A year ago the idea was so outrageous that Sharon Knecht's landlord wouldn't give her a lease, just a month-to-month agreement. Opening a store to sell auto-racing souvenirs didn't sound like a great idea.
Today Pit Stop Souvenirs in Catonsville is open six days a week and has a mailing list of 3,000. The landlord is a believer.
The store sells almost anything a NASCAR fan could want -- caps, T-shirts, die-cast model cars, trading cars, magazines, posters, model kits, even life-size promotional stand-ups. And there's always a video of a NASCAR race running on the TV set.
"I had no idea that the collectibles would be the biggest part of the market," Knecht says. "I thought we'd just do T-shirts and hats . . . but the collectibles are doing real well."
She and her husband, Mickey, the store's co-owner, are longtime NASCAR fans. They began selling radio-controlled cars by mail to test the market. The mail-order business continues with customers from as far away as England, Canada, Maine and California ordering die-cast cars and transporters, trading cards and magazines.
Since auto-racing stores are rare outside the NASCAR heartland of North Carolina, Pit Stop draws customers from far afield -- West Virginia, the Eastern Shore, New Jersey, Delaware and Pennsylvania -- as well as from the Baltimore area. Knecht says the NASCAR fans she sees are of all ages, probably about 40 percent female, and run the gamut professionally, from mechanics to doctors.
"It's a real closet sport here," she says, "because it's not covered much in the media."
Although new to the field -- the first modern NASCAR cards were produced by Maxx in 1988 -- cards have become the top collectible. Knecht says the original Maxx factory set carries a price tag of $900. Among the more desirable cards are promotional cards.
"If it's a giveaway card, they don't pay attention to them when they're new," Knecht says. "Then the price goes up."
One challenge she faces is being in Maryland when the heart of NASCAR country is to the south. Promo cards abound in North Carolina and neighboring states. Knecht says it is unusual for a promotion such as Texaco's Davey Allison set to be available this far north. She expects a Food Lion Richard Petty series (the grocery chain will sell four-card packs for each race Petty enters) to be popular. "His stuff always sells," she says. "Everybody loves him."
She says her customers' favorite drivers are Dale Earnhardt, Bill Elliott, Mark Martin, Harry Gant and Kyle Petty.
Another driver whose popularity has risen recently is Dale Jarrett, who drives for Joe Gibbs' Interstate Battery team. Last year, Knecht rarely had a customer request his model cars or Interstate items. "I think it's for Joe Gibbs," she says. "I think it's mostly because of the Redskins."
Off to the races: NASCAR merchandise is big business. Atlanta-based NASCAR Properties, the licensing agent for NASCAR and six of its sanctioned tracks, estimates that sales of NASCAR-related merchandise, including that which doesn't carry the NASCAR logo, were $100 million in 1991, up from an estimated $59 million in 1990. And there are at least four magazines for collectors: Collector's World, Racing Collectibles Price Guide and RCCA News, which deal with cards and die-cast cars, and Die Cast Digest, which features die-cast vehicles.
Today, baseball card show, Towson Marketplace, noon to 5 p.m., (410) 837-7632 or (410) 837-0870.
Today, baseball card show, Towson Quality Inn (I-695, Exit 26 S), 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., (410) 239-7446.
Friday-Sunday, baseball card show, Eastpoint Mall, Friday-Saturday 10 a.m. to 9 p.m., Sunday noon to 5 p.m., (410) 837-7632 or (410) 837-0870.
Saturday, baseball card show to benefit Hawthorne Middle River Soccer, Victory Villa Community Center, 4 p.m. to 10 p.m., (410) 780-3037.
Saturday, baseball card show, Security Holiday Inn (I-695, Exit 17), 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., (410) 922-8366.
Saturday-Sunday, baseball card show, Golden Ring Mall, Saturday 10 a.m. to 9:30 p.m., Sunday noon to 5 p.m., (410) 653-0122.