Originally created 05/02/04

Mainstreaming is latest rage



When NASCAR roars into Fontana, Calif., today, nearly 100,000 fans will be there to cheer.

All this isn't lost on NASCAR: For the first time, it will be back at the California Speedway on Labor Day weekend for an additional day of stock car racing.

The lure of NASCAR is everywhere.

The supercharged industry has 75 million fans - 40 percent of them women - who help generate about $2 billion a year in sales for NASCAR-licensed products. A $2.8 billion TV contract it signed in 2001 puts its races on Fox and NBC. Its audience is the second-highest for sports on network TV, trailing only football.

NASCAR's imprint is on clothing, food, the NASCAR Cafe restaurant chain and furniture. And there's more than a spark of interest in NASCAR from Hollywood, perhaps the biggest spark since Tom Cruise met Nicole Kidman on the set of the 1990 film Days of Thunder.

NASCAR hopes its relationship with new fans will have a better outcome. In its trade of down-the-holler for Hollywood, NASCAR is in the storylines for upcoming movies with Britney Spears and Matthew McConaughey, along with a revival of Disney's Herbie the Love Bug, in which the beloved Beetle bulks up. TV projects are also in the works for FX and ESPN.

As part of its own "extreme makeover," NASCAR - National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing - ended its 32-year sponsorship deal with tobacco maker R.J. Reynolds for its venerable Winston Cup and called up wireless system provider Nextel Communications.

The Nextel Cup's $700-million, 10-year title sponsorship gives NASCAR the green flag for reaching younger fans who were off-limits with a tobacco sponsor.

Mainstreaming also shows in the naming of California Speedway races: Around 92,000 fans will crowd the raceway Sunday for the Auto Club 500. The Labor Day weekend attraction is called the Pop Secret 500, both part of the Nextel Cup Series. The second race was added this year, taken away from the Rockingham, N.C., track to put two cup races into the Southern California market.

"They have really been on an accelerated growth on sponsorship, marketing and television viewing" during the past five years, Matt Pietsch, the president of Georgia marketing firm Six Figure Sports, said by telephone.

"They have taken advantage of the broad appeal they already had, and built on that in a really aggressive fashion."

Even as it picks up more and more fans, most NASCAR drivers still take time for friendly chats at the track and sign autographs.

Fans understand that "sponsorship in NASCAR is authentic. It is part of the sport's DNA," Andrew Giangola, the director of business communications for NASCAR in New York, said by telephone.

An Ipsos-Reid study for NASCAR in 2002 concluded that its fans are three times as likely to purchase NASCAR sponsors' products and services as non-fans.