NASCAR racing takes a hot turn in popularity Phenomenon: The nation's fastest-growing spectator sport may soon be coming to Baltimore County.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

RICHMOND, Va. - Gentlemen, start your buying power.

Just hours before the NASCAR Winston Cup 400, the parking lot outside Richmond International Raceway is a frenzy of commerce. Fans wear caps and T-shirts pledging fealty to their racing idols and they clamor for more: another $39 stopwatch, an $88 set of noise-reducing headsets, a $6 toy Monte Carlo.

And on this noisy midway, where at least two dozen tractor-trailers are turned into storefronts, the merchandise not only touts the clean-cut, polite men named Jarrett, Labonte and Gordon, but also sponsors such as McDonald's, Camel cigarettes and Unocal 76 gasoline. Buy a Busch beer stick (an insulated pack to hold your cans end to end), apply for a NASCAR MasterCard, rent a pair of binoculars.

This is just the prelude to a unique mix of sport and commerce, but the crowd is already bubbling like an overheated radiator. It's as if the Preakness or the Super Bowl or World Series is about to start. More than 100,000 devotees of the nation's fastest-growing spectator sport are ready for action, and they came with their wallets open.

"It's incredible - like watching all the NFL teams playing at once," said Martin B. Johnson, 46, a Virginia Beach resident and owner of a $40 million plumbing supply company who finagled a garage pass to get driver Sterling Marlin's autograph before the race.

Call it a religion, a fad, a social phenomenon, but NASCAR racing is hot right now, and not just in the South. Stock car racing, a sport with roots in souped-up cars hauling moonshine and on good ol' boy dirt tracks, has become a national obsession - and a marketing executive's dream.

Last year, more than 10.5 million people attended National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing events during the February-to-November season, making it a $2 billion-a-year industry. Viewership on cable's ESPN, the major purveyor of NASCAR's elite Winston Cup competition, has risen 50 percent since 1990.

"Our NASCAR ratings increased 16 percent from last year to this year," said Rob Correa, vice-president of programming for CBS Sports, which broadcasts several major stock car races, including the Daytona 500. The ratings are "as good as a regular season NBA basketball game. Believe me, this is a major sport."

Baltimore track proposed

Small wonder that investors want to take a 1,100-acre tract in eastern Baltimore County and create an expandable 48,000-seat raceway that could support NASCAR "minor league" events like Busch Series stock car racing or Craftsman Series pickup truck racing. If the project could establish 20 racing weekends a year as its developer suggests (counting local races and special events like monster truck shows), it could lure thousands of fans and millions of dollars to Middle River.

But the Essex International Speedway, which faces considerable local opposition amid concerns over traffic, pollution and noise, needs county approval. And even if the county endorses it, NASCAR officials have expressed reservations - chiefly because they'd rather expand elsewhere.

"We're pretty highly concentrated with NASCAR events with tracks in Dover; Nazareth, Pa.; Pocono; and Richmond," said Bill France Jr., NASCAR's president and son of the organization's founder. "We're pretty well saturated without room to grow the schedule at all."

France's misgivings haven't deterred the local speedway's developers, who know full well the bonanza of a NASCAR-sanctioned race. The sport's ultimate prizes are the 32 annual Winston Cup races staged across the nation.

Winston Cup events like the MBNA 400 next Sunday in Dover, Del., sponsored by credit card giant MBNA Corp., are the most popular races in the world. Guaranteed sellouts, they create three-day events in their host cities, drawing fans from a 300-mile radius.

$25 million for Darlington

One of the biggest Winston races, Labor Day weekend's Mountain Dew Southern 500, generated an estimated $25 million for the economy of Darlington, S.C., state officials say. Much of that was the spending power of 120,000 fans buying food at the Winn Dixie, sleeping at the Motel 6, and picking up souvenirs at Howard's Sports.

"People like to be around big events and big crowds and this feeds on itself," said H.A. "Humpy" Wheeler, general manager of Charlotte Motor Speedway, one of the sport's premiere tracks. "These truly are mega-events."

Like other motor sports, NASCAR races are loud and thrilling. Mere fractions of a second separate winners from losers. And the specter of a deadly collision hangs over the track.

"It's a door-handle-to-door-handle, full-contact sport," said Gary Weiss, an Indianapolis accountant who paid a $300 entry fee to camp at Darlington's infield.

In the Richmond grandstands, fans showed up six hours before the race to watch practice laps and take in the smell of burning rubber. Most wore earplugs or noise-reducing headsets ($88 at the Kyle Petty store). Some were equipped with $200 scanners - ideal for listening in on radio conversations between drivers and their teams, something NASCAR encourages.

Like baseball games, races are both simple and complex. It's easy enough to tell who the leaders are, but it requires some intensive study to appreciate the strategies - the split-second performance of a pit crew, the crucial mechanical adjustments made to cars, and the nuances of tracks that vary in length from three-quarters of a mile to 2 miles.

The personalities of drivers - the young upstart, the intimidating veteran, the fading star - seem larger than life. The crowd cheers its heroes, boos its villains and runs for corn dogs during the caution flags.

There are other car races - the faster and flashier Indy Car and the Formula One - but what has allowed NASCAR to pull ahead of its competitors is a faithfulness to its down-home roots.

Drivers don't curse or fail drug tests or go on strike. They're open and approachable, spending days before a race making local appearances and signing autographs.

They compete in recognizable American cars, Chevrolet's Monte Carlo, Pontiac's LeMans, Ford's Thunderbird. At least the exteriors are shaped like them. The guts of a 700-horsepower car capable of speeds up to 200 mph are a far cry from what a Ford or GM factory generally installs under the hood.

Drivers consider themselves more than mere players. "We take responsibilities that other athletes don't have to take," said Darrell Waltrip, a 25-year veteran NASCAR driver with 84 Winston Cup victories. "When I make a choice, it affects me, my car, my sponsor, and my fans. A lot is at stake."

Top of that list is always the sponsor and its customers. NASCAR racing is a perfect marriage of professional sports and marketing. Stock cars are rolling billboards; sponsors fork over an estimated $4 million to $8 million to have their corporate logos plastered on the hood - tens of thousands just for a decal on a fender.

Without that support, racing teams couldn't afford to field a car - and fans know it. It's not uncommon for them to cheer as loudly for a sponsor as for a driver - the equivalent of cheering for Nike when Michael Jordan plays.

"If some company sponsors NASCAR, I'll buy their product," said Peggy Napoli, a Dover, Pa. housewife who spent $20 to buy a souvenir used tire from a NASCAR entry at Richmond. "We'll support a sponsor even if it costs a few more pennies."

That type of brand loyalty is not lost on advertisers. "If we had a free dollar in our sports marketing department right now, it would to NASCAR," said Edward H. Shull, director of NASCAR marketing for Gatorade Worldwide which happily pays drivers to sip from a Gatorade squeeze bottle during pit stops.

Marketers are well aware of NASCAR fans' loyalties. A 1994 study found 72 percent of them prefer products made by NASCAR sponsors when choosing from equivalents. The same question asked of Olympics fans regarding Olympics sponsors got the same choice from only 17 percent.

"Basketball fans may be rabidly loyal to the Chicago Bulls but how do they feel about the telecommunications company that sponsors the Bulls? It's not the same thing," said William Doyle, vice president of the Rhode Island firm that conducted the study for sponsors.

Once the sole domain of the car industry, with racers bearing the colors of Framm or STP, cars are now emblazoned with the colors of as Tide, Lowe's hardware stores, Kellogg's Corn Flakes, the Cartoon Network and Hot Wheels toy cars.

Stereotypes have faded

Fans have changed, too. Forget the stereotype of a bunch of rednecks quaffing beer - although the sport and its audience still are dominated by white males and plenty enjoy their beer. Most fans are married and earn more than $30,000 a year; more than a third are female.

One of the first companies to hop on the bandwagon - now the sport's biggest sponsor - was R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. The maker of Winston brand cigarettes turned to NASCAR and other sports when ads for tobacco were banned from television and radio in 1970. Almost three decades later, they're not sorry they did.

"The No. 1 attribute this sport has is to keep the drivers, the owners, all of the people involved in this sport instilled with the values America cherishes," said T. Wayne Robertson, president of RJR sports marketing. "These are hard-working, normal people."

Not lost on sponsors is the fact that drivers are strictly corporate men. Contracts between sponsors and drivers usually specify a certain number of public appearances.

More is at stake than who wins a race. From a sponsor's point of view, a driver succeeds by staying near the head of the pack where the TV cameras pick up flashing images of his sponsor's logo.

"We're different from football or baseball because we depend so much on sponsors," said Richard Childress, a NASCAR car owner and former driver. "Everyone has to set a good image. One of the problems with America today is the lack of heroes. Well, we have the heroes."

Larger markets sought

There's a lot of difference between Terry Labonte on a track at noon and Gary Cooper in "High Noon." For one thing, Gary would need a much bigger town.

To heighten their national following, stock car racing is moving to bigger markets with "super speedways" that boast such amenities as gourmet dining and luxury seating. That has left some of the older, smaller tracks without race dates.

With the recent openings of tracks in or near St. Louis, Colorado Springs, Fort Worth, Los Angeles, and Las Vegas, there's been a boom in raceway construction.

The $130 million Texas Motor Speedway is the second largest track in the nation, seating more than 150,000. It features 194 luxury boxes and 76 year-round condominiums priced between $275,000 and $575,000. Condos at a racetrack? They sold out six months before the track played host to its first NASCAR race in April.

"We're going through an evolutionary phase," said Wheeler, who manages the Charlotte track and serves as president of Speedway Motorsports Inc., the company that developed the Texas facility. "There's a strong move for further expansion into top markets."

That has hurt some communities. To put NASCAR races in Texas, Speedway bought half of a short track in tiny North Wilkesboro, N.C., and got NASCAR to move the track's two Winston Cup dates to Texas and to a refurbished track in New Hampshire.

Such moves have left a lot of small Southern tracks worried. Some are expanding and upgrading, but others fear they'll ultimately lose to big money like Speedway Motorsports and its principal owner, billionaire car dealer O. Bruton Smith of Charlotte, N.C.

Some racing companies are "hugely profitable," said Tom Thomson, research analyst with Wheat First Butcher Singer of Richmond. "In some ways, they are unregulated monopolies. It takes a tremendous amount of money to build a track and there are high barriers to competitors."

Some fans complain that NASCAR has already grown too big. Ticket prices are high - Darlington sells $95 grandstand seats. Longtime fans fondly recall the days when they could stop by the infield garage before a race and shoot the breeze with Richard Petty or Bobby Allison.

"It reaches so many people now but you can't get close to the drivers the way you used to," said Vicki Rothweiler, a Daytona, Fla. retiree and devout NASCAR fan who drove more than 1,000 miles in a 34-foot RV to attend the Richmond race.

NASCAR is also bracing for a blow if R.J. Reynolds reduces its sizeable investment in the sport. The proposed national settlement with the tobacco industry calls for an end to brand advertising at sports events by December 1998.

Still, there's no end to NASCAR's growth in sight. The signs of big money are everywhere. Successful drivers earn a lot more from their off-track activities than from racking up points toward the Winston Cup championship. They live in luxury recreational vehicles and travel by private plane to appearances or commercial shoots.

When hot young driver Jeff Gordon won the coveted Winston Million, a $1 million bonus for winning three major races including Darlington's Southern 500, it was hard to be too impressed: rival Dale Earnhardt earns 20 times that from annual merchandise sales.

"We've moved our traveling circus out of the South and found out it can play anywhere," said Wheeler, a part of stock car racing since 1961. "We're a major league sport."

Pub Date: 9/14/97

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