Sunday, August 06, 2006

health magazine: Enthusiasm for Nextel Cup keeps growing

Sunday, aug. 6, 2006

By Steve T. Gorches / Post-Tribune staff writer

It was pretty quiet at around 10:30 a.m. on Sunday, July 9, in the media conference room at Chicagoland Speedway.

Most of the NASCAR reporters were settling in before the USG Sheetrock 400, waiting for some real celebrities to enter the room — the cast members of “Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby” — in about two hours.

Jeremy Mayfield had just completed an uneventful news conference about his relationship with his car owner Ray Evernham, which resulted in more yawns than questions.

Then a short, South American man with a designer, collarless shirt — looked like a Gucci — walked in with car owner Chip Ganassi.

The calmness turned into a frenzy.

The once half-filled room overflowed to capacity in mere minutes.

This wasn’t a million-dollar-a-movie actor. This was someone more well-known worldwide than Ricky Bobby portrayer, Will Ferrell. And he was telling the world something not heard very often.

“When people hear I’m going from Formula One to NASCAR, they’ll probably say I’m crazy,” Juan Pablo Montoya said. “But I think it’s exciting. It will be a great challenge for my career. I know how tough it is. There’s a lot of great drivers.”

The Colombian has been one of the most popular open-wheel drivers over the last seven years, whether it’s been with F1 or the defunct CART series.

The move is the equivalent of Luciano Pavarotti walking away from opera singing to record a heavy metal album.

A driver in the most technologically advanced racing series with the most-sophisticated fans (at least they think so) in the world spoke loudly and clearly.

His message was that NASCAR is real racing.

“F1 has been great for me, but the racing is fun here and the fans love it,” he said with a huge smile.

That’s a message that more than 75 million fans in the United States have known for several years, with 300,000 of those fans expected to be in attendance today for the 13th Allstate 400 at the Brickyard at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Now with Montoya deciding to put a roof over his head in the cockpit of his new racecar, expect that large number of fans, most of whom are as diehard as those of any pro franchise, to increase with a huge foreign contingent.

Heck, there are some American sports fans who may start watching NASCAR.

“He’s a Latin driver? Oh yeah, I’ll pay attention to NASCAR just for him,” said Hobart resident Tony Miller, a Latino who admitted he doesn’t pay attention to stock car racing at the moment.

It’s a NASCAR world now. Wherever you look, the signs of NASCAR’s influence are everywhere.

You can’t watch sitcoms on network TV without seeing Kasey Kahne in a commercial for Allstate Insurance or Greg Biffle eating a Subway sandwich with his crew chief.

You can’t drive more than a mile or two on a crowded highway without seeing at least one or two vehicles with Nos. 20, 3, 24 or 8 in the window. Speaking of No. 8, what about that Dale Earnhardt Jr. billboard on the Toll Road headed east?

“When you see those numbers, you know what they mean,” said Joe Vallone, owner of Ranger Motorsports in Dyer and mentor to several former and current pro drivers. “They’re not numbers of football or soccer players.”

Visit a Barnes & Noble bookstore and cruise by the magazine racks and you’ll see a shirtless Carl Edwards on the cover of Men’s Health magazine this month showing of his six-pack abs.

In a little more than 10 years, a sport that was known for bootlegging moonshine and not holding many races north of the Mason-Dixon Line has become a national phenomenon.

This isn’t your father’s NASCAR anymore.

“You never saw the coverage before, bumper stickers on cars, unless you were in the South,” said local racing legend Dave Weltmeyer, who competes at Illiana Speedway and Grundy County in Illinois. “They went out in the markets they had to hit and did the job.”

Even younger casual fans of racing in general are impressed with NASCAR’s surge in society.

“The way they’ve grown the series is masterful,” said Munster native Doug Boyer, who competes in the Formula BMW open-wheel series. “Even 10 years ago it wasn’t as popular as it is now. Back then it was just pure racing — good ol’ boys driving around. Now it’s marketing driven with guys looking all pretty. It’s really boomed quickly.”

Boyer admitted he’s become more of an open-wheel fan in recent years, especially since it’s his livelihood now. But as a pure racing fan, the 19-year-old has to give NASCAR props.

“As it become more popular I kind of faded away from it, but that’s just me,” he said. “I respect them for what they’ve done. I wish the open-wheel series would learn from it.”

It’s all about product placement — visual and vocal.

When you see an interview with a NASCAR driver before a race, let’s say Tony Stewart, you’ll hear him say something like, “Man, I know my crew will have the No. 20 Home Depot Chevrolet running well today.”

Or maybe you’ll hear Jeff Gordon say after a race, “The DuPont Chevrolet No. 24 was great for me in this win,” while sipping from a Pepsi despite being dehydrated from three hours in a scorching cockpit.

Hardcore, old-school racing fans may not like the overindulgence of advertising, but it’s what drives the NASCAR engine, figuratively and literally.

And other sports have copied the success.

Watch a Chicago Cubs game and look to the left of the batter’s box. See that advertising billboard attached to the brick wall that makes extra money for the Tribune Company? You can thank NASCAR for that ingenious product placement.

“You see those bicycle riders in the Tour De France with 'U.S. Postal Service’ on their shirts? They didn’t do that before NASCAR did,” said Vallone, who is friends with Tony Stewart’s family and has worked with Nextel Cup driver Jamie McMurray.

That popularity has carried over into the collectible market with at least one local outlet taking advantage.

“There’s more diehard NASCAR fans up north than there used to be,” said Joe Lauerman, owner of Smokin’ Joe’s NASCAR Collectibles in Leroy for eight years.

“I’ll have fans get a flag or cap before going to one of the races nearby — the Brickyard, Joliet or Michigan — all the time. I’d say NASCAR is the biggest sporting event in the U.S. and Indy is the biggest venue of them all.”

All of that marketing genius wouldn’t mean a thing if there weren’t millions of fans watching and buying the products.

So why is NASCAR as big of a part of American culture as hot dogs and apple pie? Because the average Joe can relate to several aspects of the sport.

It’s an American sport, though Montoya’s arrival changes that slightly, with roots and values that have been entrenched in our society before NASCAR was cool.

It’s fast. We have always had an obsession with speed, and NASCAR couples that need with cars that don’t look that much different from our own.

“The reason people like NASCAR is that they can relate to it,” Boyer said referring to the look of the cars. But it’s so much more than that simple aspect.

It’s consuming. Time, money, energy are all gobbled up like there’s no tomorrow in NASCAR, just like normal, everyday life, right or wrong.

How else do you explain more Americans driving now despite gasoline costs rising on a daily basis? We are a society of mass consumption.

NASCAR also has kept eating fuel more than any other racing series in the world. NASCAR used an estimated 100,000 gallons of fuel in an average season compared to F1 using around 52,000 gallons.

“(Rising fuel costs) are affecting us and the teams like everybody else in America,” said Jim Hunter, vice president of corporate communications for NASCAR in an article on

Fans know the drivers and teams they adore are going through the same rise in gas prices as they are every day.

It’s patriotic and religious. Maybe more so than any other sport, NASCAR fans take patriotism to another level, sometimes over the top. The beginning of every race not only has the usual National Anthem, but adds the traditional fly-by from military jets.

Oh yeah, NASCAR’s biggest race, the Daytona 500, is called “The Great American Race.”

Religion is also a large part of NASCAR, which isn’t too surprising considering its roots in the Bible Belt.

Before every race an invocation is recited, usually by a local church pastor. It’s the only sport that a prayer is openly spoken before an event, and you can bet almost every fan in the stands will say “Amen” afterward.

NASCAR doesn’t prevent its drivers from openly espousing their faith, unlike other sports. A National Football League player was once fined for wearing a cap with a cross on it during an interview.

Longtime driver Morgan Shepherd has “Jesus” on his window.

American values have been planted across the world (fast food restaurants in Third World countries is a prime example), whether by evolution, by choice, or not.

With its conquest of America complete, the rest of the world seems next for NASCAR.

Contact Steve T. Gorches at 648-3141 or