NASCAR: From Dirt To Blacktop

During WWII, GI's were able to ferret out German spies by asking suspicious characters questions about baseball trivia.

"What place are the Dodgers in?" stumped many an otherwise savvy Nazi spy, left him fumbling for an answer - and, soon thereafter, facing the business end of a M-1 rifle.

Fifty-plus years later, the average American is more interested in the minutiae of stock-car automobile racing than batting averages and no-hitters. Ask any 10 randomly selected sports fans and odds are that at least half of them will be able to cite chapter and verse about every race ever won by Dale "The Intimidator" Earnhardt - winner of this year's (1998) Daytona 500 and the most feared and loved man on the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing's Winston Cup Circuit.

How big has stock car racing become? Nearly 20 million fans pay up to $150 per seat to watch Winston Cup and Busch Grand National races every year. Attendance at NASCAR events has been growing 5 percent to 10 percent every year for the last several years, outpacing every other professional sport in the United States - including America's former "national pastime."

Tracks from Talladega, Ala, to the "Monster Mile" at Dover Downs in Delaware are packed to capacity - with scalpers asking for and getting three times the face value of tickets. The Daytona 500, Brickyard 400 and other big races sell out a year in advance.

New tracks are being built all over the country - in Denver, Kansas City, Atlantic City, Chicago, among other places - to make races accessible to the expanding legions of fans. An entire new series featuring race trucks has been spun-off the NASCAR "main event." And handsome Jeff Gordon, the sport's hottest young driver, has become the Leonardo Di Caprio of motorsports - drawing more "under-30s" fans into the NASCAR orbit than its organizers would have dared imagine possible just 10 years ago,

Corporate America, for its part, spent $990 million on motorsports marketing in 1997 - with that figure expected to exceed $1.09 Billion this year (1998). Spending on NASCAR accounted for half those revenues. Heavy-hitters, ranging from General Motors to Anheuser-Busch to Texaco and McDonald's, pay big bucks to have their logos adorn the flanks of NASCAR's iron horses because they know how many eyes will be glued to those corporate tradmarks on race day.

Baseball's revenues, meanwhile, would be a flatliner if it weren't for the TV rights that keep the sport economically viable. Stadiums are rarely filled these days and big-league fans can't hold a candle to NASCAR aficionados in terms of their purchasing loyalties. While race fans load up on T-shirts, jackets, keychains and literature about their favorite "shoe," baseball fans are much less likely to purchase a sponsor's product than are NASCAR fans. As a result, the profitability of baseball is way down - a problem only made worse by declining attendance.

Unlike baseball's pampered players, NASCAR drivers are risk-takers who accept the consequences of their actions. You'll never find a NASCAR driver spitting in a track official's face. And NASCAR drivers definitely are not the types who file lawsuits if they accidentally spill hot coffee on themselves.

NASCAR is "America's sport" because Americans love automobiles, competition and the down-home values stock car racing represents. Besides, you'd have to be some kind of mummy not to get a thrill out of seeing - and hearing and smelling - 700 horsepower machines screaming past you at 185 mph. - - Eric Peters for Knight-Ridder Newspapers:

Sy Morrison of Elmira, NY in 1951 with his 1937 Ford V85 Stockcar. Getting ready for the twenty mile tow to Chemung Speedrome. At the time, the 1/4 mile dirt oval located in Chemung, NY, and owned by Eli Bodine, father of NASCAR racing brothers Geoff, Brett and Todd, attracted the top drivers in New York and Pennsylvania.

Flagman Chuck Benner (left) and Track Manager Stu Morrison in 1971 at the Cherryfield Park Speedway. This 1/2 mile high banked dirt oval was located in Cherryfield, Maine. Here Dick Potter of Winter Harbor, Maine is presented with the checker flag after winning the main event.

One of the wreckers working the event that day was driven by Louie Santerre who lived about 100 yards from the speedway main entrance. He brought his young son to the track , 3 year old Andy Santerre, who stood in the front seat of the wrecker observering the bumping and banging that was so evident on Potter's left door in the picture. Andy, of course, went on to NASCAR, winning the 1998 Busch Series "Rookie-of-the-Year" award.

Courtesy AP News

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