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NASCAR mania

Fans across the country making tracks to the races

LAS VEGAS — Round and round they go, and if they never stopped running a whole lot of NASCAR racing fans would be ecstatic.

America's crop of NASCAR fans can't seem to get enough. They pack every race, tune in every Sunday and pledge their undying allegiance on the shirts they wear and the hats they don.

Every spin of the tires, puff of smoke from an engine or spin-out in the infield lifts them out of their seats.

Two and a half hours and 400 miles of left turns, at 180 mph on the backstretches, only seems to tease the racing bug in them.

They come, they persevere and they leave their hearts and a good portion of their pocketbooks at the track — and can't wait for the next race.

Given the opportunity, fans of the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing will travel across the country for the chance to join another 125,000 racing diehards in a stand full of 2-foot-by-2-foot fold-down seats that cost just under $100 on average. A parking spot on the infield for a motor home can go for as much as $800.

They stand in 20-minute lines for the men's room, longer for the women's. The concession lines are even longer, yet fans plunk down $7 for a sausage sandwich and $3 for a 16-ounce drink — and never complain.

They come early and stay to the very finish. They sit in the stands and swap race stories, talk cars, make predictions, evaluate crews and leave only for food and the restroom. And, at some point, to jump into the wave of a human current flowing down merchants' row, hoping to come within reach a barker selling a picture of their favorite driver on a T-shirt.

There they were, 124,999 walking NASCAR billboards and one man in a University of Utah jacket — who stood out like a school bus at a motorcycle rally — all waiting for the pace car to pull off and 40 low-flying cars to break the maximum allowable speed limit three times over.

The NASCAR bug has bitten the country, and the undying devotion of fans is spreading like a wildfire in dry grass.

Last year, 6.5 million people attended one of the Winston Cup series races. Forty percent were women, 38 percent live in the southern corner of the country and 100 percent of them have purchased souvenirs. The average fan spends $287 a year on NASCAR merchandise, according to a fan survey by Edgar, Dunn & Co.

Over the past 10 years, the sale of NASCAR-licensed products has jumped nearly sixteenfold, from $80 million to $1.26 billion in 2000, and is expected to be much higher this season.

In the TV ratings race, only the NFL beats out NASCAR. The NBA and major league baseball trail way behind.

At the Las Vegas race earlier this month, there were nearly 50 of the 40-foot traveling trailers, each loaded with driver-specific merchandise, selling everything from $1,200 leather jackets to $5 cushions.

There were five separate trailers for Dale Earnhardt. Earnhardt was killed last month on the last lap of the opening race of the season in Daytona. Fans crowded around the trailers the entire day to buy some memento of their beloved driver or to write a farewell tribute to the racing legend on the panels of the trailer.

The most fitting read: "Thanks for the great times . . . we love you." The signature was illegible.

Many, like Rosie Kuhn of North Fort Atkins, Iowa, waited 20 to 30 minutes in a sea of people for an Earnhardt T-shirt, and said she would have waited longer.

"You come expecting to wait and spend money. It's part of racing," said her husband, Ken.

The Kanelases, Tom and Diane, of Las Vegas, spent less time in line, but more time in front of different trailers. She's a Jeff Gordon fan; he's a Mark Martin fan. She wore a Gordon coat and hat; he a Martin coat and hat, with all the supporting sponsors identified in bright banners.

Records show that products affiliated with Earnhardt and Gordon comprise 80 percent of all merchandise sold. The most popular items at this race, said the salesman in an Earnhardt trailer, were $25 black hats and $25 black T-shirts carrying his No. 3, and $125 team jackets.

In a flurry of quick interviews, fans gave every imaginable reason for their devotion to NASCAR racing, ranging from the speed of the cars, to the sound of the motors, to Jeff Gordon's handsomely boyish looks.

On a broader base, some believe it's the good-ol' boy charm of the drivers and the family togetherness the racers have. Sons follow fathers into the sport, and brothers follow brothers.

Others say it's the cars. Scrape off the decals, and from a distance they would look like any other new Ford, Chevy, Pontiac or Dodge.

The difference, of course, is the price tag. It costs about $6 million to keep just one car on the track for a season. And while the outer skin resembles the car in the driveway, the engine is a pumped-up V-8 that pushes out about 720 horsepower and delivers speeds in excess of 180 mph. The inside may be a maze of bars, straps and safety features, but on the outside it's a sporty family car.

So popular is the sport, sponsors lineup to get the top cars and, in many cases, have nothing whatsoever to do with cars or engines or anything that goes in them, with names like M&M's chocolate candy, Tide, Ralphs Supermarkets, Kodak film, McDonald's, Kellogg's, Oakwood Homes, Sprite and Viagra. UPS, in fact, gave up its Olympic sponsorship to plaster its name on Dale Jarrett's car.

The race itself certainly has something to do with the lure. Imagine, 40 cars on a mile-and-a-half oval track, coming out of a turn at 130 mph-plus and packed in so close a sheet of paper couldn't slip between some cars.

Equally captivating is the pit shop. Drivers often say that races are won and lost in the pits. In one race, a car will make up to 14 or 15 stops where it will take on 22 gallons of high-octane gas, get a complete tire change, undergo minor adjustments and get a clean windshield, all in less than 15 seconds.

Then it's back on the track for flat-out racing, at 180-plus-mph, all the while trying to focus attention on trying to avoid dirty air (turbulence that can cause a car to lose control), staying off the binders (brakes), looking for a opening in the chute (straightaway), finding the groove (the best line), hoping for a slingshot (a push coming out of the draft of another car to be passed) and, above all, trying to avoid trading paint (aggressive driving with some bumping and rubbing).

And through it all, to end up in the victory lane where, in the case of the Las Vegas race, a check for $1 million went to the winner — Jeff Gordon.

With the race over, it's a two-hour wait to break loose of the parking lot and a long drive or flight home . . . and a whole week before the next race.

In the meantime, of course, there's always the couch in front of the TV, a NASCAR ballcap, a Jeff Gordon T-shirt, a bottle of Coke and a videotape replay of past races. Which, for the race junkie, ain't all that bad.


E-mail: grass@desnews.com