Nothing encourages corporate excess more than a Super Bowl, that annual homage to endless rounds of wining, dining and partying. But NASCAR, so recently little more than a regional taste, certainly comes close.
This season it will celebrate its golden anniversary, and as far back as last winter, its president, 64-year-old Bill France, promised, “When we get done, everyone in America and pretty much throughout the world will know about our 50th year.”
How will his group manage to fulfill that overblown claim? With, it turns out, the aid of the very same people who have transformed a mere football game into a monument to money, free spending and endless hyperbole.
The foundation of NASCAR’s grand conceit is, to use corporate-speak here, an integrated marketing plan valued at more than $100 million and involving more than 20 sponsors and 40 licensees. An Official Soft Drink, an Official Beer, an Official Car, an Official Drive-Thru Restaurant, an Official Cereal, an Official Hardware Store - all just part of its ever-growing foundation.
That is why Jeff Gordon, who earned a record $6.3 million last year, was inspired to say, “Some day we’ll be talking about a driver making $25 million a season and no one will blink. Even (Dale) Earnhardt (who made more than $20 million last year in salary and merchandising) will be impressed.”
That’s not all
It’s just not NASCAR that is the newest darling of the corporate world. It’s the whole sport of auto racing.
Consider the Indy Racing League, which opened its third season last Saturday at Walt Disney World Speedway. Though it still is struggling to establish itself as a viable entity, it picked up a title sponsor earlier this month and now is known officially as the Pep Boys IRL.
Then there is the longer-running CART circuit, which battles the IRL for the affections and dollars of open-wheel fans. Its official title long has been the PPG CART World Series, but over the winter it signed up one more sponsor.
The result? It’s officially known now as (deep breath here) the FedEx Championship Series for the PPG Cup.
Just the facts, ma’am
Graze the sports landscape and it is clear why corporations are taking cars out of the garages and making them part of their boardrooms. Baseball’s a mess and still looking to reclaim lost fans; pro football’s diluted by expansion and confronting seats left empty by an expanding number of no-shows; pro basketball’s diluted, too, and wondering what will happen when Michael Jordan retires.
Auto racing, in stark contrast, continues to grow and last season more than 16 million fans attended events sponsored by 12 North American series. Even more important, the biggest of those series all posted better figures than they did a season earlier.
Average attendance at NASCAR’s 32 Winston Cup races was 190,355, up 9 percent. Average attendance at the IRL’s eight races, which includes the Indianapolis 500, was 168,375, up 17.7 percent. Average attendance at CART’s 17 races was 146,532, up 5.3 percent.
The National Hot Rod Association’s Drag Cars series? Up 16 percent with an average attendance of 98,567. NASCAR’s Busch series? Up 16.6 percent with an average attendance of 64,758. NASCAR’s Craftsman Trucks series? Up 13.5 percent with an average attendance of 35,399.
He works for Goodyear Tire, the company that compiled these figures just as it has for the last 26 years. But Stu Grant, its general manager of worldwide racing, was putting out more than corporate-speak when he explained these figures by saying, “Drivers play a major role in the growth of their sport via their accessibility and credibility to the fans.
“They have become heroes and role models for thousands of enthusiasts.”
Back on track
Tony Stewart, 26, is now the IRL’s poster boy, but back when he was 10, he was just another kid looking to race go-karts. That is when he met Mark Dismore and forged a friendship with the man who was then the king of karting.
“It’s unbelievable how much I learned from Mark,” Stewart says.
That made it lusciously ironic when he and Dismore hooked up near the end of last Saturday’s race. Stewart finally passed him four laps from the finish and rolled to victory. After a pit stop for a splash of fuel, Dismore was forced to settle for fifth.
“We spent a lot of time in a van together pulling cars to go-kart races,” Dismore says. “We’re kind of like family. But when you get out on the track, you still love him, but you want to whip him.
“So I’d like to give Tony a hug now, and then kick him in the butt.”
NFL quarterback Jim Harbaugh, was a pit-stop sign operator for Panther Racing driver Scott Goodyear during the race at Disney. The Indianapolis Colts’ starting quarterback is a part owner of that team… . Winston Cup star Mark Martin will be inducted into the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame next month. Miami Dolphins coach Jimmy Johnson and Arkansas basketball coach Nolan Richardson will join him… . Robby Gordon, one of auto racing’s loose cannons, has signed on with the Arciero-Wells Racing team and will run selected events for it this season on the CART series. After an unsuccessful venture into Winston Cup last year, this marks Gordon’s return to the circuit he ran from 1992 through 1996… . “Good Old Gods” is the title of the documentary ESPN airs Friday night. Featured are former NASCAR stars such as Tim Flock, Fireball Roberts and Junior Johnson, who knew nothing of corporate boardrooms back when they ruled racing.