When Ralph Cox, 7, drifts off to sleep at night in his Northeast Baltimore bedroom, his head rests on a NASCAR pillow, street lights filter through his NASCAR driver window curtains, a NASCAR bedspread keeps him warm.
NASCAR mania also has hit Wally and Delores Wheeler, who meet with dozens of other fans on Sundays to cheer televised races at Rock-A-Billy's bar in Middle River -- not far from the site of a proposed $100 million motor sports speedway complex.
The honor student from Armistead Gardens and the retired couple are part of the swarm of fans that has made auto racing the fastest growing spectator sport in America and changed the face of the sport.
Sponsors, once dominated by motor oils and spark plugs, now include Tide, the Cartoon Network and Kellogg's Corn Flakes. New raceways such as the Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth hold as many as 185,000 spectators and feature "corporate chalets," luxury seating for executives. And more than 5.5 million fans attended the 32 Winston Cup Series races last year -- far exceeding the 3.6 million who attended the Orioles' 81 regular season home games.
Those are hardly the stereotypical trappings of auto racing of back-alley garages or of the winding hills of Appalachia, where crafty moonshine runners once sped from authorities in souped-up Fords and Chevrolets.
"Junior and Bubba have come a long way," says Tim LaFevers, Rock-A-Billy's co-owner.
Adds lawyer and Orioles owner Peter G. Angelos, a potential investor in what would be the Essex International Speedway: "This sport has tremendous appeal to so many people, across generations and classes. I am very interested in getting involved. There is a diverse group interested, I understand."
Issues to resolve
Before champagne corks pop in any Middle River winner's circle, however, many questions must be answered.
Environmentalists are closely watching how developers will treat hundreds of acres of protected wetlands, county officials must approve new zoning and the financing has to come together.
But the project, once considered a long shot, has the blessing of Gov. Parris N. Glendening and Baltimore County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger. The Maryland Stadium Authority has agreed to prepare a study on the raceway, and the state and county have committed money to begin a key access road, an extension of White Marsh Boulevard.
The privately financed raceway project -- managed by Joseph Mattioli III, former head of Pocono International Raceway -- would sit on a 1,000-acre parcel between Eastern Boulevard and Pulaski Highway near Martin State Airport.
Predicted drop of the first checkered flag: just into the next century. The raceway would accommodate 40,000 spectators, expanding to 100,000 when Winston Cup races begin.
In addition to a 1-mile track, plans call for an office complex, recreational vehicle center, Motorsports Cafe and a hotel/convention center -- all seen as a boon to the revitalization of Baltimore County's east side.
Already, interest is high among racing fans.
At "Start Your Engines," a collectibles and apparel store on Martin Boulevard, business has tripled in two years, says proprietor Nancy Schwarz.
"I was dazzled by it, my first race," she recalls. "The drivers, the colors, it just revs you up."
And, she adds, "The drivers are so cool in their jumpsuits."
For Wally Wheeler, sitting four hours with his wife at Rock-A-Billy's watching a NASCAR race is pure heaven. The former county firefighter, who has been following auto races since 1970, is surrounded by fans wearing T-shirts, hats and jackets that bear checkered flags and pictures of drivers such as Terry LaBonte and Dale Earnhardt.
"I'm from Spruce Pine, N.C., and I've loved cars all my life," says Wheeler, 65. "When I went to my first NASCAR race in '78, a Ford Thunderbird won and the next day I went out and bought a Thunderbird; put 225,000 miles on it. There's a saying, 'Win on Sunday, sell on Monday.' It worked on me."
Debbie Rivi, who tends bar on weekends and works as a credit company manager during the week, is never surprised by NASCAR fans at Rock-A-Billy's, headquarters of the county's largest fan club -- one with a lengthy waiting list.
"They scream, have a great time," she says. "We have a lot of women who love the sport, but they seem to talk more about the drivers than the cars."
Auto racing reaches millions of Americans. Two major networks and three cable channels carry the Winston Cup races, each of which runs four hours. An estimated 145 million watched the telecasts last year. Lower-ranked races, including the Busch Series and sprint cars, also are popular.
John Hagerman, a test engineer at Aberdeen Proving Ground, says "going to a NASCAR Winston Cup Series race is addictive. It's all very sensory: brilliant colors of the cars, the smell of hot oil and tires, burned fuel."
The biggest of the nation's raceways, Indianapolis Motor Speedway, home of the Indianapolis 500 and Brickyard 400, holds about 300,000 spectators -- four times more than the Baltimore Ravens' new stadium will hold.
Texas Motor Speedway, the second-largest, opened this month. Another raceway will open in June east of Los Angeles, with 71,000 grandstand seats, room for 10,000 in the infield and 71 infield corporate suites that already are sold out for the next three years.
"I was shocked when I left baseball and went to my first race to see the enthusiasm, noise, the loyalty of the fans," says Jay Lucas, a Texas speedway official who had worked 10 years for the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Explaining that devotion, he notes the fans' access to drivers and the high-powered cars. For example, special earphones and scanners allow fans to follow radioed discussions among drivers, their spotters high in the stands and pit crews.
"When was the last time the average baseball fan got into a professional baseball dugout?" Lucas asks. "Another reason the racing has taken off is because I can't slam-dunk a basketball or throw a baseball 90 miles per hour, but we all drive. We can relate. And I think the public is growing weary of overpaid, arrogant professional athletes."
But that doesn't mean money plays a small part in racing.
Since 1971, when moonshine-hauler-turned-racing-legend Junior Johnson got the first sponsorship in a Winston Cup race, corporate involvement has spread to more than 100 U.S. companies.
More than two dozen of NASCAR's marketing partners are in Fortune's Top 100. And they are aiming at everyone, from youngsters like Ralph Cox to retirees like the Wheelers.
One vehicle in the NASCAR truck series is driven by Kitty Jo Kirk and sponsored by Loveable Bras. John Deere, meanwhile, sells a lawn tractor in the colors of the race car it sponsors, complete with race decals, cap and jacket.
Kellogg's Corn Flakes, sponsor of last year's Winston Cup Series champion Terry LaBonte, has underwritten NASCAR since 1990, says company spokeswoman Jennie Donohue. Last year, LaBonte won more than $4 million.
"We've had 25 special package covers and premiums where customers could send away for a replica of our No. 5 car," she said. "They've all been very popular."
Although the prospect of such high-powered economic development is alluring to many on the county's east side, some are cautious about the raceway.
They fear noise from those 600-horsepower engines, traffic jams and pollution.
They also remain suspicious of a state study that said the speedway will eventually generate $188 million annually in economic impact, $8.5 million in incremental taxes and more than 2,200 equivalent full-time jobs.
Phil Edwards, president of the Bowley's Quarters Improvement Association, says residents don't want any surprises.
"There's going to be noise, and we have enough already from the planes at Martin Airport," he says. "There's going to be lots of gas and oil to get rid of, and a lot of the jobs they promise are going to be low-end service positions. What will all of that mean to our community?"
But for purists like little Ralph Cox, the talk of politics and economic development matter not. It's the race that counts.
"I get $10 a week allowance for work around the house and spend it all on NASCAR stuff," the quiet child says in his room, virtually a temple to Jeff Gordon, the 1995 Winston Cup champion.
"Jeff Gordon, car number 24, is my hero and I hope to be like him one day, but I have to get college out of the way first," he says. "Everything Jeff Gordon has put out, I have. Let's see, jacket, hat, T-shirt, school spiral notebooks, pencil holder, throw pillow, banner, rug, video tape, trading cards. What else, Mom?"
His mother, Patricia, just throws up her arms and smiles. She, of course, is wearing a Jeff Gordon shirt, too.
Pub Date: 4/21/97