Stock Car Racing Roars to Big Time: NASCAR Drivers Deliver the Goods

By Murray, Frank J. | The Washington Times (Washington, DC), February 18, 1996 | Go to article overview

Stock Car Racing Roars to Big Time: NASCAR Drivers Deliver the Goods


Murray, Frank J., The Washington Times (Washington, DC)


DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - Stock car racing has finally arrived in the sporting mainstream, shedding its good old boy taint three generations after Daytona 500 drivers learned the game from whiskey-hauling bootleggers.

Television networks hungry for offseason sports have found a game whose stars drive cars that look deceptively like those in fans' garages and whose images are wholesome enough to tempt family advertisers.

"When you think about professional athletes' boorishness in other sports, it is quite refreshing," said Len DeLuca, head of sports programming at CBS, which leads the pack of five cable and broadcast networks featuring NASCAR races.

This year he's doubling (13) the number of events CBS carried just two years ago and upgrading what already was star treatment for today's 500-mile classic, deploying 60 cameras where he used 26 last year.

That's more cameras than CBS has ever used at any event and include a SkyCam in a tiny remote-controlled helicopter and one carried by the Turn 4 cameraman wearing a bulletproof vest.

It doesn't hurt a bit that the current marquee driver - black-garbed Dale Earnhardt, 44, "The Intimidator" and all-time moneywinner - will try to regain his championship from "The Kid," 24-year-old Jeff Gordon. Reminiscient of Earnhardt's 1979-80 debut, Gordon was Rookie of the Year in 1993 and last season edged seven-time champion Earnhardt by a scant 34 points, becoming the youngest titlist in a quarter-century while winning $4,347,343.

Although the Daytona 500 victory repeatedly eludes Earnhardt, the track seems charmed for Gordon, a California native who began driving quarter-midget racers at age 5.

Gordon even met his wife here on his first-ever trip to NASCAR Victory Lane after a 1993 qualifying race. Brooke was Miss Winston, the beauty queen representing the tobacco company that underwrites the 31-race series carrying its nameplate.

DeLuca says Gordon's personal charm spurs interest as NASCAR is trying to draw younger fans and increase the percentage of women fans from 38 percent.

"He doesn't take for granted the limelight and he's not abusive. At a time when athlete symbols are under great scrutiny, these drivers are also fairly normal," DeLuca said.

The CBS executive says the soaring ratings are less important than the entry of consumer companies that commit more than $1 million a year each for car-sponsorships that were long the province of auto parts, cigarettes and beer.

"McDonald's and Tide are `the family,' " he said. Others in that league for today's race are Burger King, Kellogg's, Kodak, Kmart, Spam, Lowe's hardware, Family Channel and the Cartoon Network. …

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