NASCARnage

Southern stock car racing spins out the motorsports competition and moves into the lead lap among all spectator sports

It's Race Day in Charlotte, N.C., and a withering Carolina sun fights through the gray malaise left over from a midday shower, exploding off the hoods of assorted wide-bed pickups, dusty Blazers, gutted church buses and space-age Winnebagos topped with satellite dishes and sun decks.

All those sturdy chrome-and-steel road horses are grazing the massive infield of Charlotte Motor Speedway, each one saddled with a crude platform of two-by-fours. Clusters of shirtless men and women in bikinis stand on each platform, a sea of sunburned flesh dotted with faded flag-and-banner buoys--Confederate flags, black number threes, beer and Chevy signs and other heartland stock car totems.

More than 165,000 racing fans are here for the Coca-Cola 600, a National Association of Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR) Memorial Day staple. Right now they're all on their feet, hooting and stomping, craning their necks and straining to keep up with the 43 Day-Glo plastic toys careening around a 1.5-mile black-tar oval at breakneck speed.

Through three days of preliminaries, Charlotte has played host to all the wanton revelry that is NASCAR, an orgy of all-night barbecues, tailgate keggers and unmitigated noise. This is the Main Event--dozens of fearless Winston Cup cowboys on six-cylinder steeds, endlessly circling the track.

For fans like Dewayne Nolan, a 29-year-old Knoxville bartender watching his third Coca-Cola 600 from the Charlotte infield, "it doesn't get any better than this. We've got plenty of beer, food everywhere and cars going by at 200 miles per hour."

There's nothing new about down-home folks watching fast cars run around big tracks, but there is a new fervor surrounding NASCAR, the 48-year-old privately owned corporation that sponsors the popular Winston Cup circuit as well as 11 other racing series.

Evolved from moonshine running in the backwoods of the Carolinas and Tennessee, stock car racing was given structure and promotional unity when Maryland-born mechanic William France founded NASCAR in 1947. The popularity of southern-fried racing burgeoned under its sanction; by 1976, the NASCAR Winston Cup (the 31-race gantlet that determines the sport's champion) had become the world's best-attended motor sports series.

Although North Carolina is generally regarded as the Mecca of stock car racing, portions of the Holy Land extend into Tennessee. Winston Cup drivers like Darrell Waltrip (a three-time Winston Cup champion), Bobby Hamilton and Sterling Marlin (a sideline regular at UT football games) all hail from the Volunteer state, and NASCAR faithful have been making the pilgrimage to hallowed Bristol International Speedway for more than 35 years to watch drivers navigate racing's steepest turns on the world's fastest half-mile track.

In Knoxville, the Pilot Corporation sponsors a racing team owned by a NASCAR legend, and several entrepreneurial aficionados own businesses that cater to racing fans. Furthermore, you'll find as many fans per square inch here as anywhere else in the country--just ask your favorite local TV sportscaster how many angry calls he gets when he omits racing highlights from the six o'clock news.

But what was once a sport of predominantly regional interest is now a national phenomenon. Forbes magazine estimates that between the NASCAR corporation and its sundry speedways and racing teams, the sport now pulls in more than $2 billion a year. Races in such distinctly non-southern places as Dover, Del., and Sonoma, Calif., draw as many fans as those at more traditional outposts like Charlotte and Talladega. And according to NASCAR, attendance at all 31 Winston Cup events more than doubled between 1980 and 1994.

Most people affiliated with racing say NASCAR really took off when Fortune 500 companies awoke to the sport's marketing possibilities in the early '80s and turned stock cars into high-speed billboards by sponsoring individual racing teams.

"Unlike football or baseball, sponsors are crucial to racing," says NASCAR spokesman Andy Hall. "The sponsors are entities in and of themselves, just like the cars and the drivers. They are the game."

While corporate America was infusing the sport with new money and tapping its southern and heartland fans, ESPN was turbocharging its Neilsen ratings and exposing NASCAR to a whole new audience by offering flag-to-flag coverage of almost every Winston Cup event.

"All the media cared about before that was sticks and balls," says Lake Speed, a former world go-cart champion and a 17-year NASCAR veteran. "But when ESPN took off with the Winston Cup around 1981, everyone started paying attention."

Hall believes NASCAR was always a phenomenon waiting to happen. For starters, he says, NASCAR drivers are among the most accessible athletes in sports, renowned for clean-living and fan-friendly behavior at a time when sports stars often receive more press for sexual hijinks and contract disputes than for game-day heroics.

"They don't charge for autographs," says Hall. "They don't go on strike. They've taken it upon themselves to take care of the fans and bolster the image of the sport."

Or, as Speed puts it, "It's a much rarer thing for someone to do something stupid off the track in Winston Cup. We don't have too many loose cannons."

And given the country's decades-old love affair with the automobile, arguably the single most enduring icon of 20th-century American culture, Hall says it was inevitable that people would eventually flock to a sport where everyman drivers crawl into souped-up cars that look almost like they just rolled off the showroom floor.

"Everyone drives a car, and everyone can relate to it," Hall says. "Everyone can look out there and imagine themselves behind that wheel and say, 'I could do that.'"

The conference room at Pilot headquarters on Lonas Road is an air-conditioned tundra, barren save for a few reporters and a handful of executives trying to straighten a scroll-out projection screen that's been wrenched hopelessly askew (Jerk! Bang! "Damn!" Jerk! Bang! "Damn!"). But the red-faced bigwigs stop floundering when NASCAR team owner Bobby Allison and Winston Cup driver Derrike Cope walk in and flood the frigid hall with people.

Allison is a racing legend. A former Winston Cup series champion, he's third on the sport's all-time victory list with 84 wins, and a seven-time winner of NASCAR's Most Popular Driver award. But today he looks humble and grandfatherly in silver-rimmed specs, black slacks and a white shirt with no tie. He patiently signs autographs and fields questions from all comers, his craggy countenance etched with a warm, indelible smile.

Cope, a full-time Winston Cup driver since 1988, is likewise unfailingly polite. A broad-shouldered Washingtonian with a Clark Gable mustache and a tousled brown coif, he's flanked by a gaggle of pretty girls in flowery dresses, lots of suppressed giggles and pregnant smiles. Before the press conference is over, he and Allison have even signed autographs for most of the executives and P.R. flacks on hand.

Chief executive Jimmy Haslam announces that Pilot will become an associate sponsor of Allison's Motorsports racing team. For the oil giant, the partnership means a choice display on Allison's Cope-driven Number 12 rainbow-colored Ford, and exposure to a notoriously brand-loyal audience; according to a survey conducted by a Rhode Island research firm, more than 70 percent of racing fans consciously choose NASCAR sponsors' products over competing brands.

But Haslam says Pilot chiefs didn't need extensive marketing research to figure out that a NASCAR affiliation would strike the right chord with the company's service station clientele.

"We just knew from being out there in the stores and truck stops that this was a natural fit," says Haslam. "It was almost a no-brainer. You'd have to be asleep at the switch not to notice how successful NASCAR has been the last few years."

For Allison and Cope, the deal promises quick cash. Some mid-season shakeups left the team scrambling for new sponsorships, until Allison managed to sign both Pilot and Badcock Furnishings of Tampa, Fla., within the space of a few days. Sometimes, even a legend needs a helping hand.

"It's become so important to be able to afford the most modern innovations to help that car go a little bit faster," Allison says. "It's at a stage now where if you blink your eye, you miss the show."

According to Lake Speed, most Winston Cup teams keep about ten cars in rotation, each with its own specs, so drivers can meet the challenges posed by different tracks. And with the average team spending about half a million dollars every year on tires alone, owners and drivers have to solicit anywhere from $3 to $6 million in corporate sponsorships annually just to keep up with the field.

The system casts a bright, perhaps sweltering spotlight on Winston Cup drivers. With millions of corporate dollars banked on their reputations as well as on their driving skills, racers can't afford the public missteps and blights on their image that their stick-and-ball counterparts seem to take in stride.

It's one of the reasons that drivers often spend hours signing autographs after races or at sponsor functions. It's why every Winston Cup race winner performs the "hat dance" ritual on victory lane, posing for as many as 30 different promotional photos wearing caps from sponsors of both the NASCAR corporation and his own racing team; and why, aside from occasional post-race grousing, drivers generally keep their dirty laundry to themselves.

"You understand that if not for those sponsors, you stay at the house," says Speed. "They're the difference between being there or being on the outside looking in."

NASCAR is unique in the world of sports in that its athletes share their celebrity status with sponsors, team owners and even the cars themselves. Richard Childress, owner of the infamous black Number Three Chevrolets piloted by seven-time Winston Cup champion Dale Earnhardt, was assaulted by dozens of autograph-seekers on a recent trip to Pigeon Forge.

And Steve Grissom, a young Alabama racer with only a handful of top-ten finishes to his name, often takes a back seat (so to speak) to his popular car--the banana-colored Number 29 Monte Carlo is sponsored by the Cartoon Network and sports a hood-sized rendering of Fred Flintstone decked out in stone-age goggles and racing scarf.

On a gray afternoon at the Food City grocery in Halls, the sinister black Number Three Chevrolet draws dozens of racing fans eager to peer in at the spartan iron latticework of the roll-barred interior, or to peek under the hood at the brooding 358 cubic inch engine. Of course, this isn't actually "Dale Earnhardt's car"--it's the "No. 3 Goodwrench Service/Food City race car" (that it was driven by Earnhardt seems almost parenthetical.) And its pilot is nowhere in sight; he's more than 2,000 miles away, gearing up for the Save Mart Supermarkets 300 in Sonoma, Calif.

"Is this actually a car he won a race in?" asks an eager gent wearing a ball cap, with three cherubic tots in tow.

Indeed it is, says Food City Sports Marketing Director Barbara Beard. This particular version of the Number Three GS/FC cruised Victory Lane at the 1995 First Union 400 in North Wilkesboro, N.C. It's what NASCAR folks call a "show car"--a retired racer, or a at least logo-perfect facsimile of one--and Beard and driver Rocky Thomas (who happens to be a dead ringer for Earnhardt) shuttle the onerous 750-horsepower speedster to Food City stores in Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee every weekend.

For sponsors, a show car is the next best thing to having a driver on hand, and Beard says the black Number Three is a three-ton magnet for racing fans on a lazy summer afternoon. It's not uncommon for fans to haunt the parking lot for hours, she says, camcorder in hand, videotaping every logoed inch of their favorite driver's car. A woman in Richland, Va., once waded through an eight-hour downpour and took more than 200 pictures of the Earnhardt machine.

A former employee of three-time Winston Cup champion Cale Yarbrough's racing team, Beard says she understands the particular stripe of wide-eyed curiosity that pastes little noses to the driver's-side window, or sends grinning, know-it-all daddies poking around that muscular engine.

"Our cars are like our babies," she says. "A big car that goes fast is something almost everyone can get excited about."

On a scrubby hill above the Exit 407 ramp, the King looks out over westbound I-40 traffic streaming toward Sevierville. No, Pigeon Forge's Elvis tribute theater hasn't changed locations. In NASCAR parlance, the King is Richard Petty, the sport's all-time victory leader with 200 wins, and a seven-time Winston Cup series champ (only Earnhardt has as many season trophies.)

The 15-foot plastic Petty bust, complete with trademark feathered cowboy hat, black shades, red STP jacket, bushy mustache and toothy smile, announces owner Bruce Riggs's Victory Lane Texaco convenience mart/NASCAR collectibles shop, a cluttered little white two-story shack which is home to cars, trailers and assorted NASCAR memorabilia.

A chain-smoking Virginia native with a pickled voice and jet-black hair, Riggs says the NASCAR shop was an outgrowth of his hobbies--going to races and collecting stock car souvenirs.

"I go to 8 or 10 races a year, and I'd spend three or four hours buying T-shirts and hats for other people," he says. "I finally said 'Why not make a profit off this?'

"It's really more a hobby than a job. You get to meet your customers, and you get to talk your racing."

Riggs confesses that the giraffe-sized cowboy head isn't really Petty, but rather a carefully disguised refugee from a Morristown country music billboard. But the Number 48 Darrell Waltrip Orange Blossom Special, a '65 Chevelle sitting a few feet from the gas pumps, is authentic, and so is the black Number 11 Gene Glover one-seat racer, a weathered '30s relic with obese rear tires and jutting chrome pipe whiskers.

In all, Riggs has five racers from as many decades lining the outer curb of the Victory Lane parking lot, as well as a trailer-load of frayed and gritty used tires from this year's Daytona 500 stacked in threes near the entrance to the store ("$20 apiece--people make coffee tables out of 'em") Inside, you'll find a sprawling range of NASCAR merchandise, from posters to ball caps to miniature die-cast cars.

According to Forbes, racing fans purchased more than $200 million worth of NASCAR merchandise in 1994, and Riggs's shop is only one of several NASCAR-related businesses in or around Knoxville. Nearly 15 miles up the road in Pigeon Forge, Winston Cup Race World boasts what might be the South's largest NASCAR souvenir store, with products from 25 different racing teams. The massive warehouse looming behind Castle Golf on the Parkway also houses 16 show cars dating back to 1935, an arcade with plenty of simulated racing, and 80,000 square feet of indoor go-cart-style racetrack (tiny stock cars or Indy-style minis--the stock cars go faster, of course.)

In the Kroger Plaza off Chapman Highway, former South Knox beer truck driver Burt Graybeal opened Victory Lane Collectibles shortly after attending his first race in Charlotte and "falling in love with the sport." And Bristol regulars Dwight and Carolyn Moreland opened Fast Lane Racing in East Towne Mall in 1992 after more than 20 years of going to tracks. Last year, the couple opened a second store in West Town.

It would be a grievous understatement to say the diversity of NASCAR merchandise is merely mind-boggling. All the standard collectible frivolities are accounted for--the commemorative plates and key chains, the coozies, caps and coolers. But then there are the NASCAR baby jammies, the NASCAR bow ties, the stuffed animals and train sets, even high-end stock-car jewelry.

And who could do without a limited edition mint Bobby Allison knife set (two gleaming pocket knives and a monstrous 12-inch Bowie)? Listed at $700, Graybeal offers the set at a bargain-basement $599.

But the biggest sellers are still the old souvenir stand-bys--the caps and shirts, preferably emblazoned with a favorite driver's mug. "When you go to a race, you can't go in an old shirt," says Graybeal. "You've got to get you a new T-shirt and a new hat every time."

There's a checkered-flag umbrella in the back seat of the maroon Caprice Classic parked in front of Conner Concepts at Franklin Square, and it's only the first of several clues that something race-related is going on inside. Sure enough, the walls in Mike Conner's plush executive suite are covered with blueprints, menus, maps and artist renderings of Conner Concepts' pending NASCAR Cafe.

Scheduled for a Labor Day opening in Myrtle Beach, S.C., East Tennessee's biggest NASCAR project won't happen in East Tennessee--at least not right now. Conner and company plan to open 10 of the racing-theme restaurants by the year 2000, with a Sevier County site under consideration for 1998.

An 18,500-square-foot octagon laden with show cars, video screens, interactive kiosks and sundry shrines to drivers and cars, the restaurant was designed by Hard Rock and Planet Hollywood architects with the intent of moving the theme restaurant concept into the 21st century.

"I don't think we could have a better theme," says cafe president Mark Dyer, himself a lifelong racing fan. "NASCAR is still a very young sport in many ways. It's been stereotyped as a southern redneck phenomenon. But now that the media is starting to catch on, the growth potential is enormous."

Conner, whose company owns the Chop House restaurant in Franklin Square, says developer Harold Pierce first suggested the NASCAR project in 1994. A shrewd businessman who helped build the Grady's chain, the dapper 40-ish restaurateur counted himself a racing illiterate but was intrigued by the prospect of tying in with a sport that more than tripled its merchandising revenues between 1990 and 1994.

Since earning franchise rights, he's met with NASCAR officials, attended races and consorted with the likes of Dale Jarrett, Kyle Petty and Earnhardt, who broke bread at the Chop House a few months back. After a year and a half of NASCAR saturation, does Conner consider himself a fan?

"I definitely wasn't before," he says with a smile. "I am now."

Moments later, he's on the phone to Charlotte, confirming travel plans.

Southern NASCAR fans are notoriously argumentative sorts. They debate the merits of various drivers ("You put Earnhardt in a wheelbarrow and he'll still finish in the top five!" "I'd never own a goddamned Bill Elliott hat!"). They ponder the finer points of engineering ("All the chassis are the same." "No they ain't." "Well, all the frames are the same."). They argue on general principal ("Bobby Allison signed my sleeve--I'm never gonna wash my shirt again!" "You don't wash your shirt any damn way!"). And most of all, they love to assert the stylistic and mechanical supremacy of their favorite make of car ("Ford! That's all I'm gonna say! Ford! Ford! Ford!"). It's a grand old tradition, sitting around the infield or the gas station or the diner and waging war over these issues of far-reaching--no, make that cosmic significance.

But one thing all the cantankerous pork-rind didacts seem to agree on is the appeal of their favorite sport. It's a had-to-be-there deal, they'll tell you, something you can't experience from a newspaper account or by watching cars the size of fists buzz around a tiny track on a 25-inch TV.

"Most people have no idea what's going on with stock car racing until they actually go to the track," says Speed. "Then they go one time, and they're hooked."

And in many ways, the souvenir stands and collectibles, the go-cart tracks, the ubiquitous corporate logos and the profligate show cars at coliseums and grocery stores represent a larger recognition of what racing's core audience, those folks on the Charlotte infield stomping and hooting and bleating rebel yells, have known all along: Racing is more than the sum of its parts. It's bigger than its red-blooded drivers (sorry, Number Three). It's bigger than the Gottrocks owners and sponsors. It's even bigger than all those neon rainbow cars, those iridescent Warholian speed boxes with the 750-hp motors and gleaming enamel shells.

In the end, NASCAR is truly the All-American sport--rampant capitalism and cars and red meat and beer. It's girls in bikinis and midnight milk-wagon races and summertime air sluggish with hickory smoke and diesel fumes, all of it rolled into one big noisy package and staged in modern-day Coliseums grand enough to hold three or four of those piddling little stadiums from any lesser sport.

On Aug. 24, the Goody's Headache Powders 500 will drop the green starter's flag at Bristol. If you've never been to a NASCAR race, choose a driver, buy a cap and a T-shirt, hop in the Winnebago and give it a try. But be forewarned: If you come back a fan, you have only yourself to blame.

© 1996 MetroPulse. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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