Baby boomers help NASCAR grow, their kids likely to drive sport in future

Posted: Friday, March 15, 2002

Stock car racing has developed from a Southern sport to national pastime, from dusty racetracks to luxury box-studded speedways.

Now in its 53rd season, NASCAR -- short for the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing -- owes much of that success to the fans who grew up right along with it: baby boomers.

''We are a generation so infatuated with automobiles,'' said Tom Cotter, a 47-year-old sports marketer in Charlotte, N.C.

With its noise, speed and straight-talking drivers, the sport speaks to boomers' wild-child tendencies. But there's a wholesome, family-value side to racing that is equally appealing to them as parents. It's a sport they can share with their children.

''Drivers tend to be good people,'' said Bill Doyle, vice president of Performance Research, a media research firm in Newport, R.I. ''As a parent you feel better about your kid wanting to be like Jeff Gordon, who is married, religious, good looking, a good person.''

The average age for NASCAR fans is 43, and half of them earn more than $50,000 a year, according to Performance Research.

Those are appealing demographics for sponsors, who pay upward of $20 million a year to plaster their name on a Winston Cup -- the sport's top tier -- car. Sponsorship used to come primarily from motor oil brands and auto makers, but has grown to include a broad array companies, from Home Depot to Pfizer.

Stock car racing's roots have branched out considerably from the South, where in the 1930s moonshiners messed with their cars to make them run faster, and in 1948 Bill France Sr. founded the NASCAR.

Along its way, NASCAR has picked up lifelong fans. Growing up, Charlie Smith, 46, remembers seeing Winston Cup champ Cale Yarborough visit his father's South Carolina car dealership.

''You meet a lot of nice people,'' in racing, said Smith, who runs a restaurant near the North Carolina Speedway in Rockingham, N.C.

Even boomers who didn't grow up in South are getting hooked on the sport, Cotter said. Some have become fans after a colleague or client invites them to a race. Others are drawn in by family members.

''I had occasionally seen auto racing on TV, but was never really all that interested in it,'' said Hank Amann, 51, of Richmond, Va. But that changed 11 years ago when a friend invited Amann to a race in Indianapolis.

''It was amazing,'' Amann said. ''What I really love about being at the track, to be quite honest, is the noise. You don't just hear it, you feel it.''

The sport offers a closer connection to fans who, thanks to cameras in cars, can indulge in dreams of being a stock car driver -- from their comfort of their living room couch.

''NASCAR fulfills a personal fantasy. We all have played hoops and know we won't be the next Michael Jordan. We all have played baseball, but won't play the World Series,'' said Cotter, the North Carolina sports marketer who handles NASCAR teams and sponsors. ''But we all drive cars. We all wonder: Would I have enough raw guts to keep my foot to the floor to the finish line?''

Television is the most recent flag of NASCAR's success: It is the only U.S. sport where the number of television viewers continues to rise.

Two years ago, NASCAR landed a six-year $2.8 billion contract with NBC and Fox, four times bigger than its previous one. That provides a stable venue for weekend races which jumped between various cable stations, making it difficult for those who weren't diehard fans to follow the sport.

Fans say their loyalty comes from a feeling of kinship with the drivers, who sign autographs at races. Many drivers also bring their families to the track, and even attend a church service there before revving up at the starting line.

''It leaves the perception that family is a very important part of their lives,'' said Kathleen Franzese, 40, of North Andover, Mass.

Franzese was pulled into NASCAR five years ago by her son Derek, now 9, began collecting cars, and watching races on TV.

''I thought it was a boring sport, going around in circles. But he got interested in it for some reason, and then we got to be huge fans,'' said Franzese, whose family has been attending races in Loudon, N.H. for the past three years and otherwise watches them every Sunday on TV. ''It is something to look forward to every week.''

While marketing experts attribute much of NASCAR's success to its avid middle-aged fans, the sport is hoping that boomers' children will be the driving force down the road. Derek Franzese, whose bedroom is adorned with a photo of him with Bobby Labonte and a Dale Earnhardt flag, is an example of the young fans the sport will try to hang onto.

There are other young prospects, such as Lawrence Swicegood's young sons, who play with their model stock cars as they watch races from their Dallas living room. This year, Swicegood, 40, will take Colter, 6, and Logan, 4, to their first Busch Grand National race at the Texas Motor Speedway.

''They're starting to get to know the drivers' numbers,'' Swicegood said.

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