- The Washington Times - Monday, May 1, 2006

Westward expansion leaves fanswith little reason to keep cheering

HAMPTON, Ga. — There’s no disputing NASCAR’s phenomenal growth in recent years. The sport sprouted from its Southeastern roots and opened tracks in Kansas, Chicago and California. Fortune 500 companies lined up to sponsor cars and drivers. Television networks paid $4.5 billion for a new contract. Series officials say the fan base is 75 million.

But in its race to claim a place beside other professional sports in a world of glitz and glitter, NASCAR is jeopardizing the grass-roots fan base that helped build it.

There are ominous signs that NASCAR is losing the Old South:

• Nextel Cup races rarely sell out at traditional venues such as the Atlanta Motor Speedway. Last season, there were empty seats for both Atlanta races, three Charlotte races and the fall race at Talladega Superspeedway in Alabama.

• No driver has emerged to take the spot of Dale Earnhardt, an icon for working-class Southerners, who died during the 2001 Daytona 500.

• Moving races from small, traditional tracks such as North Wilkesboro Speedway in North Carolina, North Carolina Speedway in Rockingham and Darlington Raceway in South Carolina has proven unpopular with Southern fans.

• Many Southern fans are put off by NASCAR’s rock-concert mentality. Officials truly turned the 2006 Daytona 500 into the “Super Bowl” of racing, emulating the NFL with a pre-race performance by Bon Jovi. Fergie of the Black Eyed Peas sang the national anthem.

Linnie Walker, who operates a convenience store near the track in Rockingham, which NASCAR abandoned in 2004, said she feels bitter and jilted by the sport she helped build.

“It has become too citified, too much about the money,” Miss Walker said. “People worked and sweated and saved their nickels and dimes so they could go watch it and help build the sport, and now racing has run off for the big money. They took it away from where it all started.”

It didn’t help that NASCAR President Mike Helton essentially confirmed the feelings of many disenchanted fans last month during a diversity conference in Washington.

“We believe strongly that the old Southeastern redneck heritage that we had is no longer in existence,” he told reporters.

Country boys

NASCAR is sending its old fans signals that are hard to ignore, said Charles Reagan Wilson, director of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi.

“When NASCAR went from being primarily focused in the South — to trying to be a national sport with a television contract and having so many non-Southern-born drivers, it has downplayed and diminished the targeting of Southerners,” Mr. Wilson said. “I think there has been an intentional downplaying of their core audience, and maybe the core audience knows that.”

Perhaps the biggest loss was the dominance of Southern-born-and-bred, swashbuckling, intimidating drivers. Early on, that role was played by Lloyd Seay and Roy Hall, then Curtis Turner, Richard Petty, Bobby Allison and David Pearson. In the 1980s, the sport was dominated by a redheaded country boy from the northern Georgia mountains, Bill Elliott.

They walked like Southern fans. They talked like Southern fans. They fought like Southern fans.

But since Earnhardt’s death, no driver has emerged to capture the hearts of working-class Southerners.

“I felt like I knew Dale Sr. and Bill Elliott personally,” said Brian Entrekin, who operates West Georgia Speedway in Whitesburg. “I felt like they were my friends.”

Meanwhile, drivers from elsewhere have seized control. Last year, drivers from California, Washington and Nevada won 20 Nextel Cup races. Southern-born drivers won three. Last month at the Daytona 500, only 16 of the 43 drivers grew up in Southeastern states. Only one Southern driver — Jeremy Mayfield of Kentucky — made last season’s playoff, the 10-race Chase for the Nextel Cup.

Mr. Wilson, the Ole Miss historian, said the loss of Earnhardt couldn’t have come at a worse time for Southern fans.

“When we lost Dale Earnhardt, that almost coincided with this new marketing approach and the national campaign,” he said. “Somebody needed to come forward to represent that same constituency and have that same appeal, that same Southern earthiness, and nobody has done it. …Something was lost with Earnhardt’s death that never has been replaced.”

City folks

There’s also a feeling among old-school fans that NASCAR has gone too uptown to suit them.

In the old days, the sport was about cars: Ford vs. Chevy, with vehicles on the track closely resembling those in showrooms. Drivers from small towns raced without power steering at tracks such as Rockingham and Darlington.

Today, it’s racing cars with common templates running in places such as Las Vegas and Chicago with rock stars singing the national anthems. It’s Carl Edwards posing shirtless for ESPN magazine covers, and Kasey Kahne endorsing products as nonautomotive as Avon.

Joe McNulty, an attorney from Greensboro, N.C., said NASCAR has changed so much that it has lost its soul.

“I don’t think there’s a lot of racing going on,” he said. “It’s like with everything else, though: The Old South is gone, never to be reclaimed again.”

Ticket prices are keeping some people away, too. Grandstand tickets for this week’s race at the Atlanta Motor Speedway range from $30 to $115.

H.A. “Humpy” Wheeler, president of Lowe’s Motor Speedway in Concord, N.C., said he sensed people in the Southeast had cut back on the number of races they attended each year because of money.

“That’s what’s happened with the loss of traditional industries like tobacco, textiles, furniture, and to a certain extent, farming,” he said.

One factor often cited for Southern fans’ attending fewer races is the loss of “home” tracks such as Rockingham that always produced exciting side-by-side racing.

Rick Sago, director of development in Richmond County, N.C., the home of North Carolina Speedway, said race fans in his area don’t seem as interested in NASCAR as they once were.

“I just don’t think the competition is there on these new tracks,” he said. “At California, they’ve had two races decided by gas mileage and one with tire wear. Go look at the last three races at Rockingham and tell me which one is racing.”

Team owner Rick Hendrick points out that NASCAR has gained far more fans elsewhere than it may have lost in the South. But will the new fans be as loyal to the sport?

“I think that’s a reasonable fear,” car owner Bill Davis said. “We know how die-hard these people are down here and how long they’ve been fans and how passionate they are about it.”

Mr. Wilson said NASCAR had better hope the new fans stay loyal, because it could be too late to win back the old crowd.

“NASCAR would have to really want them back bad enough to court then, and I don’t see that happening, not in the immediate future,” he said. “The Southern fan may well be gone for good.”

cDistributed by New York Times News Service.

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