Originally created 02/15/99

Watch out Indy, Daytona is zooming ahead



DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- In the middle of the speedway infield sits a gray, run-down bus with a slogan spray-painted on the back.

"As you can see, we ain't the Partridge Family," it says.

In a big tent just outside the track fans can pay $1,700 each to eat eggs Benedict and drink white wine before going to their private suites to watch the race.

Clearly, the Daytona 500 is for everyone these days.

For every $250 leather NASCAR jacket, there's a $6 Dale Earnhardt key chain. For every $80,000 camper in the infield, there are two fans huddled in a pup tent.

With a new grandstand on the backstretch, about 185,000 fans saw the race live Sunday. An estimated 8 million more watched on television.

That's the best proof NASCAR and its top race have been able to expand their rural, beer-drinkin' Southern roots without leaving them behind.

As a result, the Daytona 500 is now considered by many the nation's premier auto race, surpassing the Indy 500, which had held that distinction with little dispute since it started in 1911.

"The Daytona people will say what they want to say, and the Indy people will say what they want to say," said NASCAR president Bill France Jr., whose family owns Daytona International Speedway.

"We think the Daytona 500 is one of the great races. Between television and what's at the track, more eyeballs have watched this race than any other auto race in America the last few years."

Daytona and NASCAR have cultivated that broad audience with a deft mix of enthusiastic sponsors, vibrant personalities and fast, competitive racing.

Meanwhile, the Indy 500 has been faltering since 1996.

That's when prominent drivers from the Championship Auto Racing Teams (CART) boycotted the race over the formation of the Indy Racing League (IRL).

The Indianapolis 500 remains an IRL race and few of the circuit's drivers have become household names.

There's no such problem in NASCAR. Drivers such as Earnhardt, Jeff Gordon, Mark Martin and the Labonte brothers are featured on cereal boxes, in gasoline commercials and milk ads -- and everything in between.

"We still watch the Indy race, but in our minds, it's not the same," said Scott Hunter, a longtime race fan from West Palm Beach. "Ten years ago, I would have told you Indy was a better race. But it hasn't been the same since they split things up."

Defending IRL series champion Kenny Brack said he understands. But does that make Daytona, known as The Great American Race, better than Indy, billed as The Greatest Spectacle in Racing?

He would only concede a tie.

"I've been to a lot of races and I haven't been to a race that's bigger than Indy," said Brack, in Daytona for the International Race of Champions series.

"This may be the same level, but I don't get the feeling it's a lot bigger."

Indy 500 champ Eddie Cheever points out that all 320,000 tickets for the race sell out within two weeks every year. But he says it has to make changes to become the undisputed leader again.

"IRL has to keep trying to emulate a lot of things NASCAR did to make itself more successful," he said.

That means developing personalities and making the sport as friendly to television and advertisers as possible.

And it's those issues that keep coming up when anyone talks about the surge of the Daytona 500.

Run during a dead spot on the sports calendar, with regular-season basketball and golf the only major competition, the Daytona 500 drew a 7.7 overnight rating last year. A rating point represented 980,000 homes in 1998.

That compares to a 5.6 rating for the Indy 500, which competes every Memorial Day weekend with the NBA playoffs, baseball and now, its own problems.

"I remember when Indy used to be something you blocked out the day to watch when it was Unser and Andretti," said fan Kenny Krase, who drove to Daytona from Illinois. "Once I stopped recognizing the drivers, I stopped watching. That's one reason I'm here this week, because I feel like I know these guys."

NASCAR's success, however, has made it more difficult for the grass-roots fan to afford the trip to Daytona. Stewart said he paid nearly $200 for his spot in the infield this year, where just a few years ago it was closer to $50.

Still, he and his friends find a way to make it each year, while the rich and famous keep coming into the fold.

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas served as grand marshal Sunday and declared: "Gentlemen, start your engines." Green Bay quarterback Brett Favre waved the green flag to start the race.

"The last few years, it has started getting trendy," said Stewart's friend Joe, who didn't want his last name used.

"But there's still room for everyone, from the real rich to the middle class to the bottom of the Earth. Everyone can feel comfortable here. That's probably why it's so popular."