend, Jobe is expecting about 109,000; his attendance has risen 10 to 15 percent each year, despite being in a community that also offers the NBA Suns, the NFL Cardinals, the NHL Coyotes and pro golf.

"I think television has done a lot toward wiping away the sport's old image," Jobe said. "And NASCAR has done a good job making sure the TV coverage is unparalleled and that we continue to have fan-friendly drivers. People enjoy coming here."

And as the championship points battle rages with one point separating defending champion Jeff Gordon and Terry Labonte with three races left, attendance is skyrocketing.

A year ago, 5.3 million jammed NASCAR's 31 events. This year, attendance is approaching six million and projections for next season are for attendance to be well over six million.

Winston Cup racing has become a $2 billion-a-year industry and a high-performance marketing tool. Sponsors have gone beyond the traditional motor oils and car parts to such items as computers, laundry detergents, credit cards, electronics and children's television programming. It is estimated that sponsors spend more than $300 million a year.

Prize money this season is in excess of $50 million.

Brian France, the grandson of NASCAR's founder, Bill France, said sports-related merchandise sales will top $750 million this year.

"We projected we'd go over a billion dollars by the year 2000, but I think we're well ahead of that," France said. "I think we'll be there by 1998."

When France, 34, was growing up, he didn't think this sport that his grandfather started and his father, Bill France Jr., now directs was that big of a deal.

Who could have envisioned next month's race in Suzuka, Japan? Who could predict 15 retail outlets called NASCAR Thunder opening within the next year or a chain of $6-million theme restaurants? The first NASCAR Cafe opens in seven weeks in Myrtle Beach, S.C., with future sites already planned in Nashville, Tenn., and Orlando, Fla.

The Winston Cup series ran races at Riverside, Calif., as long ago as 1963, but it is only in the past five years that the sport has entered the consciousness of most sports fans.

"I think there are a lot of obvious reasons for that," said Gossage. "I think the No. 1 reason is the disenchantment of the American public with professional athletes. When they're spitting in the face of umpires and striking as they make millions of dollars a year, there's no way us regular folks can identify with that.

"Fortunately, for us, our athletes have remained in touch with the common man. They walk to the car holding their wife's hand, carrying their child in one arm, that kind of thing. And the fact you see so many families involved, people can identify with it. I'm convinced that is the reason."

It also hasn't hurt that television has found ways to take viewers inside cars during races and give them a feel of the tension and excitement of the ride.

Every Winston Cup event is televised on one of five networks -- ESPN, TNN, CBS, TBS or ABC. ESPN estimates its national television audience for Winston Cup races has increased more than 30 percent during the past 16 years, and NASCAR reports audiences are up on the three cable networks by 25 percent since 1994.

"I think you'd have to say television and exposing our product to more and more people has helped us build the momentum is very key," France said. "And going into new markets the last five or six years But in the end, you can get all the exposure you want, but unless you have a great product that people really enjoy watching or following, you're not going to get there."

Pub Date: 10/19/96

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