Is NASCAR losing traditional fan base?

Published: Tuesday, April 18 2006 12:00 a.m. MDT

Racing fans in Texas pick their photo opportunities on pit road. NASCAR is increasingly moving away from southern racetracks.

Tony Gutierrez, Associated Press

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FORT WORTH, Texas — Nearly 190,000 fans squeezed into Texas Motor Speedway last Sunday to see Kasey Kahne capture the latest stop on the Nextel Cup circuit.

Somewhere, some fans were certainly grumbling, probably in the South. The pristine, modern superspeedway represents unwelcome change.

Call it the NASCAR paradox.

Never has stock car racing been this big. Because the sport has come so far so fast, people who supported it when it was a southern regional pastime feel alienated. Longtime fans fume that NASCAR abandoned much-loved southern venues like North Wilkesboro and Rockingham. They fret that more drivers come from California than the Carolinas. They hate the tradition-busting Chase for the Championship. They abhor the Nextel Cup arrival of foreign carmaker Toyota. They are suspicious of NASCAR's diversity program.

"NASCAR probably has to walk a delicate tightrope," said Michael Pitts, a Virginia Commonwealth professor who teaches an honors course on the business of NASCAR. "They have to remember their roots, but they have to look to the future."

One illustrative flash point occurred in February.

After a diversity announcement in Washington, NASCAR president Mike Helton told The Associated Press: "We believe strongly that the old Southeastern redneck heritage that we had is no longer in existence. But we also realize that there's going to have to be an effort on our part to convince others to understand that."

Fan reaction was swift and angry.

Helton said he responded with the phrase the reporter had used in the question and that fans misinterpreted his comments.

"I've been called a redneck myself, and that's OK," Helton, a Bristol, Va., native wrote in an e-mail to the Dallas Morning News. "I'm proud of that. I have no bones about that. However, it's not a very nice term to use any more, I don't think, because it's been stereotyped in such a bad way."

Helton said NASCAR remains true to its roots even as it holds races in Chicago, Texas and Southern California.

"What it boils down to is NASCAR has tried to grow the sport and take advantage of the opportunities that allow that to happen," Helton wrote. "In doing that, we've become a national sport over the years. But our heritage and our roots remain in the South. We're proud of that, and we have no desire to leave that behind."

No one can argue that NASCAR has thrived under the founding France family.

Surveys show that about 75 millions Americans (one in four) consider themselves NASCAR fans. Industry sources put NASCAR's corporate revenue at $1.5 billion, more than the NFL or Major League Baseball.

In the last 10 years, attendance has increased 23 percent, with TV households climbing 86 percent. More than 60 percent of fans live outside the traditional southern markets.

But longtime fans embraced NASCAR before NASCAR was cool. The tradition goes back to moonshiners using hot rods to evade revenuers and continued to the sand of Daytona Beach. The sport wasn't nationally televised until the 1979 Daytona 500. A last-lap confrontation between Cale Yarborough and Donnie Allison made for great TV.

A phenomenon was born.

"It was definitely much more southern, the Rebel flag and everything," said Pitts, who agrees with NASCAR's growth philosophy. "Some of those people probably feel a little cheated and feel like it's a sellout for the money."

A few attended the recent DirecTV 500 in Martinsville, Va. About 70,000 fans crowded into the half-mile oval, sitting on throwback aluminum benches. Donald Hill of Trinity, N.C., wore a satin Winston Cup jacket, a relic from when top division sponsorship came from tobacco, not cellphones.

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