Auto racing - a blend of speed, noise, thrills, and big money

This town 30 miles south of Atlanta on the Old Dixie Highway, US 41, is the home of the Atlanta International Raceway. It's in red-dirt, Kudzu, and pine tree country. Twice a year - in the spring and again in the fall - 50,000 fans come to bask in the speed and noise and witness daredevils drive in circles at breakneck speeds. Behind the scenes, corporate sponsors stake huge portions of their advertising budgets on drivers and machines.

Two weeks ago, Neil Bonnett won the Atlanta Journal 500 at an average speed of 138 miles per hour, barely beating Bobby Allison. Allison blew out a tire with only eight laps to go and settled for third.

Allison had to do well in the race because he is in a face-to-face duel with Darrell Waltrip for the award given to the winningest driver on the Grand National stock car circuit at the end of each season. Allison has been edged out by Waltrip for the past two years, but his result in Atlanta (where Waltrip had mechanical trouble and finished well back) has put Bobby in an advantageous position going into the last race Sunday at Riverside, Calif. All he has to do is come in 13th or better and he is assured the top spot overall.

The Allison/Waltrip duel has all the ingredients of a well-hyped wrestling match. Allison is the ''good guy,'' the people's favorite. He is articulate and considerate, and has an army of followers. Waltrip, on the other hand, is a bit of a rebel. He can be blunt and gruff, and some say he tends to speak before he thinks. But he too has an army of followers made up of those who like their heroes a little more in this mold.

The winner of this year's season-long honors will almost certainly exceed Waltrip's 1982 earnings of $875,000. Automobile racing enthuiasts like to cite statistics indicating that theirs is the single most well-attended pro sport in the nation. As a result of this fan enthusiasm, corporate sponsorship has become very big business indeed.

Before 1971, racing was sponsored exclusively by automotive products - oils, tires, spark plugs, and the like. But starting in 1971, a number of nonautomotive sponsors such as beverage, clothing, and food companies, have moved into the area - many of them investing upward of $1 million in their teams. What they get for this, of course, is recognition for their involvement (including the names of the companies emblazoned on the cars), and appearances by the drivers as spokespersons and representatives.

The Allison-Waltrip duel, therefore, has large stakes. The victor wins fans; fan interest brings sponsorship; sponsorship infuses cash. The cycle keeps the sport growing and successful.

But despite the big business side of the sport, its popularity stems largely from raw speed and power. Fast cars have long lured youthful enthusiasts from every part of the land. Fans actively fantasize about doing what race car drivers do.

Heath Hartwell from Jonesboro, Ga., for instance, is a die-hard fan despite being only seven years old. He stood on the first row of the grandstand about 10 feet from the track during the qualifying rounds at Atlanta. From his vantage point, the cars were practically invisible as they whooshed by. Rather than being visual, his was a sound and feeling experience. ''I love it,'' he said.

More than anything else in the world, this little drawling seven-year-old wants to drive a race car ''as fast as Petty, Yarborough, Allison, or Waltrip. I bet they go 800 m.p.h.!''

The speeds at Riverside on Sunday may not approach that level, but to the fans, the sponsors, and the drivers - particularly Allison and Waltrip - the thrills will be no less dramatic.

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