Originally created 12/02/99

Fans are the key to sport's growth



When Bill France turned his vision of a traveling stock car racing series into reality 51 years ago, the challenge was merely to survive week by week.

"There were times in the early days when we'd run a race on Sunday and face bankruptcy on Monday," said Dr. Joseph Mattioli, owner of the Pocono (Pa.) International Raceway. "But we all had a feeling back then it could be special some day. It took a lot of faith, but most of us stuck it out. And I'm glad we did."

The NASCAR Winston Cup Series has come a long way since the days when France used to sell tickets and help park cars before the main event. The series now is a billion-dollar industry with the second-largest television contract in all of sports behind the National Football League.

The Winston Cup Series has traded in a lot of its Southern drawl for Madison Avenue polish. The sport that 25 years ago survived solely on the whims of France and his hand-picked policy makers now has corporate offices in Charlotte, N.C., New York and Daytona Beach, Fla. Just the licensing department that makes sure everyone pays their fair share in the marketplace has more than 100 employees.

The sport now is in the hands of Mike Helton, who last year became the senior vice president and chief operating officer of the business. For the first 50 years, either France or his son, Bill France Jr., ran the sport. All the family has to do now is sit back and count their millions.

"You find the growth of the sport, even if you don't change positions, the workload becomes more significant," Helton said. "That goes for everybody in our business -- the crews, teams, media. Time is certainly a great asset in getting used to this new responsibility.

"Part of me thinks, in 2000, the things I learned will make things simpler. But another part likes to think the new challenges on the part of NASCAR will always keep it a hectic pace."

The last decade has produced a myriad of changes that will guide racing into the new millennium. Once based primarily in the Southeast, the sport has expanded to Southern California, Texas, New Hampshire, Indianapolis, South Florida and Phoenix. There are plans to race in Kansas City, Chicago and New York in the next couple of years.

Ten years ago, it only took about $3 million to sufficiently operate a race team. Now it takes three times as much. Purses have grown, too. The top 38 drivers in the 1999 NASCAR Winston Cup Series point standings will make more than $1 million each. Series champion Dale Jarrett, who officially will be crowned Friday night at the NASCAR Awards Banquet in New York, will pick up nearly $3 million in postseason bonuses.

On Wednesday, Jarrett was been chosen the 1999 Driver of the Year. Jarrett was picked for the honor in a season-end vote by a national panel of motorsports journalists who gave the NASCAR star 12 of 15 first-place ballots. The other three went to CART FedEx Series champion Juan Montoya, a rookie from Colombia.

At the same time, 10 years ago it only took about $50 to get a prime seat at a big race. Now it takes more than $150. Races are sold out a year in advance and construction for expansion is a familiar part of the racing landscape. Hotels multiply their fees by five and require three-, four- and five-night minimum stays. It seems everyone is getting in on the act.

Yet, the sport provided enough memories to make higher ticket prices and managerial headaches seem worthwhile.

In the last decade, fans were charmed by the individualism of Alan Kulwicki, by the raw talent of Davey Allison, by the temperament of Dale Earnhardt, by the endless skills of Jeff Gordon, by the family values of Dale Jarrett, by the determination of Mark Martin.

In the last decade, fans were charmed by the Saturday night sparks of the Bristol Motor Speedway, by the speeds at the Talladega Superspeedway, by the competitiveness of the Darlington Raceway, by the tradition of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, by the beauty of the Phoenix International Raceway and by the magnitude of the Daytona International Speedway.

"I don't know if there's such a thing as too much growth," Helton said. "The key element is to grow it correctly and smartly -- and maybe even managing growth so it's not too fast. In many cases that means changing the style of business you do. In growing NASCAR, there's two things: One, is growing the NASCAR Winston Cup Series; the other is growing all of NASCAR. We have 13 touring divisions and thousands of races each year. We've got to grow both of these. And that's what makes NASCAR so fun and challenging.

"We're proud of our product, but we're most proud of our fans."

If Bill France Sr. was still alive, he'd be proud, too.