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Sharp turn from era of snarls to drivers' smiles, friendship


If competition is Winston Cup racing's superhighway to success, rivalries are its bread and butter.

Fans love certain drivers and love to hate the rest. For a lot of years, drivers didn't seem to like each other much, either.

But NASCAR's growth has changed a lot of the old ways.

Richard Petty, David Pearson, Bobby Allison, Junior Johnson, Ned Jarrett, the Flock brothers -- rivals all. They didn't go into business together, like Dale Earnhardt and Jeff Gordon.

They didn't have prayer breakfasts together, like Dale Jarrett, Gordon and Mark Martin did before battling each other for the Winston Cup title in 1997.

"I probably shouldn't tell this, because I know fans like to think we hate each other," said Jarrett. "But Mark invited Jeff and myself and our families to come see his new house while we were in Daytona [last week]. It was funny. My wife and I and our children went one night and a little while after we got there Jeff and Brooke came.

"It was good. The kids went off and played in another part of the house and the rest of us sat down for a couple hours and talked. We don't often get time to do that. We talked a little business, but mostly it was about our families and church and everyday things. It was nice."

Even "the Intimidator," Earnhardt, has friends among opposing drivers. He and Mike Waltrip went to the Bahamas together last year. Bobby Labonte may go with him this year.

"You do kind of want to protect yourself, not get too close," said Earnhardt. "Me and Neil [the late Neil Bonnett] were so close, it [his death] was a tough time for me. But that happens whether you are in racing or not."

The question all this camaraderie brings to mind is: Do friendships undermine a driver's competitiveness? Even Dale Jarrett's father, Ned, wonders.

"It's different from when I raced," said Ned, a two-time Winston Cup champion. "We might have eaten together, but we didn't get close. I think it might affect your aggressiveness."

But, maybe not.

Bobby and Terry Labonte and Jarrett usually park their motor homes together at the races and, at night, sit in their lawn chairs and share confidences.

"That being the case," said Ned, "Dale was [emotionally] hurt last year at Richmond when he was leading and Terry tagged his rear bumper, spun him out and went on to win. It took him a few weeks to get over it. Now he says he can't wait to return the favor."

And at Daytona Sunday, Earnhardt ignored his teammate, Mike Skinner, and friend Rusty Wallace and chose to follow Gordon, his business partner but also his toughest competitor, into the first turn in a wild, three-abreast move that eventually brought them home one-two.

"I was pretty surprised Earnhardt didn't follow Skinner," said Gordon, who won the 500. "He had a tough choice. He had a teammate, his buddy Rusty in the middle and me. I thought he would have gone with the other two long before he would have gone with me. But maybe he thought I was the one he could beat."

The impact of friendships? On the track, that question will be asked and answered every week. Off it, everybody is better for it.

Time to share, grow

NASCAR and its track owners are working on an agreement that will see them share television revenue by 2001, but NASCAR president Bill France has this to say to anyone who frets the Winston Cup series may wind up on pay-per-view TV: "Stop worrying."

Brian France, NASCAR's senior vice president, revealed that, later this month, NASCAR will unveil a Saturday morning children's program on Fox.

"What won the deal for us," said Brian, "was that when they were doing focus groups and asked kids to bring a toy with them, 78 percent of the kids showed up with toy cars. This is a way for us to reach the 8-9-10-year-olds."

The perfect spot

Max Mosley, the president of the Federation de l'Automobile, which sanctions motor sports worldwide, said the Indianapolis Motor Speedway is the perfect home for the Formula One U.S. Grand Prix.

"The single problem in the United States was that there was no permanent home, which builds up a tradition," Mosley said.

It's also important to have drivers with recognizable names. Indy-car fans will remember former CART champions Jacques Villeneuve and Alex Zanardi. But what about American-born racers?

Michael Andretti couldn't cut it and Jackie Stewart, a three-time F-1 champ, said he can't think of any American drivers willing to make the switch.

From time to time, there is speculation Gordon will grow tired of stock cars and look to the world stage. But after winning the Daytona 500, he was adamant.

"This is where I want to be," said Gordon.

"When it comes to F-1, I'd like to go watch them run at Indy and, if I got the chance, I'd maybe like to sit in one and drive it just to see what it feels like. But I want to race in the most competitive racing arena and this is it."

There is no date yet for next year's race, but it is to be run at Indy on a new 2.5 mile, 13-turn course that will use part of the existing track and a new infield road course.

Reaching out

Diversity is the byword for the new class of inductees going into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame in Talladega, Ala., April 22.

The late Wendell Scott, the only African-American to win a Grand National (now Winston Cup) race, and Louise Smith, who bills herself as the "First Lady of Racing," were among the five chosen.

"The other drivers didn't like me when I raced because I was a woman, and they liked me even less when I beat them," said Smith, 82, who used to race alongside Lee Petty and Tim Flock.

"There are even people now who wouldn't want me in the Hall of Fame because I showed them up back in the 1940s and 1950s.

"If I was a man, I'd have been in the Hall of Fame long ago."

Pub Date: 2/21/99

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