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The new NASCAR elite
NASCAR in recent years has become the United States’ fastest-growing sport.
Television ratings for NASCAR’s premier Nextel Cup circuit rank behind only those of the powerhouse National Football League, according to Nielsen Media Research. The fan base is estimated at 75 million. NASCAR earned more than $3 billion last year.
Fueled by those kinds of numbers, NASCAR aggressively expanded across the country in the past decade, seeking to broaden its market base and reach new and affluent fans. It added Nextel Cup races in, among other places, Fort Worth; Chicago; Indianapolis; Las Vegas; Fontana, Calif., and Kansas City, Kan.
A record nine races will be run west of the Mississippi this season.
“NASCAR is chasing the bigger markets, and that no doubt changes the landscape,” says Mel Poole, president of SponsorLogic, a North Carolina marketing firm that works with companies advertising at races.
NASCAR’s fan base — and its image — is changing, too.
The enduring caricature of NASCAR fans is one of beer-guzzling good ol’ boys camped out in RVs at trackside or on the infield. To be sure, the RVs still roll in on race weekends, and the coolers and campgrounds still are full.
But contrary to this blue-collar image, a large portion of NASCAR fans are relatively affluent: More than 40 percent have household incomes topping $75,000.
Those are the fans NASCAR increasingly seeks to accommodate.
“It’s not necessarily about shifting exclusively to a higher-end demographic, but rather the whole pie is enlarging,” Mr. Poole says. “There are more fans of every demographic gravitating to the sport. But we’ve certainly come a long way from just plunking down $30 and sitting on a hard metal bench.”
Like the rest of the sports world, NASCAR caters heavily to the corporate customer. Luxury suites and boxes are available at tracks from New Hampshire to California and every grandstand in between. In today’s business world, it is almost a necessity.
“Who buys them? I’d say it’s almost all the companies involved in motorsports, either through sponsorship or the manufacturing aspect of the industry,” John R. Guthrie, senior director of business development at Daytona, says of the suites. “And I think a lot of the people who end up in suites are people who own cars because they want to watch their investment.”
Even when that investment is $15 million, the approximate cost to field one Nextel Cup team, there is more to it than simply watching the cars on the track turn left every half mile.
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