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."