On the Fast Track

Once the sport of bootleggers, NASCAR is quickly becoming America's favorite pastime
| By Bruce Schoenfeld | From 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.

This meant that instead of being exposed to a sponsor's message for two or three hours each race day, these fans became a captive audience for the better part of a week. Sponsors liked that. And the nature of the racetrack—a big oval of pavement with a huge hole in the middle and plenty of space all around—meant that real estate wasn't at such a premium as it was in sports stadiums and arenas. "This is one of the few sports where you let the people into the locker room," Bill France Jr. says now, walking slowly through a cluster of fans in the garage area inside the New Hampshire International Speedway, his checked jacket and khakis getting lost among the sea of brightly colored logos pasted on every available inch of space. "This is our locker room. Sponsors can bring special guests or customers to an event, and we can make them feel special."

France looked at a map of the United States and saw plenty of room for more wide-open tracks. In 1988, NASCAR raced for the first time in Phoenix. In 1989, the circuit came to Sonoma, California. New Hampshire followed in 1993, and then a year later Indianapolis—at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the famed Brickyard. That race marked the circuit's coming-out party. "It was a major philosophical move," says NASCAR president Helton. "From the success of that race came the ability of NASCAR to follow the progression of track opportunities going into major markets."

This year's schedule has races in the Los Angeles area, Fort Worth, Las Vegas, Miami, Kansas City and Chicago, with Seattle and Portland, Oregon, possibilities in the near future. And with negotiations well under way to build a stock car track on New York City's Staten Island, a race in America's biggest market is likely by the end of the decade.

What the track owners and race promoters get is Shumila, Gaumond and millions more like them. According to a recent study by Ipsos Reid, an independent research firm commissioned by NASCAR, someone who "describes himself as a NASCAR fan" is more likely than someone who doesn't to be a business professional, to have an officer-level position in a company and to have influence over business purchasing decisions of $500,000 or more. "You're seeing a far more upscale, educated audience with more disposable income than before," says Abraham Madkour, executive editor of the Street & Smith's Sports Business Journal, the leading trade publication for the sports industry. "There are a lot of CEOs who love the sport, and they get a kick out of [not only] going out to the track, but also being associated with it. Ten, fifteen years ago, you didn't have that."

Today, more Fortune 500 companies participate in NASCAR than any other sport, including a third of the top 100 advertisers in the United States, and five of the top 10. Unlike what Helton calls the "ball-and-stick" sports, NASCAR evolved with advertising plastered on the sides of the vehicle. Eager to make a connection to the teams they support, fans understand and even appreciate that. If they're supporters of, say, Tony Stewart, who drives the No. 20 Home Depot Chevrolet, they consider a visit to a Home Depot anywhere in America as the equivalent of a Notre Dame fan browsing through the T-shirt section of the university's bookstore. "The fans are smart and savvy, and you have to treat them with a great deal of respect," says Michael Robichaud, Nextel's senior director for sports and entertainment. "They know they're being marketed to, but they want to build a relationship with the sponsors. What could be better than that?"

On Friday morning of a race weekend, Jeff Gordon is searching for a restaurant. Not for his next meal, but a particular establishment he visited the last time he passed through Italy. "It's his favorite restaurant in Rome, and he can't remember the name," says Jon Edwards, Gordon's public relations manager, punching up a number on a cell phone in search of the information.

A Northern Californian, Gordon is in many ways a new archetype of NASCAR racer. The prize money and additional sponsorship money involved—Gordon has earned more than $58 million of the former in his 13-year career, and untold millions more of the latter—put these drivers at the opposite end of the socioeconomic scale than their bootlegging forebearers. "The money we make allows us the opportunity to enjoy some of the finer things in life," the four-time Winston Cup champion says, relaxing in the back of his lavishly appointed motor coach before a qualifying session. "I don't know what the other drivers did to enjoy the off weekend this weekend, but I went to St. Tropez."

Apart from the motor coach, Gordon owns a yacht that shuttles between the Bahamas, the Hamptons and beyond, and a private plane. The week of the Dodge/Save Mart 350 at Sonoma, California's Infineon Raceway last June, he dined at Yountville's French Laundry. In New York, he favors Pastis, Balthazar and Il Mulino. Later this year, he'll have his name on a bottle of wine, details to come. Last December, too, he began a sponsorship affiliation with Elizabeth Arden as a spokesman for the Halston Z-14 fragrance. Somehow, it's hard to imagine a fragrance company doing the same with Richard Petty.

It isn't just Gordon. Up and down the starting grid, you'll find drivers who have more in common with NBA stars and NFL quarterbacks—or even NBA and NFL team owners—than with drivers of even the recent past. That kind of profile attracts different advertisers. So Michael Waltrip is endorsing Citizen watches, Rusty Wallace has a deal with Callaway golf clubs, Dale Earnhardt Jr., with Drakkar Noir cologne. Mike Skinner, a former Winston Cup driver who now races in NASCAR's Craftsman Truck Series, is a wine lover who names each of his trucks after different bottlings. "We're not just a bunch of guys from Virginia and the Carolinas who decided we'd go out on a back road and see how far we could make a black stripe," says Jeff Burton.

Burton charts the evolution from beer and Winstons to fine wine and cigars. "It has been interesting to watch the things that interest the people in the sport," he says. "I can tell you that 10 years ago, people who enjoyed wine and going to fine restaurants were looked upon as snooty, a little uptight. Today, that's far from the case."

Richard Childress, who owns a four-car team in NASCAR's Nextel Series (Kerry Earnhardt's No. 33 Bass Pro Shops Chevrolet, Jeff Burton's No. 31 Cingular Wireless Chevrolet, Kevin Harvick's No. 29 GM Goodwrench Chevrolet and Dave Blaney's No. 07 Jack Daniel's Chevrolet), is the embodiment of that evolution. He started in NASCAR in 1965, a country kid with a $20 race car, and has since won six Winston Cup championships as an owner. Now Childress is building a winery and sparing no expense. He hired winemaker Mark Friszolowski to help create Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah and Sangiovese at Childress Vineyards, which is located in Lexington, North Carolina. "A guy like me, who'd have thought?" Childress asks.

Childress greets a visitor in the living room of his $1.1 million motor coach—"It's about as decked out as you can get," he says—by motioning to an open auction catalog on a counter. He's buying more Western art for what is already a formidable collection. "If I wasn't starting my winery, I'd buy this Russell," he says, pointing to a painting by renowned frontier artist Charles Russell that will command a price in the high five figures. "I want that thing in the worst way."

With its marble floor, huge television and pair of matching La-Z-Boys, Childress's motor coach is primed for fine living, wherever he might be. In a wine unit, cooled to the requisite 55 degrees, he has bottles of 1999 Silver Oak Napa Cabernet Sauvignon, 1998 Domaine de Trevallon and a dozen others. At home, he has a 3,500-bottle wine cellar, including multiple vintages of Penfolds Grange and a 1945 Mouton-Rothschild, which has been called the greatest bottle of the twentieth century. He smokes J.C. Newman's Diamond Crowns. "I like to get a cigar, sit in my backyard, get a good glass of Cognac with a little ice," he says. "Today's NASCAR fan can relate to that."

It would be easy to forget that what he does for a living is own modified stock cars, race-worthy versions of the Chevrolets that consumers drive at home. Then he opens the door to the steaminess of the New Hampshire summer, where Saturday morning practice is just beginning for the Nextel Cup cars, and it comes flooding back with that roar of a race that sounds like nothing else. Strip away the marketing, and that roar—and the smell of rubber and gasoline and the flash of color around the track that go with it—is at the heart of NASCAR's success. "People just relate to driving fast," Childress says. "At the end of the day, everybody owns a car."

At precisely noon on Sunday, a weekly event takes place that is unique in professional sports. All of the day's NASCAR drivers, along with a throng of designated VIP guests, file into a designated garage that has been outfitted with a row of folding chairs. Drivers who arrive late are fined.

Mike Helton, who favors Arturo Fuente Hemingways and the exalted Super Tuscan wine Tignanello, steps to a microphone. Before he gets down to the business of the meeting—real insider stuff about rule changes and driver admonishments that fans feel privileged, even thrilled, to hear—he welcomes the week's list of celebrities. There's Boston Red Sox owner John Henry sitting near the back, and daredevil Robbie Knievel up front. The governor of West Virginia is there, and the governor of Virginia, and a New Hampshire state senator. Then there are the sponsors: an executive vice president of Nextel and various Siemens executives. Often, the list is far longer.

In a five-minute ceremony, one that is repeated week after week at tracks around the country, Helton underscores the point that at NASCAR, the sponsor is king. Imagine the New York Yankees not only letting various CEOs and politicians into the locker room before each game, but actually having Joe Torre stand up and introduce them to his players, and you get the idea of what this must feel like to these particular businessmen. Then Michael Waltrip asks a question about the new green-and-white checkered flag and the VIPs are enthralled all over again. On the way out, there's even a minute or two for autographs.

Outside, the helicopters have been landing all morning, ferrying in the wealthy and the important from Boston and beyond. Much of the rest of the crowd, the 100,000 and more who will jam into the grandstands, have been there since five and six o'clock in the morning—NASCAR race-day traffic jams are legendary. And all those campers on the hill have been on-site for days already, not only soaking up the sponsors' billboards and other advertising, but going out of their way to visit the interactive exhibits that sponsors such as The Home Depot, DuPont, the U.S. Army and AOL put on-site.

In the luxury suite of UPS, high above the first turn, a turkey the size of a coffee table is being carved alongside rare roast beef. UPS hosts hospitality suites at 13 of the 36 Nextel Series races. It uses them to reward existing customers and to attract the occasional new business. But more than that, the entire company is excited about Dale Jarrett's No. 88 UPS Ford. It's as if UPS owned an NFL or NBA franchise, except that the appeal doesn't skew regionally. "We have 250,000 employees in the United States, and it's their team that races each weekend," says Patrick Guilbert, UPS's vice president for sponsorships and events. "When I go to work on Monday, I get, 'Why did Dale change two tires instead of four on the last pit stop?' From people I pass in the hall, but also the top executives. Everyone has an interest."

The flag drops, and the race begins. Somewhere, thousands of UPS employees, from sorters and drivers to vice presidents, are watching on TNT, which divides the second half of the NASCAR season with NBC, every race getting national exposure. The 100,000 fans in the grandstands, the governors of three states and the mayors of Trenton, Hartford and Philadelphia, who are all ensconced in the Nextel suite, are watching, too. Up on the hill, Shumila, Gaumond and their friends have set up near their campers with wine glasses and beer cans in hand.

Their victuals may be different, but the race itself transcends any socioeconomic barrier between these categories of fans. It's NASCAR's secret. The cars circle the track in a blaze of color, and the high-pitched whine of the engines builds to a crescendo each time one passes. To the VIPs starting on their cheesecake and the factory workers on the hard seats in the bleachers, it sounds just the same.

Bruce Schoenfeld is a frequent contributor to Cigar Aficionado.