Winston Cup merchandising has moved from mom-and-pop trailers in dusty track infields to the suburban comfort of the mall.
At NASCAR Thunder, a new chain of racing-themed stores, fans can buy everything from a Jeff Gordon helmet-shaped cooler to a Dale Earnhardt night light - without having to listen to those deafening engines in the background. Or course, customers do have to maneuver around the race car sitting right in the middle of the store.
“This is pretty nice,” said Arnold Wombough of Wall, N.J., who was at Gwinnett Place mall to pick up a tuxedo for his son’s wedding and wound up buying a Hendrick Motorsports poster. “It’s a little commercial, but it’s better than other places for buying things.”
NASCAR merchandising has traditionally been a trackside function, with trailers popping up every weekend in the infield and outside the gates to hawk T-shirts, hats and pins.
But as the sport has boomed and NASCAR-licensed products have grown from a $60 million industry in 1990 to an expected $700 million this year, it was only a matter of time before racing got a green light to roll into malls.
NASCAR Thunder, operated by the company that owns cable television’s The Nashville Network, opened its first store in this Atlanta suburb in May. Stores in Winston-Salem, N.C., and Knoxville, Tenn., soon followed, and a Nov. 22 opening is planned in Dallas-Fort Worth.
“In the past, if you didn’t go to the track it was almost like the merchandise wasn’t available,” said Larry Painter, vice president of the store chain. “We’ve taken it to a whole new level.”
NASCAR Thunder has patterned itself after the theme-based stores operated by Disney and Warner Bros., luring customers as much with the look of the store as with the goods sold inside.
Rusty Wallace’s Thunderbird sits right inside the front door. The decor resembles one big checkered flag, all black and white. Many of the fixtures are replicas of tool boxes, gas cans and jack stands. One wall looks like the back of the huge truck that transports race cars from track to track each week. Another is adorned with a flag stand and a mannequin waving a checkered flag. A wall of televisions in the back shows old race highlights and promotes merchandise.
And what about the merchandise? Certainly, there’s plenty of T-shirts and hats, the mainstay products for stock-car fans. But that’s just the tip of the shopping iceberg.
Model cars. Clocks. Key chains. Coffee mugs. Blankets. Tennis shoes. Umbrellas. Sunglasses. Pins. Videos. Books. Watches. Pocket knives. Belt buckles. Diamond earrings.
The selection ranges from a NASCAR shot glass that sells for $1.90 to the mini-Dale Earnhardt hall of fame - boot, glove and limited-edition painting, framed and encased in glass - that goes for $1,500.
A fan could outfit himself in the colors of his favorite driver from head to toe. Well, almost.
“The boxer shorts are on the way,” a store worker said proudly.
As if to show that absolutely anything will sell to a racing fan with a pocketful of money, there’s a replica of Wallace’s hood to hang from the wall. The cost: $95.
“It’s a bit pricey, but it’s a good idea,” said Alan Cade of Mobile, Ala., who brought his son to buy a Wallace hat and car tag. “I guess the novelty is keeping the prices up. Hopefully, they will come down some.”
Nearby, Spencer Cade eyed his favorite driver’s car.
“How’d they get that car in here?” he asked incredulously, before kissing his hand and patting the side of the black-and-gold machine.
NASCAR Thunder hopes to open at least 11 more stores next year, including some outside the sport’s traditional fan base in the South. Winston Cup racing is no longer just a regional phenomenon, with an exhibition race in Japan after this season and new events planned next year in California and New Hampshire.
“We’ve taken it out of the old Southeastern boys’ club to a whole new dimension,” Painter said. “If we could have done this two years ago, we would have done it then… . I think we’re just playing catchup.”
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