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Success built on a brick foundation

Some point to the first Brickyard 400 as the start of NASCAR's far-reaching popularity, which likely will continue to grow.

Published August 7, 2004

INDIANAPOLIS - It was the grand experiment, a symbolic flexing of NASCAR's ever-strengthening muscles, this Brickyard 400. A sport bred of racing throughout the Southeast in the 1940s was brazen enough in 1994 to reach into racing's most hallowed hall.

In the decade since a shaggy-haired Indiana kid named Jeff Gordon hoisted the first silver brick trophy high at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, NASCAR has not stopped experimenting, and flexing, and reaching for more and more of the American consciousness and dollar. International Speedway Corp. has contracted to buy land for a new track in New York City. Other venues in the Pacific Northwest are a possibility. But even all of America may not be enough.

The stock-car circuit announced Thursday that it will sanction a Busch Series race in Mexico City in 2005, contesting its first points race outside the United States in a half-century. NASCAR CEO Brian France assumed control of the circuit his grandfather founded and his father helped pull into the modern age with the intention of taking races to a global market. Possible truck races in Canada or Mexico are not likely to satisfy that desire forever. Nextel Cup exhibitions were held in Australia and Japan in the 1980s and 1990s, and the natural progression would be for points races eventually to be held overseas.

"You look at the sport 10 years ago and you look at where it is now and you try to imagine where it's going to be in another 10 years," said Busch Series car owner Ricky Hendrick. "There's really no telling what NASCAR can do with this thing."

When a 23-year-old Gordon raised that first Brickyard trophy, the then-Winston Cup circuit still raced twice a season on the now-defunct North Wilkesboro, N.C., track. Ovals at Fontana, Calif., Joliet, Ill., Kansas City, Kan., Las Vegas, Fort Worth, Texas, and Homestead that currently host races were either not built or not on the schedule.

NASCAR president Mike Helton sees validation in the details.

"I think it's been a product we believed in for a long time," he said. "The fact we've been able to move around and become popular in all corners of the continent and even in the world to some extent is what we thought could happen. We just had to expose it to people to give them a chance to see it."

The growth has been profound. Now the trick is sustaining it, not suffering the same backlash as the NHL or NBA when its fitful growth spurts resulted in overreaches and struggling franchises.

NASCAR team owners wonder aloud even now how a Busch Series suffering from poor quality can muster sponsor support for a logistically difficult race in Mexico.

"Those guys are going to be at California, Mexico and Vegas, so they are going to be out on the West Coast a long time," said Nextel Cup team owner Ray Evernham. "I hope it's a new way of generating new fans and some income to pay for that kind of stuff."

Though it claims 75-million fans, a third of the U.S. adult population, NASCAR has recently shown uncharacteristic weakness in selling tickets at its marquee venues. There were large empty swatches in the grandstands at Daytona for the Pepsi 400, and seats aplenty are available for the Brickyard 400, which was the hottest ticket in the Midwest in 1994. Other series are experiencing similar woes, specifically the Indy Racing League, even at its jewel, the Indy 500. But that's not NASCAR, and this isn't supposed to happen.

The series continues to do things the right way, said Dennis McAlpine, who, as a stock analyst, watched CART shrivel and go bankrupt.

"They're actually doing a very good job setting up for future growth," he said of NASCAR. "You hear stories about a New York track, and think about how that would expand their market. While CART was disintegrating (NASCAR) was going in a different direction, and now they're taking their product to the CART stronghold in Mexico City."

NASCAR is used to its market strategies succeeding. A transition from long-time title sponsor RJ Reynolds to Nextel this season has done nothing but bolster its collective confidence. Helton thinks NASCAR has found a balance even as it appears to spread further from its base into nontraditional areas.

"Our balance is kept in check with the number of weekends we have to race," he said. "The big difference between us and other sports is every weekend it's an all-star event and every driver and every competitor competes against each other at the same site. I think that gives us some leeway, but you still have to watch those things."

To this point, they've just watched it grow.

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