DAZE of THUNDER Once around the track is never enough for the feverish fans of stock-car racing

August 02, 1992|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SANDRA MCKEE is a sports writer for The Sun.

"There are only three real sports. Mountain climbing, bull fighting and auto racing. Everything else is a game . . ." Ernest Hemingway.

Seen on a sweat shirt at a stock car race It's hot. Noses are burning. Shoulders blistering. Knees turning as red as a steamed Maryland crab, but those facts never register with fans of major-league stock car racing.

Cold, rain, snow fail to deter them, too. Hands may numb and lips turn as blue as the Chesapeake Bay, but the fans grip their cups of coffee or hot chocolate in one hand, tuck their blankets around their legs with the other and never complain.

They are a hardy, determined lot. The weather runs hot and cold during the February-to-November season for Winston Cup races, but the passion never changes. It's always hot.

Like the ringing in fans' ears after they watch three to five hours of race cars careening around the track -- the sensation lingers for hours. As former Winston Cup champion Bobby Allison once said as he cocked his head toward his race car's engine, "I love the way the motor makes my ear drums tingle!"

He said it with a smile of pure joy on his sun-leathered face. Maryland's true race fans can relate. They are a rabid breed. They have to be.

In the 1960s, they had a taste of the National Association of Stock Car Racing (NASCAR) professional series at Beltsville Speedway. The sport was still in its infancy. But as stock car racing grew in stature, its schedule went from 61 mostly small races in 1964 to today's 30 major events. The little tracks up and down the East Coast, like Beltsville's half-mile oval, were left behind.

R. J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. became stock car racing's sponsor in 1971. And though the Winston Cup circuit detoured around Maryland, fans here never gave up. They pack their bags and drive off to Pennsylvania, Delaware and Virginia -- and even North Carolina and Florida -- to watch races that independent attendance and marketing surveys now describe as "the fastest-growing spectator sport in the country."

It took a while for the sport with the revving engines to take off. Some of the men and women who love racing today didn't in the early years. I was like that.

As the sports editor at the Journal Messenger in Manassas, Va., in 1975, I'd pay a free-lance contributor out of my own pocket just to avoid going to Old Dominion Speedway, the local race track. It didn't matter how many hours track owner Dick Gore would spend at my desk, telling me of the wonders of racing, he had never been able to open my eyes -- or my mind -- to its fascinations.

It took Winston Cup racing and its seasoned drivers, years later, to do that. How was I to know that one day I would find myself unabashedly carrying a life-size cardboard cutout of Bobby Allison onto an airplane for transport home to my basement -- where his presence still surprises unsuspecting maintenance men?

In 1976, as a new reporter at The Evening Sun, one of the sports I was assigned to cover was auto racing. What a blow! My friends laughed. My co-workers derided it -- some still tease, saying "Vroom, vroom" as I pass by.

Going to my first Winston Cup race in Dover, Del., I was convinced it would be miserable. There would be a rough crowd. Everyone associated with the sport would have dirt under their fingernails, be wearing white socks and drinking Blue Ribbon beer.

"Here," said a stranger along the pit road at Dover, that first day in 1976. "Take these, you'll need them."

Expecting the worst, I held out my hand and he placed the filter ends of two cigarettes in my palm. I still was stunned.

"What are these for?" I asked.

"You'll find out soon enough," was the answer. Moments later 40 stock cars started their engines. The sound seemed to beat against my chest and bore into my eardrums -- where had I put those filters?

It was the beginning. Women hadn't been reporting on racing very long. Only a year or so earlier, a few of the pioneers found themselves ushered out of the garage areas almost as soon as they'd entered. By 1976, women were allowed in and treated well by the drivers and crews, who were mostly Southern gentlemen.

But there were still shocks along the way. At Darlington International Speedway in South Carolina, no one had bothered to remove the demoralizing words on the bottom of the badge issued to reporters: "No dogs or women allowed."

Respectability -- and big money -- came with progress, which washed some of the colorfulness out of the race scene of the "good old days" (someone now manufactures sanitary ear plugs).

When corporate America went to the races, it also attracted new fans by the thousands. Ticket sales document the fervor of Maryland fans. At Dover International Speedway, 16 percent of ticket buyers are from Maryland. The average ticket buyer on the Winston Cup circuit buys four tickets. Translated, that means about 49,000 of the expected 77,000 fans at the Peak Antifreeze 500 race next month will be from Maryland.

In Daytona Beach, the computer shows 2 percent of ticket

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