- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 27, 2005

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - At the Bistro on the infield, patrons drink martinis and dine on jumbo lump blue-crab cakes and artichoke dip.

Seven floors up in nearby Nextel Tower, stock car fans watch races — either by looking out the window or at large flat-screen televisions — in luxury suites that sell for up to $200,000.

The prices and amenities at Daytona International Speedway make it as plain as the Viagra sponsorship logos on Mark Martin’s Ford: NASCAR isn’t all about Bubba, beer and barbecue anymore.

The days in which fans watched races while sitting on wooden slats straight from the sawmill are long gone at the tracks of the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing.

More and more these days, luxury rules:

• Condominiums trackside at the Atlanta Motor Speedway allow well-heeled residents to watch races from their living rooms or from a rooftop bar — free of the hassle of long lines and big crowds and safe from the smell of burned rubber and high-octane fuel.

• At the Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth, members of the Speedway Club can drop their children at its day care center and get a manicure and a Swedish massage — or take a kickboxing lesson — at the facility’s health club and spa.

• The Daytona track just opened its exclusive 500 Club — membership fees begin at $2,500 — where patrons on race days get bar and buffet service and a seat above Victory Lane.

• The Indianapolis Motor Speedway offers golf packages — the regular greens fee is $90 — at the Brickyard Crossing, a course adjacent to the track that includes four holes on the infield.

“It’s becoming more opulent all the time,” says H.A. “Humpy” Wheeler, president of Lowe’s Motor Speedway in Concord, N.C. “Even in flat times, you can’t do enough for people. … Look at the new NFL stadiums: They’re showplaces. We have to do the same thing at speedways. People really want to travel first class.”

Mr. Wheeler built Lowe’s Speedway — then known as Charlotte Motor Speedway —40 years ago, and the facilities were anything but luxurious at the time.

“The seating wasn’t very good, the food was awful, the bathrooms were terrible,” Mr. Wheeler says. “But people kept coming back, more and more of them every week.”

Mr. Wheeler and NASCAR have traveled a long way from the sport’s rural roots in the Southeast, where the organization was founded in 1948 and mostly operated over the next four decades.

Expansion, change

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.”

Suite talk

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.

The suites, as in other sports, are used by corporations to entertain current or prospective clients and reward employees.

“What really got this suite thing going was when R.J. Reynolds came in,” Mr. Wheeler says. “They wanted to entertain their customers — the big retail chains, the drugstores, the like.

“They wanted to bring vast numbers of people to the races, but they wanted a little better spot than the grandstand because they wanted to talk to these people. You can’t do that down in the stands.”

But you can in the suites, some of which are soundproof. Others have noise — intercom chatter between drivers and crew chiefs, for example — piped in. The suites come with food and drink and a wait staff. Some have live entertainment, others have video games for children. All have — crucially — air conditioning.

The Atlanta Motor Speedway boasts 137 such luxury suites; the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, 130; and the Texas Motor Speedway 144 — some with walls covered in genuine cowhide.

The suites mostly are sold out and all are expensive, ranging in price from about $70,000 to $200,000.

There is one thing, however, the suites are not: frequently occupied. Despite the cost, some get used only for three race weekends every year.

“It’s crazy,” Mr. Wheeler says.

Room with a view

Elevators zip patrons to the 700 level at Nextel Tower at Daytona, where four plush and pricey suites offer views of every inch of the racing venue. The finish line is at your feet, as are Victory Lane and pit road.

The view takes in the entire 2.5-mile racing surface of the irregular oval course. Across the way are Lake Lloyd, a 33-acre retention pond used to stage water-skiing exhibitions, and the infield. On race weekends, the infield is wall-to-wall RVs, the drivers of which have paid a hefty sum to be part of the action.

Straight across the track is the 500 Club, the glittering new attraction at Daytona. Membership, limited to 500, comes in two price tiers: $2,500 buys access to all but the top floor, which goes for $5,000.

The top floor, known as “President’s Row,” is limited to 80 members. It includes continuous in-seat bar and food service, entertainment, pre-race access to the track and pit road, and a post-race party.

The 500 Club proved unpopular with fans in the cheap seats: The new building blocked part of the all-encompassing view they had enjoyed from seats they had sat in for years.

“There were complaints because in years past when you were seated you could see when cars were riding along the high banks on the back stretch,” says Heidi Sosa of Cincinnati. “But because of the way the deck had been built for FanZone and [the 500 Club], you can’t see the other side of the track any more. The view is obstructed. We did have a big TV screen in its place where we could see the other side, but it wasn’t the same.”

If the 500 Club is too pricey, the Daytona Club has been a fixture at the track for years. This large, tent-covered area provides food, drink and entertainment to fans for $1,950 for the six days of Speed Week. For many, it seems more like a college reunion than a gathering of hard-core racing fans.

“What it becomes is an enormous family of people who see each other every year,” Mr. Guthrie says. “That’s what really drives it: It provides a place for people with like interests to get together and say ‘hello,’ get caught up on what happened since last year.”

Tops in Texas

The best seats at the Texas Motor Speedway come with a kitchen, a bedroom or two and a chandelier.

The condominiums in LoneStar Tower are perched high above Turn 2 of the racetrack. Each of the 76 units features either a balcony or stadium seats placed in front of a cantilevered glass wall in the living room, allowing residents to watch races.

The building has a Texas-sized — and shaped — pool and a clubhouse. Across the street is a golf course. And a golf cart ride away is a helicopter landing pad that residents use to speed to their weekend homes.

The views of the track from the condos are spectacular, but they aren’t cheap: Prices for the units range from $325,000 to $1.1 million. And, as with the luxury suites, the condos frequently are not busy. Some units are occupied year-round by residents, but others only during the few times each season when events are held at the track.

The setup is similar at the Atlanta Motor Speedway, where Tara Place has 46 two- and three-bedroom condos that offer views of the track.

The penthouse apartment’s spiral staircase leads to the roof, where a bar and captain’s chairs provide a comfortable and panoramic view of the 1.5-mile racing oval.

For officials at NASCAR’s tracks, these upscale developments are new ways of competing for dollars.

“You can’t relax in this business. As soon as you do, you’re in danger of being passed,” Mr. Guthrie says. “We just have to be the best at what we do. I think the trend is, people want to be as comfortable as possible.”

Big welcome mat

At the Texas Motor Speedway, that trend would lead fans to Turn 1 and the Speedway Club, which bills itself as “the place where elegance and acceleration meet.”

In the three-tiered dining room overlooking the track, the chandeliers are Italian crystal, the dance floor Italian marble and the menu not exactly from the heart of Texas: grilled basil prawns, Tuscany chicken roulade and pan-seared sea bass with orzo pasta.

A giant, cantilevered window stretches from floor to ceiling, providing a close-up view of the action. Nearby is a lounge with live entertainment; another floor features a 26,000-square-foot ballroom.

The Speedway Club’s health club and spa, like the dining room, is open year-round. It provides personal trainers, aerobics and kickboxing classes, exercise equipment, saunas, hot tubs, child care services, massage therapy, manicure services and tanning beds.

The club’s initiation fee ranges from $1,500 to $37,000, depending on type of membership. Yearly membership fees also are charged, and a minimum level of spending is required on food and beverages.

Still, this rapidly expanding sport sees plenty of room for growth — and for fans of all wallet sizes.

“We were fortunate in racing that our playing fields were bigger than other sports, a mile and a half instead of 100 yards,” Mr. Wheeler says. “We can put in enough seats where we got a place for the guy who works at the plant, his boss, a place for the guy who owns the plant and a place for the people who invest in the plant.”

Eric Fisher contributed to this report.