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On the Fast Track

Once the sport of bootleggers, NASCAR is quickly becoming America's favorite pastime
Bruce Schoenfeld
From the Print Edition:
Morgan Freeman, Mar/Apr 2005

"We've been to Charlotte, we've been to Dover, to the Poconos, to Bristol," John Gaumond is saying. Sitting in shorts and a T-shirt outside a shiny Monaco Diplomat motor home on a hillside overlooking the New Hampshire International Speedway, the securities broker raises his voice to be heard over the din of the NASCAR Busch Series cars below. A bottle of pricey Sterling Merlot sits on the table, and homemade gourmet pizza is planned for dinner that night. "Everybody tries to outdo each other in terms of the menu," Gaumond's friend Chuck Shumila says. "There are 10 of us here for five days, and each day two guys are assigned to cook for the rest. It gets pretty intense."

Sporting shorts, no shirt and a baseball cap, Shumila shouts about football to some passersby. It's the typical NASCAR image, except that this isn't some patch of rural Carolina, and Shumila is hardly a redneck. He, Gaumond and their buddies, ranging in age from 32 to 44, visit other NASCAR tracks on occasion, but this trip up I-93 from their North Attleboro, Massachusetts, homes is their annual pilgrimage. They started a decade ago with an $18,000 motor home—"a GMC, just like in Meatballs," Shumila says. "Now this one costs a quarter-million."

Row after row of these mobile homes and campers—Winnebago Adventurers and Holiday Rambler Admirals and Champion Eurocoaches, each one worth in excess of $100,000 and some as much as a million—are parked on the hillside and the flatland beyond, some 8,000 in all. Their combined value of more than a billion dollars could buy a lot of fancy watches, never mind how much Red Man.

Over the last 15 years, the once-regional sport of stock car racing has taken America by storm. Television ratings now frequently exceed those for regular-season baseball and basketball games, and even playoff games in many markets. "We've made a conscious effort to not alienate fans that have been loyal to the sport for several generations, but at the same time we've attracted new demographics," says Mike Helton, NASCAR's president.

The change in title sponsor after 33 years, from cigarette manufacturer Winston to wireless provider Nextel, which signed a 10-year deal before the 2004 season for a reported $750 million, is symbolic of the surge. Cigarettes are a dying category, hardly emblematic of the new NASCAR. And what could be more modern, more upscale, more representative of a growth industry in the twenty-first century than a cellular phone?

For decades, the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing was centered in the poor, rural South, with weekly races run at ovals outside small towns in Alabama, Georgia, northern Florida and the Carolinas. The sport had its roots in bootlegging, fast-driving moonshiners roaring over back roads to evade the law. Its appeal lay in the concept that these weren't fancy creations like those on the racing circuits in Europe, just good old American cars not too different from yours.

Bill France Sr., the promoter who organized the first stock car race on the sands of Daytona Beach, Florida, in 1938, invented NASCAR in late 1947 as a governing body to sanction races, impose uniform rules and award championships. Today, it's the most valuable privately held equity in all of sports. NASCAR's revenues are somewhere between $12 million and $18 million a month, and analysts say that if the France family ever wanted to sell the organization, it would probably fetch close to $2 billion. There are several billionaires who own professional sports franchises, but the Frances are the only ones who acquired that status through sports.

The marketing miracle that made it happen can be best appreciated in juxtaposition with another sport. At about the time that Bill France Jr., who had taken over for his father in 1972, had the idea to grow stock car racing outside the South, the National Hockey League was trying to expand its base from the chilly Northeast. Hockey seemed to have all the advantages: a national television contract; big-city markets that included New York, Boston, Chicago and Detroit; and a structural similarity to baseball, football and basketball. NASCAR was mocked as the "endless left turn," a bunch of indistinguishable Dodges, Pontiacs and Chevys running around and around an oval until they eventually ran into one another.

But NASCAR had some inherent advantages that hockey didn't. Because only one—or, at most, two—races a year were run at any particular track, each became a happening. "If you miss one hockey game, there are plenty more," says driver Jeff Burton. But if you miss the NASCAR race in your area, you're out of luck until the following year.

Because they involve hundreds of acres of track space, NASCAR's venues tend to be far from major highways and difficult to reach. That made it sensible for fans to consider a trip to a race as a weekend outing. Instead of arriving several hours before the event and tailgating, as fans do in other sports, they started arriving on Thursday and, essentially, tailgating through Sunday, either from the back of a mobile home or a nearby motel. NASCAR encouraged the practice by giving fans races to watch in various regional and national categories all weekend long, as well as practice and qualifying sessions by the Winston Cup cars.

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