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NASCAR's fan loyalty to be envied

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By HUBERT MIZELL, Times Sports Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times
published April 28, 2002

Hearing the passionate roar as Dale Earnhardt Jr. was gunning his Chevy, spewing happy mud, celebrating a Talladega conquest by playfully carving doughnuts into Alabama infield grass, it reaffirmed how deep and personal driver/spectator NASCAR relationships go.

Even in mega money times.

As with athletes in baseball, basketball, hockey, football, tennis and golf, stock car racing's higher achievers are swimming in wealth, living in mansions, traveling in private aircrafts and watching as financial portfolios escalate into eight figures, even nine.

Difference is, in most sport venues, there is an ever-widening gulf separating players from a public that has cheered and fueled extraordinary personas of golden jocks with names like Bonds, Hull, Woods, Favre and O'Neal.

Practitioners of puck 'n ball games, some of whom poke fun at NASCAR, should instead be studying and emulating many personalities, habits, attitudes and methods of NASCAR's finest.

Sure, NASCAR too has changed. Stock-car life will never be like it was in chummier, greasier times of Richard Petty, Junior Johnson, Cale Yarbrough, David Pearson and the Alabama Allisons, because big money affects even the tightest of families.

Compared to other sports, NASCAR regulars perpetuate a unique, warm and effective air. Some, like me, like the ultimate racing outsider, Jeff Gordon.

Every major driver has a considerable, stunningly loyal fan base composed of devoted NASCAR supporters who see themselves more as kin than customers. You sense the love, care and solidarity.

Drivers are prone to show appreciation, to talk straight, to be reliable, while frequently mirroring their backers at many levels, personal and political. Not all, but most.

NASCAR's boom is astonishing, covering not just the South but the red-white-and-blue republic, filling hearts, stadiums and cash registers from California to New Hampshire.

Do you copy, Jock America?

VROOMS: Baseball's most prodigious stat boomer in years had to be Virginia Tech outfielder Brad Bauder going 8-for-8 Sunday in a 35-4 humiliation of Georgetown with 4 homers, 2 singles, a double, a triple, 7 runs scored and 14 RBIs. ... Chicago has burned before but the O'Leary cow was never so widely loathed as Bulls general manager Jerry Krause who, since dismantling the six-championship excellence of Jordan-Pippen et al., has generated 66 victories in four years, fewer than the old powerhouse won in the 1995-96 season. ... Chan Gailey, an old UF backup quarterback who became a renowned NFL offensive coordinator and eventual Dallas Cowboys coach, says it's most enjoyable to be back among collegiate spirits as new boss at Georgia Tech where "there's a lot of enthusiasm and emotion every day" while in the pros, it "tends to happen only on game day or toward the playoffs."

SCREECHES: Pro football doubters of Steve Spurrier are amassing, including Kansas City Star columnist Jason Whitlock who says the new Redskins guy "with a $25-million contract is now clearly past his serious coaching" and Mike Lupica of the New York Daily News who suggests, "He'll become the Rick Pitino of the NFL." ... Being a quality announcer of college sports gets more challenging, like at UCLA where announcers grapple with football names such as Eyoseph Esi Efseaff and Asiolefolasa Asoau Faoa. ... It's old stuff to offer a new car for holes in one, so the Algarve Portugal Open offered a diamond tee for anyone acing the 210-yard 16th, a prize displayed in the clubhouse where it was guarded by a rattlesnake. Nobody collected or was bitten.

Whatever happened to Matty Alou?

-- To reach Hubert Mizell, e-mail or mail to P.O. Box 726, Nellysford, VA 22958.

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