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NASCAR: High Speed Success

By Ken Denlinger
Washington Post Staff Writer
August 1, 1995

LONG POND, PA. -- As Dale Earnhardt and the other drivers on the Winston Cup circuit start their Thursday practices for Sunday's race, fans already are pouring onto the infield. Yes, three days before the main event, recreational vehicles of all sizes and shapes maneuver for preferred positions along the backstretch. Weed-eaters help establish boundaries throughout dozens of lumpy acres that will have a population the size of a small city when the green flag drops. Fans bring all the vital supplies -- food and lawn chairs, water and beer -- and they also bring their emotions.

It is not unusual for an RV with Florida tags to be parked next to one with Canadian tags, or for a half-dozen fans to reconfigure a school bus and take it to the races. Everyone has fierce loyalties to the cars, to the drivers and to the products they seem to pitch during every second of every day. Racing for them is exceedingly personal, even though they know it has very little to do with their practical lives.

Consider the car Earnhardt drives. Its frame looks exactly like the Monte Carlo found at any Chevy dealership, but the tires wear out every half hour or so, it only gets about five miles to the gallon and Earnhardt has to crawl in and out through the window because there aren't any doors. Yet the sticker price would be about $150,000.

That's big-league stock-car racing.

And the faithful can't get enough.

"I have my side {of the camper}, he has his," said Beverly Uliasz of Reading, Pa., 76 hours before the recent 500-miler at Pocono Raceway. "My side roots for Dale." Her husband Michael's side roots for Mark Martin. The Uliaszes paid $100 to get their truck and camper into the infield and $40 each for tickets that let them see every practice session, two time trials and competition for a modest event that stretches over three days. When cleanup chores are finished, Michael straps to the camper a large pole that has flags that celebrate Earnhardt and Martin.

"We're at home now," Beverly says.

The melding of the National Association of Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR) men and their machines and fans and their passion and money has become a sporting phenomenon. According to NASCAR, attendance at Winston Cup races has more than tripled in the past 15 years, from about 1.5 million in 1980 to nearly 4.9 million last year. According to Forbes magazine, the total annual income for racetrack owners and racing teams is $2 billion.

"We cover the Southeast like a blanket," said Darrell Waltrip, who has won 84 Winston Cup races and three overall season championships during a 23-year career and now owns the car he drives. "When you do something like that, dominate a market, there ain't a chairman of the board in this country who won't say: How are you going to do it and how can we get involved?' That's what we've done for 20 years. Now, we're starting to grow out of that, spread all over the country."

NASCAR has penetrated Michigan and New Hampshire in the North, California and Arizona in the West and, most significantly, Indianapolis in the Midwest. With its first Brickyard 400 last year, NASCAR invaded IndyCar territory and succeeded almost beyond imagination. More than 300,000 tickets were sold, officials said, and there were requests for almost three times as many.

Next year, Miami will be a new stop for the second-level Busch Grand National series. The developers of a new speedway about 45 miles from Los Angeles have been promised a Winston Cup race once the track is completed.

NASCAR was founded in 1947 by D.C. native William France and still is owned and operated by his heirs, especially iron-fisted 62-year-old William Jr., who was born at Children's Hospital and lived in Washington for a year before the family moved to Florida. Its signature series is the Winston Cup, but NASCAR has 11 divisions, many of them regional, and gets at least a small piece of nearly everything at most tracks. With an estimated net worth of more than $500 million, the France family has cracked the Forbes 400.

"One person {France} makes the decisions," said former Washington Redskins coach Joe Gibbs, who has been a NASCAR owner for nearly four years. "If you don't like it, get out. And that has a lot of advantages. It's the best-run sport in America. It doesn't have strikes. It doesn't have everybody sitting out. This thing is 18 percent growth last year. It's taken off like a rocket ship."

Still, the sport is vulnerable to criticism. For instance, there are almost no blacks associated with high-stakes stock-car racing and very few black fans at most races. Said France: "Wendell Scott was active in Winston Cup in the 1950s and won a race. That's when it was predominately Southern. There were no barriers then and there haven't been since."

NASCAR claims that 29 percent of the fans who attend its races make at least $50,000 a year, that 72 percent own their own homes, that 64 percent are married and that 88 percent have graduated from high school. Also, 38 percent are women.

"I was in Dover {Del.} about two months ago," said Joe Spencer, one of the numerous vendors who operate out of enormous trailers, "and I see this guy who hasn't shaved in a couple of days and has on a hat that's all dirty. He hollers at me, calls me by name -- and when he gets close I find out it's my lawyer. A guy I've only seen in a suit and tie. I say: What the hell happened to you?' He said: This is my week to be redneck.' "

NASCAR is by far the most commercial of all sports. Long before baseball had billboards behind home plate and colleges gravitated toward corporate tie-ins, NASCAR had sponsor names splattered all over its cars and the uniforms of its drivers.

"All sports depend on outside money," said driver Kyle Petty. "We're just honest about it and nobody else is. Nothing is for free. Even my name {the large script Kyle over the driver-side opening} is not for free."

Major sponsorships for a car might run as much as $6 million per year -- and that means major concessions. Earnhardt's car is the GM Goodwrench Chevrolet, Martin's car is the Valvoline Ford and Michael Waltrip's is the Pennzoil Pontiac. Always, there is intense boardroom competition in the 42-car fields: the McDonald's Ford driven by Bill Elliott going against the Burger King Chevrolet driven by Joe Nemechek, the Budweiser Chevrolet driven by Ken Schrader matched against the Miller Genuine Draft Ford driven by Rusty Wallace and the Coors Light Pontiac driven by Petty.

Chevy. Ford. Pontiac. Instant identification. Familiar, family-oriented -- and American -- sponsors for the most part. Yet the signature underwriter for NASCAR's major racing series, the Winston Cup, and primary sponsor of Jimmy Spencer's Camel Ford is a cigarette company, R.J. Reynolds. Federal regulations ban tobacco from being advertised on television, but those restrictions are conveniently skirted when Winston Cup races are shown on TV and Winston's name and logo just happen to show up every few seconds. Recently, the Food and Drug Administration concluded that nicotine is a drug that should be regulated and the Justice Department announced that Philip Morris agreed to move its cigarette billboards from the view of television cameras at sports stadiums.

According to a study recently reported by the Boston Globe, eight cigarette and chewing tobacco brands received 53 1/2 hours of television exposure, a few seconds at a time, during auto races televised from 1988 to 1993. The same study said there were 10,623 mentions of tobacco brand names during those broadcasts.

R.J. Reynolds "is a legitimate company in America," France said during a telephone interview. "Our signs only have the Winston Cup logo, or the name of the event. People have different views about this. I've got mine {he's a smoker}. But tobacco is a legitimate product -- and its people should be treated as such."

Selling the Sport

A major part of stock-car racing's appeal is competitive races made so by rules that often restrict speed, and a policing system that has collected $225,000 in fines so far this year. And the stars, the drivers, are available for autographs and pictures as in no other sport. Elliott had to cut short a news conference after he qualified for the pole at Pocono to make an appearance at a McDonald's. Jeff Gordon entertained several hundred clients a few hours before the race. A few years ago, a former associate said, Earnhardt was doing 200 appearances a year.

"The driving side's the easy side," Earnhardt insists.

Earnhardt, 44, does not complain. That's because his success -- a record-tying seven Winston Cup championships, including four of five in the 1990s -- has helped lift his lifetime winnings to more than $25 million. In addition, Forbes estimated that Earnhardt last year made at least $5 million from the sale of souvenirs. He recently bought the major distributor of his souvenirs in a deal that Forbes says probably doubled his profit margin.

The only thing Earnhardt has had in common with his fellow drivers the past several years is having grown up in racing. Three Bodine brothers -- 46-year-old Geoff, 36-year-old Brett and 31-year-old Todd -- are highly recognized regulars on the circuit. So are the Labonte brothers, 38-year-old Terry and 31-year-old Bobby, who has driven Gibbs's Interstate Batteries Chevrolet to two victories and two poles this season. So are Rusty and Mike Wallace. And Darrell and Michael Waltrip.

One generation of stock-car fans knows that Kyle Petty, 35, is Richard Petty's son; an older one knows that he is Lee Petty's grandson. Kyle is the first third-generation driver to win a Winston Cup race. Richard won a record 200 Winston Cup races, but Kyle was the first Petty to win $1 million in one season (1992).

"Racing is such a time-consuming sport," Kyle said. "The season goes from the first of February through the middle of November. You have December off, but you're building new cars and testing in January. So if you're going to hang out with your family, you have to hang out at a racetrack. And the tracks cater to families. So when you grow up in that environment and look for something for your children, you say: Well, it wasn't too bad when I was growing up; it can't be too bad for them, either.' So you bring them along."

Earnhardt's late father, Ralph, built the cars he raced and was NASCAR's champion in the sportsman category in 1956. Money was scarce back then for the Earnhardt family in small-town North Carolina, however, and Dale dropped out of school after ninth grade.

"If I had a quarter in my pocket, I thought I was okay," he said. "My first car was a '56 Ford we built out of the junk yard. Junk yard probably gave it to us. I knew we didn't have the money to go buy new pieces, that we had to get used pieces and build or modify things. Racing was a lot different then {he started seriously in the early 1970s and was Winston Cup rookie of the year in 1979}. The bank in Concord {N.C.}, Piedmont National, loaned me $500 on a 90-day note several times to buy tires. I'd finally get enough to pay 'em back -- or they'd renew the note. The engine guy would carry me on the parts."

Earnhardt was talking about hard times on the wrap-around leather sofa in an air-conditioned trailer that's 58 feet long and serves as: a small kitchen -- complete with refrigerator and microwave -- where everyone eats standing up; a parts store; a computer center; storage for Earnhardt's primary and backup cars and two engines (one for qualifying and the other for the race); and a private area for relaxation that includes the latest in television and stereo equipment. Everyone on the circuit has one. The trailer costs about $185,000, the tractor that pulls it about another $90,000.

"It costs over $200,000 per race for the major teams, $5 {million} to $8 million for the season," said the owner for whom Earnhardt drives, Richard Childress. If the weekly expenses were broken down, about $85,000 might be allocated to the car and another $12,000 for tires. A set of four costs $1,200 and a car goes through about 10 sets a week.

"We try to cover 50 to 60 percent of our expenses through sponsorships," Childress said. "The rest is through winnings. I remember that until 1980, the biggest sponsor I had paid $75,000 -- for the year."

From Martinsville to Long Pond

Even with the staggering amount of money generated by NASCAR, there are mom and pop touches along a circuit that includes several stops in rural, village-like settings such as the one in which Pocono Raceway is located, Long Pond.

About three miles from the Pocono track, at one end of the parking lot of a pizza shop, Ronnie and Pauline Pegram parked a red-and-white trailer almost the size of Earnhardt's four days before the race and opened for business. They sell NASCAR-endorsed apparel that ranges from shirts and jackets to trinkets. They would have set up at the track, except officials there would not let them bring their 8-year-old poodle, Boo.

"The only family I've got is mostly right here," said Pauline. She pointed across the parking lot, where her brother, Joe Spencer, was opening a similarly sized operation oriented toward the Skoal Racing team and driver Rick Mast. Spencer had the advantage of having Mast's show car parked near his trailer.

The Pegrams and Spencer live in the Martinsville, Va., area and make most of the 30-plus Winston Cup races each year. Ronnie Pegram also has taught vocational cabinet-making for 27 years. That made renovating the North American Van Lines trailer he got out of a junk yard about 13 years ago easy. The rig includes a bed, bath and refrigerator so they can avoid motel costs that can hit $140 on Friday and Saturday nights. But that steady, secure paycheck also has made getting from one race to the next especially tiring. Many weeks during the school year, he drives Pauline and their 25-year-old son, Paul, to the track and makes it back in time for classes. He leaves Friday night to join them for the weekend.

Down the road from where the Pegrams and Spencer run their parking-lot businesses and about a mile or so past the 1,100-acre track is Long Pond. The name frequently pops up on television and is the dateline for stories that run in papers worldwide. But Long Pond is not quite what you might imagine. It's a large area, but the population is only about 220. Long Pond is part of Tunkhannock Township, whose population is slightly more than 2,000.

So crowds of well over 100,000 for a race in June and one in July are both a boon to the economy and a mighty burden on residents and officials. "These two races keep businesses going for another winter," said one of the three township supervisors, Tom Delese. "And we get $75,000 in taxes for each race. That's not a bad inconvenience."

Gordon and the Future

NASCAR hopes that innovative ideas, such as a beautiful working relationship with television that puts cameras inside the cars and microphones in front of crew chiefs at the critical moments of a race, keep flowing. Barring something tragic, which always is possible, it will benefit tremendously from a driver whose boyish looks suggest he ought to be in a high school driver's education course: the 24-year-old Gordon.

In just his third full season, Gordon sits atop the Winston Cup standings with a 78-point lead over Sterling Marlin and a 146-point advantage over Earnhardt. "Real gifted. A natural," said Gibbs. "I interviewed him {before hiring Dale Jarrett in 1992} but he said he wasn't ready yet."

Gordon grew up in California and won his first trophy, at age 4, racing a bicycle at a track up the street. "I might still have that somewhere," he said. He was racing go-carts and quarter-midgets from age 5 to about 13, when his family moved to more racing-friendly Indiana. There Gordon began driving sassy sprint cars three years before he could drive on the streets.

"I was happy racing sprint cars for the rest of my life, if that's what would happen," he said. "But I started winning on TV." And sponsors came running. He was Busch Grand National rookie of the year in 1991 and won 11 races on that circuit a year later before taking NASCAR's final big step to Winston Cup.

"When you're younger, you don't figure anything," he said. "You just do it. Really, that's kind of the way we're doing it now. I don't think about what's going to happen this time next year, or this time 10 years from now. I've been successful one race at a time, one year at a time. Why change?"

One of the most telling signs of NASCAR's immense popularity came a few hours after the race at Pocono, on an interstate that shoots south through Pennsylvania. Fans knew the colorful, distinctive 18-wheelers that carry the cars and their equipment would be whizzing by and they gathered on several overpasses for the slightest glimpse, waving flags for the Gordon team, for the Earnhardt team and for others.

France doubts there will be Winston Cup racing outside the United States anytime soon "because we already are pretty stretched out. It would be like putting two pounds in a one-pound bag." Waltrip and others do not want expansion at the expense of forcing out some of the people who helped trigger success.

"You know," Waltrip said after a day of changing from his driver's suit after a morning practice to his business suit for early-afternoon television commentary and then back to his driver's suit for some late-afternoon work, "its kind of like we're all looking over here. And here's this goose. And the goose keeps laying them golden eggs. And we all say: I don't want to be the one to stop her.' So I don't expect we're going to change a whole, whole lot. I think we'll let mother goose do what she's been doing for a long time -- and we'll just follow along."

© 1995 The Washington Post Company

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