It used to be that auto racing was the country-bumpkin of professional sports - a kind of lowly stepsister, confined by her Southern, rural roots to the cellar of American athletics.
But talk about Cinderella stories. In the past decade - and especially in the past few months - racing's rise to glory has been fairy-tale fast. Skeptics still don't even think it's a real sport. But whatever you call it, racing's mushrooming multitudes of loyal fans, many of them women, are drawn by a love of speed and by its reputation for down-home fun.
As the sport's image changes, it is drawing a more high-brow audience. Waiters now serve Beef Wellington in clubhouse of one racetrack. Platinum-priced condos are going up near speedways. As a result, everyone from Fortune 500 firms to cities like Kansas City, Kan., are lining up to jump on racing's money-soaked bandwagon.
Even Donald Trump wants in on the action. He's scouring New York for a spot to build a track. And there's the plan in Pittsburgh to build a $300 million domed track. Yes, domed - and big enough to swallow six baseball stadiums. There's also last month's $400-million-a-year TV contract by NASCAR, racing's top-tier sanctioning body. It quadrupled its annual TV revenues.
"Five years ago, NASCAR wasn't one of the Big Four sports," says Cindy Sisson-Hensley of the sports-marketing firm Disson Furst and Partners in Mooresville, N.C. Now it's elbowed its way in. And soon it'll push aside "at least one of the others."
The biggest evidence of racing's rise is its fans. Attendance at NASCAR events has jumped 65 percent in the past five years, according to NASCAR. That's compared with a 38 percent rise for pro hockey, 16 percent for pro basketball, 5.8 percent for pro baseball, and 5.6 percent for pro football.
The fans are also famously loyal. Some 72 percent claim they prefer a sponsor's product over a nonsponsor's, says NASCAR. That compares with 47 percent for the PGA and 36 percent for the NFL.
Or as racing watcher Don Rice puts it: "A good NASCAR wife would never buy anything but Tide." (Tide is a major sponsor. And Mr. Rice is head of the Brooks Sports Science Institute at Clemson University in Clemson, S.C.)
Actually, women do make up a surprisingly big chunk of racing's fans - as much as 45 percent, analysts say. They're drawn to racing's new family-friendly atmosphere, which ranges from alcohol-free zones in racetrack stands to putting ID tags on children in case they get lost.
This is another big draw for advertisers because women often hold family purse strings. In fact, a growing number of companies, including Coca-Cola, now spend more on advertising in racing than in any other sport. Seventy Fortune 500 companies are NASCAR sponsors - a status that no longer comes cheap.
In the early 1980s, a company could snag a team sponsorship for $500,000. Now it's more like $15 million.
But sponsorship isn't the only thing that's gone up. The $2.4 billion TV-rights deal that NASCAR signed with Fox, NBC, and Turner Sports in November puts it third - behind the NFL and the NBA - in the race for annual TV revenues among pro sports.
These mountains of money piling up in racing are also changing the sport's image. Once anchored in blue-collar America, it now has a decidedly upper-crust element.
At the mahogany-paneled Speedway Club at the Fort Worth, Texas, track, diners can get everything from gourmet pizza to the local specialty, baked golden catfish. Afterward, they can work out in the club's $1 million gym.
Truly obsessed fans can then retire to their trackside condos. Speedways in North Carolina, Georgia, and Texas have residences - complete with multilevel living rooms for better track viewing - that run from $275,000 to $600,000.
All the money in racing also has more and more cities pining for a track of their own. Indeed, there's a mini-boom in track building. Speedways are going up in Kansas City, near Chicago in Joliet, Ill., and in Nashville, Tenn. The Pittsburgh project aims to break ground in July.
After years of cold-shouldering any pitch for public aid in building a racetrack, cities are now willing to step up - even as public skepticism bubbles about funding stadium construction.
Racing enthusiasts say tracks make much more economic sense than a stadium. For one thing, a race typically draws 100,000 to 150,000 people, many more than a football or baseball game. And fans travel far and wide. At a recent race in Homestead, Fla., for instance, 63 percent of fans came from outside the region, bringing an influx of cash into the city's economy.
Economists are just beginning to analyze tracks' impact. But cities are charging ahead anyway.
Take Kansas City. Many residents never quite imagined their area - known for its graceful fountains and ritzy Spanish-style Plaza shopping district - would be home to the shrieking engines and rubbery stench of a racetrack. But when the opportunity came, officials jumped.
Some are concerned the sport is forgetting its humble roots. "My greatest fear is losing the middle-class fan, because they're also the youth," says H.A. "Humpy" Wheeler, president of Charlotte-based Speedway Motorsports.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society