Chivalry of the Speedway Knights

New speedway opens for 'regular-guy' drivers, legions of fans

Stock-car racing was born in the piney woods of the South, on narrow lumber roads and dirt tracks lined with hay bales. Its early legends were cotton farmers, mechanics, or one-time moonshiners who didn't mind scratching up a pretty paint job.

They drove factory Fords and Chevys with homemade superchargers and weights in the trunk to tame the back end. Safety equipment consisted of a football helmet, a sturdy roll bar, and a knack for sudden and specific prayer.

Today, their reckless invention is the nation's fastest-growing spectator sport. More than 300,000 people will attend this weekend's inaugural races at the Texas Motor Speedway here, and another 10 million will watch them on TV. Finishers of Sunday's event, the Interstate Batteries 500, will share $4.5 million in prize money.

Racing has come a long way, to be sure. But don't let this gleaming new $110 million track, with its 205 luxury sky boxes, fool you. The reason this sport has become so popular, fans say, is that its success hasn't bred the kind of greed and arrogance that plagues other professional sports.

"Drivers are regular guys," says J.C. Mezel, who traveled here from Milford, Mo., to catch the races. "They don't charge for autographs, they don't spit on people, and they don't go on strike. You won't see too many drivers out here with green hair, either."

What you will see, Mr. Mezel and others say, is a raucous demonstration of guts and horsepower. If you sit in the lower grandstand, he says, you'll smell the exhaust, hear the engines growl, and go home splattered with tiny flecks of rubber.

"We live in a society where people are not normally in touch with their senses," says Kevin Triplett, communications director for NASCAR, the sport's governing body. "They live and work in sheltered environments, and they're not involved in the celebration of mechanical culture. At a NASCAR event, all their senses are satiated."

Civility prevails

But beyond the spectacle, most racing fans say, it's the personalities of NASCAR drivers that fuel the sport's popularity. As competitive as they might be on the straightaways, drivers exhibit an unflappable camaraderie off the track - making joint appearances for charity, praying together before races, and stitching the numbers of fallen drivers on their Kevlar suits.

"Off the track, there's an unwritten code of chivalry that drivers follow," says Karyn Rybacki, a professor of speech communication at Northern Michigan University who studies stock car racing. "They're not unlike the knights of Medieval times in that respect."

Indeed, Professor Rybacki says, NASCAR races are strikingly similar to medieval tournaments. Competitors wear the colors of patrons, to whom they are consigned in a somewhat feudal arrangement. Drivers risk their lives trying to harness the power of cars that, like the jousting steeds of old, are closely matched.

Fans, like the court watchers of bygone days, are unfailingly loyal to their heroes. Rybacki notes that the sport's reigning superstar, Dale Earnhardt, is nicknamed "the Black Knight."

"There's a great national yearning for a return to a more civil past," she says. "We've become a nation of ill-mannered people who are more obnoxious and more impatient than ever before. For a lot of people, NASCAR is the antidote."

Yet whatever drives its popularity, NASCAR is certainly unique to the sporting world. It's arguably the most commercialized sport of all, and the least democratic. Sponsors wield tremendous power, and there's little or no public money available for building tracks.

NASCAR is a virtual dynasty controlled by the France family, which sets the schedule and regulates the cars down to the length of rear spoilers. Moreover, there's no schoolyard version of the game. Participation is often limited to wealthy businessmen and the scions of old racing families. None of the top drivers are women or minorities.

Still, it's a formula that seems to work. In some NASCAR polls, as many as 70 percent of fans say they buy certain products - from Tide detergent to Kodak film - solely because they sponsor drivers. Last year, Mr. Earnhardt earned nearly $20 million in salary, winnings, and endorsements, making him one of the nation's 20 richest athletes.

Not just a backwoods sport

Moreover, racing's popularity is spreading from its backwoods Southern roots. Demographic studies show that 75 percent of NASCAR fans attended some college and earn more than $50,000 a year. In its inaugural race in 1994, the New Hampshire International Speedway set an all-time attendance record for a New England sporting event.

In addition to the Texas facility, the California Speedway also opens this year in Fontana, about 45 minutes from Los Angeles. Attendance for NASCAR's Winston Cup Series last year topped 5.5 million, with another 140 million watching at home.

For the moment, though, the spotlight remains on Texas and the second-largest sports facility in the country. Among fans here, there's little concern that the new venue will disappoint.

"It's hard to have a bad time at a NASCAR race," Mezel says. "It's not really a sport, it's a lifestyle. As soon as it gets in your blood, there's no looking back."

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