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

September 14, 1997|By Peter Jensen | Peter Jensen,SUN STAFF

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.

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