Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

NASCAR'S Power Trip Growing Fan Interest, a Young Winning Wonder and Strong Executives and Driving the Success of Stock Car Racing

Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

NASCAR'S Power Trip Growing Fan Interest, a Young Winning Wonder and Strong Executives and Driving the Success of Stock Car Racing

Article excerpt

Not long ago, Lorene Smith would have been out shopping on a

sunny weekend, not hanging around a race track 400 miles away

from home, counting the minutes until the checkered flag

dropped.

"My husband always liked racing, but not me," said Smith, 49,

who came from Rockwell, N.C., for today's NASCAR Pepsi 400 race

at Daytona Beach, hoping to see the sport's premiere star.

Now, Smith and husband Terry, 53, plan vacations and weekends

around races. A casual interest has grown to a deep appreciation

for the sport's skill, danger and ambiance.

All occurred since Jeff Gordon, a handsome, 23-year-old wonder

kid, began dominating stock car racing's top circuit in 1993 --

wowing fans and giving Madison Avenue a hot, new pitchman.

"Let me tell you -- that boy is it," Smith said. "He's making

racing what it is today."

Stories like the Smiths' are echoing through grandstands, RV

lots, offices and coffee shops across America.

On its 50th anniversary, it's clear the National Association

for Stock Car Auto Racing is evolving, with Gordon's help, from

a niche sport to a contender for America's favorite pasttime.

The sport is not only making its way into the living rooms of

America but into a growing number of corporate board rooms, as

well.

This year, NASCAR racing will have scooped up $476 million of

the nearly $5 billion corporate America spends on sponsorships.

That's more than pro baseball, football, hockey and basketball

combined.

Attendance has skyrocketed from 4 million in 1993 to 6.5

million expected this year, a 65 percent increase. During the

same period, TV ratings grew by an unheard of 20 percent on

networks and 40 percent on cable while other sports' viewership

declined.

What's not clear is who or what is driving the success: the

sport, the executives who run it, or Gordon.

NASCAR President Bill France Jr., whose father founded the

sanctioning body in an era of dirt tracks and fist fights, said

they're all equally responsible.

"The sun is rising on Jeff Gordon. He's coming along at a time

when the sport is getting corporate backing and national

exposure that it has never had before," France said.

"Jeff is a winner. He is a good looking boy. He's young. He's

smart. He's articulate. He's helping us raise the bar on the

sport."

A NATIONAL FAN BASE

At tracks in Charlotte and Daytona, RVs parked in massive lots

bear plates from faraway places like Arizona, Minnesota, New

York and Alaska -- not exactly traditional stock car racing

country.

Since Gordon raced onto the NASCAR Winston Cup scene, the sport

has gone places it had never been before.

In the past two years, NASCAR opened retail stores in malls,

interactive cafes, and theme parks. Owners built tracks in big

cities and up North. Fan interest grew among people who barely

knew NASCAR existed 10 years ago.

"Until Jeff came along, we were a little concerned about our

demographics," said T.A. "Humpy" Wheeler, president of Speedway

Motorsports in Charlotte. "We were basically a sport of

blue-collar fans in small, Southern cities."

Six years later, the percentage of NASCAR fans under 35 have

increased from 45 percent to 51 percent. Women, like Lorene

Smith, have risen from 33 percent of the fan base to 38 percent.

People making over $40,000 increased from 40 percent to 44

percent.

New tracks opened in former racing wastelands as New Hampshire,

Las Vegas, and Los Angeles, with new ones planned for Kansas

City and Denver. …

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