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Snob sports should learn from NASCAR

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© St. Petersburg Times, published August 10, 2000

Snobs still don't get it. For generations they have guffawed and socially snorted, categorizing stock-car racing as nauseatingly noisy nonsense fueled by backwoods Southerners, grease monkeys and rednecks everywhere.

Not (entirely) true.

While team sports in America fret over TV ratings and mumble about money, NASCAR today could mean "Nation's Affluent Sport Conquers All Regions." Just last week, a bloke with a high-pitched nose stooped to ask me, "What, Mr. Sports Writer, is the attraction?"

Elitists, crank your brains!

Last weekend the vroom-vroom Motown charm slapped a speedy kiss on Indianapolis, where only minuscule cars once reigned. Every weekend the good old speed boys pack houses in California, New Hampshire, Delaware, Michigan and Pennsylvania.

Indeed, the South does rise.

What's the attraction when 100,000 cram impassioned bodies and make dollars flow into little places called Dover, Talladega, Darlington and Bristol?

Elementary, really. . .

It's merely a lavish expansion of what not-so-boneheaded Alabamians, Carolinians, Georgians, Tennesseeans and Floridians knew all along, that NASCAR heroes tend to be more understandable and embraceable than icons from basketball, football, hockey and baseball.

Nobody is more competitive.

From the floorboarding heroics of old-time stockers Roberts, Yarborough, Petty, Johnson and Pearson, roaring race track constituencies have found stock car races far more touchable and easier to identify with than legendary names from other games such as Namath, Mantle, Mays, Brown and Cousy.

Money factors have exploded in all sports, including NASCAR, but negatives have been far more public-punishing in the NBA, NHL, NFL and major-league baseball. Drivers don't go on strike. They do grapple hard for cash but mostly in competitive arenas, where bad seasons and injuries aren't so protected by guaranteed contracts.

NASCAR doesn't have a collegiate draft, where horsepower babies from Oil University or Transmission College get $3-million before successfully competing at 190 mph.

Dale Jarrett wins the points race, hugs a seven-figure reward and splits it with associates, but he will not then have some mouthy agent trigger a highly publicized holdout for an eight-year, no-cut, $130-mil deal.

Golf and tennis have similar win-it-in-combat features, but NASCAR's leading stars perform week after week. Tiger Woods wins the British Open, then rests for a fortnight before honing for the PGA Championship. Meanwhile, the Earnhardts and Gordons and Wallaces and Labontes pretty much play them all.

Oh, yeah, NASCAR has changed. Mostly for the better. Corporate fortunes prime the pump more than ever. Bean counters and ad execs from Detroit, Akron and Madison Avenue watch the sweaty, risky combat from cool, plush, well-catered suites.

Still, from the stands and across humanity-packed infields, the backbone of the sport looks much as it did in 1980 or 1960.

Most patrons are average Joes and Jills, dedicating a majority of family entertainment funds to being there to cheer their favorite drivers.

It's akin to a law for NASCAR fans to pick a guy, then decorate their truck or camper with the driver's car number and team colors. They pull for him as furiously as anybody can root on the football Seminoles, Bucs, Gators or Bulls.

It's still dangerous. Adam Petty and Kenny Irwin recently died practicing a vocation they adored. But the technology and wizardry, in search of safety as well as Victory Lane, would amaze any snorting snob. You see horsepower Einsteins at work. Garages are science class.

NASCAR has vast, constant R&D in attempts to make the mighty machines as wreck-proof as anything can be when covering 3 miles in a minute.

Another sadly overflexed stereotype is that stock car audiences "go to see the crashes." Yep, it's a part of the business. Such violent action is extensively enjoyed, to a point. But if you find 1-in-1,000 NASCAR regulars who hope to see a driver hurt, well, it would be as stunning as finding caviar dip in the garage area.

For electronic indicators of popularity, check your radio/TV schedules. This week, including live telecasts, rapid reruns and insider shows, NASCAR has 36 time slots, with a half-dozen each on ESPN, TNN and ESPN2.

Growing by the hour.

NASCAR is a memorable spectacle, no matter what track you visit. Pack a large lunch and plenty of liquid on ice because the day is apt to be long. You'll get there in monstrous traffic, party for a good while, watch the race to see how your fellow makes out, then battle for home in world championship gridlock.

You'll have to excuse NASCAR if it's motoring a little slower than some other professional sports in felony charges, spousal abuse, nasty holdouts, insufficient marquees and jock arrogance. No matter how fast it runs, it'll probably never catch up.

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