Daze of My Life/It’s Past Time for a Change

by Kenneth B. Lourie

Vroom. Vroom. Round and round they go, or is it oval and oval they go, on a track banked at 31 degrees? NASCAR is back, bigger and louder and more promoted than ever before. Now broadcast on multiple networks - NBC and TNT - live and sometimes even at night, with pre- and post-race shows and with dedicated “Speed Week”-type programming as well, NASCAR rules or is at least competing to rule the roost of the American sports fan.

Surpassing almost all other sports in popularity and attendance, auto racing is fast - up to 200 mph - becoming America’s new “pastime,” replacing baseball. Where once the thaw in winter began with the phrase “Pitchers and catchers, report,” now “Gentlemen, start your engines” are the four words that warm the hearts and stimulate the souls of sports fans everywhere.

With the NASCAR circuit lasting longer than the Major League Baseball season (the Daytona 500 jump-starts a 37-race marathon that this year began Feb. 15 in Florida and doesn’t end until the Ford 400 is run on Nov. 21 at the Homestead-Miami Speedway), fan attention is grabbed even before baseball’s “spring training” began (in February) and continues for nine months, finishing the weekend before Thanksgiving. In effect, NASCAR brackets the baseball season and gives fans excitement week in and week out, before, during and after “America’s pastime” is present and accounted for.

Having never attended a professional auto race (does a demolition derby count?) in person, I can’t attest to the thrills and chills of spectating at a stock car event. But if the vibes and press coverage are any indication, my heretofore rather tepid interest in the fast and furious is hardly characteristic of the sport’s growth and importance. The fans’ - and the advertisers’ - interest in the sport is record-setting and seems likely to shatter the notion that auto racing is only Southern fried. Apparently there’s simply too much money at stake for NASCAR to be promoted regionally, or worse, perceived to be.

Nextel, NASCARS’ new corporate sponsor/partner, has committed $750 million on a 10-year contract to become the sport’s nameplate and national identity, replacing Winston. It’s not about tobacco anymore. It’s about technology and a more politically correct catapult into the future with a brand that draws interest from coast to coast and sea to shining sea. It’s not exactly a national anthem, but it is forward thinking. What better association for a business to have than one that appeals to a new generation of demographically desirable consumers? Even political strategists are hip to this group: NASCAR dads, as they’re called, have now joined soccer moms as yet another block of potential voters predisposed to vote for a particular party.

What a mix: politics, business, and money - and religion too, which auto racing is to a lot of folks, just like high-school basketball is in Indiana and high school football is in Texas. NASCAR seems to have all its bases covered (and many of its markets, too), unlike baseball, which only covers its bases during a rain delay. Two sports on very different tracks, literally and figuratively: NASCAR moving forward and attracting fans, and baseball, hardly moving at all (other than its players, that is), especially not to Washington, D.C. And even though there’s no cap on baseball fans’ interest, there is a limit to the amount of damage that can be undone.

Lourie is a regionally syndicated columnist who resides in Burtonsville, MD.