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Taking a gamble on Winston Cup

NASCAR's top circuit doesn't attract high rollers, but sports book and online wagers are rising.

By KEVIN KELLY

© St. Petersburg Times, published November 5, 2000


It happened just the other week.

Rusty Wallace was walking through the garage at North Carolina Speedway, shaking hands and posing for pictures when a woman approached him.

"I don't know who she was," he said. "But she held a ticket out with my name on it."

The betting slip was proof that the woman had more than a casual interest in the outcome of the Pop Secret 400. Such encounters are common on NASCAR's top circuit.

"They're fans of yours," said Wallace, who finished fifth, "but they have no problem betting on you all the time."

Winston Cup drivers know some fans don't follow their sport just for the racing.

Gambling on NASCAR is an ever-growing hobby for some, an ever-expanding business for others.

"If they want to gamble on us, let them have at it," Wallace said. "As long as they don't start holding their losses against me. If they wager the world and I go out there and don't do as expected and they lose millions of dollars on me, they don't need to be coming looking for my a-- because they shouldn't have been gambling to start with."

* * *

As Winston Cup expands to larger markets (races in Chicago and Kansas City were added to next season's schedule) so too does its popularity among bettors -- be it in Nevada, on the Internet or in the office pool.

"There's a steady amount of interest," said Denis Dermody, a consultant for Sportsinteraction.com, a sports book based in Montreal and Dublin, Ireland. "I would say interest has grown from three years ago."

Still, of the $2.6-billion wagered on sports last year in Nevada, NASCAR lags far behind college and pro football, college and pro basketball, baseball, golf and hockey.

Football drew more than $1-billion in wagers last year, according to the Nevada Gaming Commission, followed by basketball ($693-million) and baseball ($660-million).

NASCAR is lumped with women's sports, the Olympics, golf tournaments, smaller boxing bouts and other sports in a group on which $91-million was wagered last year.

"The Las Vegas race is the biggest single-day sporting event in the state of Nevada, attendance-wise," said Chris Chavez, Winston Cup oddsmaker for Las Vegas Sports Consultants. "That alone has piqued the interest in locals betting NASCAR. That's why the majority of casinos are using NASCAR now."

NASCAR betting also is growing online.

Dermody estimated Winston Cup generates between $20,000 and $70,000 in bets per week on his company's site.

Football draws about $1-million per week, followed by $250,000 for basketball, baseball and golf.

* * *

The odds are set on just about anything -- who will win the race, who will be leading when a caution comes out, whether the Wallace brothers (Kenny and Rusty) will finish ahead of the Labontes (Bobby and Terry).

Most books set odds for the Winston Cup championship before the season and for each race, including head-to-head matchups.

The previous performance by each driver at that week's track is one of several variables Chavez looks at before setting odds.

"All these tracks are different. The Wallaces and (Ricky) Rudds of the world do much better on short tracks where (Dale) Earnhardt is king of the superspeedways," he said.

"I use my pen and paper and my peanut. I follow it pretty well. I follow things on TV, who's having a problem with a crew chief, that sort of thing, and go from there."

Chavez lists Jeff Burton as a 9-2 favorite for the Checker Auto Parts/Dura Lube 500K today at Phoenix International Raceway, followed by Wallace (5-1), Mark Martin (6-1), defending winner Tony Stewart (6-1) and Earnhardt (7-1).

"(Burton) did pretty well at New Hampshire, which is a similar track to Phoenix," he said. "The Roush Racing cars seem to do well on flat, medium-sized tracks."

The amount of money wagered on a single bet can range from $1 to thousands.

"Most (casinos) won't take real big limits," Chavez said. "They'll maybe take $1,000 on a driver. The people who bet on NASCAR are mainly $20, $30, $50 and $100 bettors. Nothing real major, whereas you could bet $50,000 on the Vikings on Monday Night Football."

NASCAR officials have not talked to drivers about gambling.

"People in the industry are aware of the fact that some of the racing is on some of the boards in Las Vegas," said Mike Helton, chief operating officer for NASCAR. "I don't know that there is a necessity for NASCAR to have a gut feeling or opinion on it."

* * *

Drivers think it's a non-issue, and therefore doesn't warrant a lot of attention.

"I think that, to me, this is one of the most unpredictable sports there is as to who is going to win each event," three-time Winston Cup champion Jeff Gordon said. "You never know who's a sure bet, who's going to win the race for sure."

Broken parts, wrecks and the millions of dollars invested by sponsors ensure against a fix, drivers say.

"We all know what happened to Pete Rose so none of us want to get in that situation," Gordon said.

Dale Jarrett added: "It's not a chance anybody could take, not for any amount of money. You wouldn't even consider it out here. We do this because it's what we love to do and we enjoy it.

"If others want to take that risk, then that's up to them. But you're not going to see anybody out here doing it."

That doesn't stop fans from taking the risk -- now, or when Buddy Baker was driving in the 1960s, '70s and '80s.

Baker, a second-generation driver turned television analyst, recalls times when fans let him know money was riding on his performance.

"I got horrible letters," he said. "If I was on the pole, they'd bet on who would lead that first lap. It was incredible.

"It never changed anything I did. It just made me go in the corner that much harder."

While the number of teams with a realistic chance to win any given week is small and therefore makes NASCAR a good bet, Rusty Wallace said nothing in his sport is a sure thing.

"You can't gamble on this sport," he said. "You never know what's going to happen. When you gamble on baseball and football, you've got a 50-50 chance. Here it's one in 43.

"You gamble on this sport, you've just got to have way too much money and nothing to do, trying to figure a good way to p--- it away."

* * *

TODAY'S NASCAR RACE: Checker Auto Parts/Dura Lube 500K, 2 p.m., Phoenix International Raceway.

TV: TNN.

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