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I'm standing behind a short chain-link fence at Lowe's Motor Speedway in Concord, N.C., when my friend Paul yells in my ear. "All five senses!" he shouts. "What?" I reply, barely able to hear him over the intermittent roar of stock cars passing in front of us. "It's the only sport that arouses all five senses!" he yells, and he's right. I can't escape the sight of the cars' shimmering paint schemes, the deafening sounds of their engines, the stink of melting tires, or the rattling of the grandstands. And taste? Cold beer from a can. This is NASCAR, after all.
Before that muggy day in May, I had somehow missed out on one of the biggest sports phenomena of the past decade, despite spending most of my life in the Carolinas, NASCAR's epicenter. Consider this: The number of people who spend six or more hours a week following the sport has grown almost 20% in the last five years, to 75 million, according to market researcher Ipsos Insight.
As many of those fans know, NASCAR long ago outgrew its Southern, working-class roots. The 40-week schedule, which runs February through November, includes weekends in Chicago and Las Vegas, and could one day include New York, Seattle, and Denver. Upscale brands such as Sony (SNE), Gulfstream, and watchmaker Tissot have signed on as sponsors, and developers are furiously adding trackside luxury condos, private clubs, and corporate suites. For example, Phoenix International Raceway just opened a chic lounge above the track's first turn where fans can nibble sushi and sip wine or mixed drinks. A weekend pass to the lounge during November's Checker Auto Parts 500 will run $2,400, but the raceway is only selling 100 such tickets.
Even celebrity chefs are getting into the act: Food Network's Mario Batali just penned a cookbook for race-day tailgaters; Wolfgang Puck will open a café at the track in Fontana, Calif., in September. "The image of [NASCAR as] the Bubba sport is not true," says Larry DeGaris, a sports-marketing expert whose clients include United Parcel Service (UPS), PepsiCo (PEP), and Bank of America (BAC).
A day at the track has become a coveted perk for executives whose companies spend millions to sponsor NASCAR -- and their clients. Debbie Acocella, a customer business manager for Kellogg's in New York, got her first taste of the sport in June when she hosted two supermarket buyers and their families at the Neighborhood Excellence 400 in Dover, Del. Their Sunday included a catered breakfast, lunch, and snack in the relative quiet of the company's suite, a tour of the pits, and a pre-race visit from Kyle Busch, who drives the Kellogg's car. The group watched the start of the race up close before turning to the suite. "You can see why we have a car," Acocella says. "I finally understand it."
SIDE BY SIDE AT 200 MPH
I anticipated my first race for weeks, wondering whether I'd be blown away or bored to tears. More experienced friends suggested I start with the NASCAR Nextel (S) All-Star Challenge, a 90-lap evening sprint that's shorter to sit through than most and sometimes more exciting. The Challenge doesn't count in the standings, but it offers a $1 million prize.
Once the 20 cars' engines started to rumble, the only thing on my mind was speed. For a few preliminary laps, the cars huddled together, moving at a maddeningly slow pace. But in an instant, that jostling mosh pit turned into a screaming double-file line accelerating toward 200 miles per hour. That moment might have been the most exhilarating few seconds of sports I've ever experienced. One reason why NASCAR fans love to see wrecks is that they slow everything back down, bunch up the field, and set the stage for another collective burst of speed.
Understanding the finer points of racing is more difficult. The rules can vary from track to track. With only three carmakers (Dodge, Ford, and Chevy) and one kind of tire (Goodyear), the competition in the top division, the Nextel Cup Series, often comes down to tuning, pit stops, and track tactics. A winning driver might jump out to an early lead because his car is faster than the field and his crew executes well. Other times, a winner might have to steer his way out of an hours-long scrum on the very last lap. Either way, the drivers are making life-or-death decisions as they try to control their hot, hulking vehicles.
Even more impressive is the passion the fans have for the drivers in this age of prima donna athletes. One explanation: As independent contractors, drivers are kept on a short leash by sponsors and team owners, and most financial disputes and extracurricular antics are kept out of the public eye. Fans also get a more intimate view of drivers than they do of other sports heroes. The committed fans camp in the infield near the pits and garages, and for $35 anyone can rent a scanner that allows them to listen to the unfiltered chatter on team radios.
Are the fans rowdier than other sports devotees? Most tracks still allow you to bring coolers stocked with beer, and in certain sections, throwing chicken bones and empty cans is a hallowed tradition. But not far away, hospitality tents teem with corporate types in golf shirts and khakis. For the past few weeks, I've found myself scanning the sports section for racing news and following the points race, which determines who will vie for the NASCAR Championship this fall. Am I going to rush out and buy my favorite driver's flag? Nah. But I'll go back.
By Andrew Park