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Racing fans a mixed bag

In NASCAR, they are drawn to drivers and their cars; not so in open-wheel.

By BRUCE LOWITT, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 18, 2003


Some fans watch their favorites' races, living and dying with the performance of the driver whose shirts and caps they wear.

They root not just for him but probably against every other driver on the track and on pit road and, for that matter, in their garage with what used to be a car.

Others watch their favorites race and cheer for, well, the race.

The races and their fans are as different as rain is to sunshine, as chicanes are to high banking, as the United States is to the rest of the world.

These are the worlds of open-wheel and stock-car racing, where one is perceived as wine and cheese and sport jackets, the other beer and pretzels and windbreakers.

There are, of course, fans who enjoy any race as long as there are four wheels turning very fast. But beyond them, NASCAR has its own allure; Championship Auto Racing Teams, the Indy Racing League and Formula One quite another.

CART runs on oval, road and street courses, 10 of 19 in the United States. The IRL sticks strictly to ovals: one in Japan, the other 15 on U.S. soil. The two groups have been battling for nearly a decade for the loyalty of open-wheel racing fans.

And then there is NASCAR: all U.S. races, two on road courses, the rest on ovals.

There is perception and there is reality, and when it comes to auto racing in the United States, they are one and the same. An open-wheel racer looks faster, but it's the stock car that runs away with the fans because they know -- and care about -- their drivers and the cars they drive.

"NASCAR'S more fun to watch in person because of the ambience of being there," said open-wheel fan Mike Benetto of Port Richey, manager of furniture stores in Pinellas County. "But it's kind of monotonous watching cars going around in circles all day. Road courses are more fun to watch on TV."

But when it comes to the crown-jewel races of the sport, stock cars are the runaway ratings winners.

NASCAR's Daytona 500 attracted 11.5-million television viewers nationally last year, to 5-million who watched the IRL's 2002 Indy 500, according to Nielsen Media Research. It also said the least-watched Daytona 500 ever, in 1980 on CBS, was viewed by 6.1-million fans, more than any of the past six Indy 500s. CART has no equivalent race to match Daytona and Indy for national interest.

Part of the family

Stu Ahman of St. Petersburg is more an open-wheel fan and, within open wheels, more drawn to road and street courses than ovals.

"It's the skill of driving and the conditions they drive under," the steel industry marketing consultant said. "In open wheel they tend to drive in all kinds of conditions, even rain. In NASCAR, as we saw (Sunday at the Daytona 500), they stop when there's moisture, which is okay, too.

"And road courses and street races are more competitive," Ahman said. "They don't make deals with the cars in front of them. They don't tend to draft and team up. They tend to be more individuals. Again, it's a different set of skills. Not that there's anything wrong with NASCAR. I'm very impressed with it as well."

Individuals. That is what separates NASCAR drivers from those in all the open-wheel races in the United States.

There's Michael Waltrip's No. 15 NAPA Auto Parts jacket ... and Mark Martin's No. 6 Viagra mouse pad ... and Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s No. 8 Budweiser visor.

It's not Darren Manning's No. 15 anything ... and probably not Jimmy Vasser's No. 12 or even Michael Andretti's No. 7.

And could that big rear-window decal with the 3 leaning to the left be honoring the memory of anyone but Dale Earnhardt? When he was killed in a last-lap crash at the 2001 Daytona 500, most NASCAR fans reacted, and many apparently felt, as though they'd lost a family member.

"NASCAR fans are very passionate about their favorite drivers; they buy all their merchandise," Benetto said. "(Open-wheel drivers) are not as well known in America as in Europe. Their fans are very passionate; they've got flags and all and they paint their faces red for Ferrari. It's really cool. When you go to (U.S. open-wheel races) occasionally you'll see a couple doing that, but mostly they're from Europe."

Open-wheel fans in the United States are the kind, Benetto said, who will watch the Indianapolis 500 and probably think little about racing until the next Indy 500. "They're event people. They're the same people who go to the Kentucky Derby and the Super Bowl, to experience the whole thing"

Moving in, moving out

John Andretti, nephew of 1969 Indy 500 winner Mario Andretti and cousin of 1991 CART champion Michael Andretti, has driven NASCAR and CART races and in 1994 was the first to compete at Indy and the Coca-Cola 600 near Charlotte on the same day.

"You don't really sense the difference between the (open-wheel and NASCAR) fans until you get right down with them," he said. "NASCAR fans, for the most part, are rooting for their guy, so it's more personal. They've been wearing their guy's stuff for 10 years and, by god, he's the man. It's almost like they're part of the family."

"In NASCAR you can root for a guy and be pretty sure he's going to be back next year and the year after that and the year after that," Andretti said. "You can almost grow old with him, so to speak."

For years, Mario Andretti, Al Unser Sr. and A.J. Foyt were annual fixtures in CART. Later it was Michael Andretti and Al Unser Jr. "Not any more," John Andretti said. "The big names, the year-after-year guys are gone. But when you're following Winston Cup with guys like Dale Jr. and Rusty Wallace and Jeff Gordon and so on, you can almost rest assured that you're going to see pretty much the same 40 names this year that you saw last year."

"In CART you've got guys moving in, guys moving out. Take Christian Fittipaldi, Cristiano da Matta and Michael (Andretti). They all moved out, but they all moved in different directions (Fittipaldi to NASCAR, da Matta to Formula One, Andretti to the IRL). So you don't get the same sort of following."

And there's the matter of the cars themselves.

"Fans can relate to five lug nuts a lot more than one lug nut. Instead of having wings, stock cars have spoilers. You can kind of see putting a spoiler on your own car. A lot of them come from the factory that way," said Robby Gordon, who raced open-wheel cars before moving to NASCAR. The past three years he has run the Indianapolis 500 and NASCAR's Coca-Cola 600 the same day.

"Open-wheel cars, there's not too many things the typical individual can relate to -- and you can include Formula One in there, too. It's a fighter plane compared with the family car. It's like, 'I've got a Chevy Monte Carlo in my garage; that's the same thing Robby Gordon races.' "

Tons of people

That's how the Win on Sunday, Sell on Monday slogan evolved. Brand loyalty once was fierce when the cars -- Pontiac (Fireball Roberts drove one), Plymouth (Richard Petty), Dodge (Foyt), Chevrolet (Junior Johnson) and so on -- were different and distinct. If Bobby Allison drove a Merc', well, that's all you had to know.

Stock cars today are far more similar but some brand loyalty remains. "On the other hand, open-wheel fans today are more likely to buy a foreign car," said Tim Glase, motorsports writer for Business News Daily.

"And although the loyalty to a NASCAR driver's sponsor may not be all that strong, a Jeff Gordon fan buying soda in a supermarket is almost certainly going to be influenced by the life-size cardboard cutout of Gordon in the soft-drink aisle with PEPSI on the front of his firesuit.

"What draws casual fans to NASCAR is TV. I remember in the early '90s when ESPN2 was televising a lot of the other events around NASCAR's main races. They showed drivers talking to the cameras without their helmets on. It personalized them and their sport -- and, coincidentally, increased NASCAR's female fan base and viewership."

The IRL and CART have only recently caught on to the idea of letting TV viewers know who their drivers are, Glase said. "But at this point, it's not going to be very effective putting a cardboard cutout of Dario Franchitti in a Wal-Mart."

Casey Mears' bloodline suggested he would make his name in open-wheel racing; his father, Roger, primarily an off-road racer, ran two Indy 500s. Casey's uncle, Rick Mears, competed in 15 Indy 500s from 1978-92. He is one of only three drivers to win it four times, Foyt and Unser Sr. the others.

Casey started five CART races during 2000-01 but switched last year to NASCAR's Busch Grand National (second-tier) series and started his first Winston Cup race in Sunday's Daytona 500.

"The first Winston Cup race I went to was at Richmond (Va.) in 2001," he said. "I'd been to a lot of open-wheel races by then but I was totally unprepared for Richmond. I couldn't believe there were tons of people at this little (three-quarter mile) track. It was this huge event. You don't get that type of atmosphere in open-wheel until you get to places like Indy or Long Beach. NASCAR gets them week in and week out every place you go."

Fan demographics

NASCAR has more fans in the United States and in Tampa Bay than CART and its rival IRL combined. Twenty-two percent of the people in the Tampa Bay/Sarasota market identified themselves as "somewhat" or avid NASCAR fans while only 12 percent followed open-wheel racing, in polling by Scarborough Research between February 2001 and March 2002. And NASCAR fans have some characteristics different from their CART counterparts, according to the poll:

A NASCAR fan is . . .

Younger. Fifty-six percent of loyal NASCAR fans are 18-44, while only 53 percent of loyal open-wheel fans are.

More likely to own a home. When measured against the U.S. population, NASCAR fans are 2 percent more likely than open-wheel fans to own one.

More likely to have full-time jobs. NASCAR fans are 5 percent more likely to work 35 or more hours a week.

More likely to have children at home. NASCAR fans are 6 percent more likely to have three or more children under age 17 at home.

An open-wheel fan is . . .

Older. Fifteen percent are over 65, compared with 12 percent for NASCAR.

More likely to be male. Sixty-nine percent of loyal open-wheel fans are men, while 64 percent of loyal NASCAR fans are.

More likely to have graduated college. Open-wheel fans are 5 percent more likely to have degrees.

NASCAR has edge on racing fans

Adults from New York to Los Angeles, from Miami-Fort Lauderdale to Seattle-Tacoma, and almost every major and midsize city in between, are more likely to consider themselves loyal NASCAR fans than loyal CART or IRL fans, according to Scarborough Research.

It defines a loyal fan as "somewhat or very interested in" either stock or open-wheel cars, and they are going to more NASCAR races than CART or IRL events and watching the Daytona 500 more than the Indy 500.

Here are some comparisons:

NASCAR's crown-jewel race is the Daytona 500. Its 2002 attendance was 168,000, an estimate because the track doesn't count fans in the infield and luxury suites. Last year's 36 Winston Cup races averaged 190,940 fans, according to the Goodyear Annual Attendance Report.

The IRL's centerpiece is the Indianapolis 500. The Indianapolis Motor Speedway provides no attendance figures but uses the average of all media estimates, which last year came to 400,000. For its 15 races in 2002, the IRL said it averaged 67,782 spectators -- 44,053 excluding the Indy 500.

CART has no U.S.-based grand prix to compare with Indy and Daytona. Last year it ran 11 of its 19 races in the United States and had an average race-day attendance of 47,383, excluding Long Beach and Milwaukee races, which provided no official figures. Media estimates put Long Beach's crowd at 90,000. CART's big appeal is foreign races: Mexico City, 116,000; Australia, 100,000; Monterrey, Mexico, 100,000.

Last year's Daytona 500 attracted 11.5-million television viewers nationally, to 5-million who watched the 2002 Indy 500, according to Nielsen Media Research. It also said the least-watched Daytona 500 ever, in 1980, was viewed by 6.1-million fans, more than any of the past six Indy 500s.

-- Compiled by Bruce Lowitt.

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