The soul of a sport is up for grabs. Once the province of bootleggers and backwoodsmen, its appeal largely limited to the Southeast, NASCAR is now a full-service entertainment juggernaut that trails only the NFL in its reach and ambition. The rolling billboards that used to peddle tires and motor oil at ramshackle ovals in small towns just a decade ago now zoom down new speedways in the shadows of big cities, selling cereal, office supplies, internet providers and even Viagra to a worldwide audience of 75 million.
But on the eve of the 47th running of the Daytona 500, managing that explosive growth is proving every bit as challenging as achieving it.
Every change in the sport, from the launch of a playoff system last season to the crackdown on drivers' conduct and language, invariably brings howls from a core audience increasingly worried the sport has become more homogeneous than homespun, more choreographed than chaotic.
''We're still doing what we've always done going around in circles very fast,'' said Kyle Petty, a third-generation driver from one of NASCAR's legendary clans. ''The difference is that when you go into a grocery store, there might be a race car on the Cheerios box and some drivers' pictures on a six-pack of Coke. Or you walk into Home Depot and bump into a life-size cutout of Tony Stewart. That tells you how much the exposure has widened the fan base.
''When I was 7 years old, I dreamed about driving a race car. I didn't dream about wearing makeup for a photo shoot,'' Petty added, ''but that's the way business is done in NASCAR now. Considering how fast things changed, I think they've done a pretty good job of getting their arms around it.''
No issue will get an argument started faster than that one.
Four years ago, Dale Earnhardt, arguably NASCAR's most popular driver ever, was killed in a last-lap crash in the debut race of NASCAR's first national TV contract. Instead of dampening interest in what was still a niche sport, that tragedy, and the ensuing debate it touched off over the safety of stock-car racing, only stoked it. NASCAR was helped in no small part since then by the emergence of Earnhardt's son, Dale Jr., as a bona fide star. And any lingering questions about its status as a mainstream sport were answered when President Bush, just beginning his re-election campaign, dropped by last year to give the command, ''Gentlemen, start your engines!''
The president's handlers knew what the numbers bear out. NASCAR's audience is now diversified in a way that seemed unimaginable just a short time ago. Women comprise 40 percent and a third falls into that magical 18-34 demographic sponsors are forever chasing. Since the debut season, its TV ratings have climbed steadily to the point where a NASCAR race ranked as the top sporting event on 12 of the 26 weekends it was shown on broadcast networks.
What keeps NASCAR chairman and CEO Brian France awake some nights is how to keep broadening that audience without running off NASCAR traditionalists. The largest single portion of the sport's fan base 45 percent is over 45.
''We're not purists,'' said France, himself the third generation of the family that ruled NASCAR since its inception. ''The truth is we'll do anything to make sure the racing is right. If we don't deliver the best auto races in the world, none of the rest of what we do will matter.''
France has uprooted several races from the South and planted them in Texas, California and Arizona in a bid to crack open new markets. But he's smart enough to understand that the problem with building an empire is that sooner or later, you bump into someone else's empire. And so, instead of competing against football, baseball or basketball NASCAR bumps up against all three at some point in its season he tries to position his sport as a complementary package. That's how the Chase for the Championship, a season-ending playoff system that ruffled the feathers of many fans, came into being.
''The idea,'' France said, ''was to create that moment where somebody does something spectacular on a bigger stage. Think about Michael Jordan making that game-winning shot against Cleveland, or Wayne Gretzky creating a goal out of nothing in the Stanley Cup.
''As sports fans, those are the moments we never forget. Racing has always had them and the trick now,'' he said, ''is to keep them coming on a bigger stage.''
NASCAR's first golden age featured Southerners Richard Petty and Bobby Allison battling in the 1960s, and the rivalries kept coming: Earnhardt Sr. dueled first with Darrell Waltrip and then with Jeff Gordon, a native Californian who honed his racing chops in the Midwest and helped broaden the sport's appeal.
Now 33, Gordon is practically a senior statesman, being chased by a pack of telegenic young guns that includes Junior, Jimmie Johnson, Matt Kenseth, Ryan Newman, Kevin Harvick and Kurt Busch, last year's Chase champion. Off the track, they're likely to turn up doing cameos on TV, or MTV for that matter.
Old-timers might disparage those young guns as pretty boys compared to their grittier, plainspoken predecessors. But put them on a racetrack at speeds approaching 200 mph, and men and machines remain as volatile a mix as ever.
''What's changed is the responsibilities outside the car,'' Earnhardt said, ''especially compared to when I started in the sport. The risk is always spreading ourselves too thin.
''But once you're strapped in, it's still about racing. And as long as nobody forgets that on Sunday,'' he said, ''everything will be all right.''
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at email@example.com
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