2005-05-27 / Editorial/Opinion



I have a confession to make.

I am a Nascar fan. Not a Nascar Nut, as many seem to be, but a fan nevertheless.

As a fan, I have heard of the jokes about how the entire sport is just “going fast and turning left.”

I have also heard many of my friends and neighbors excoriate those who are fans of sports car racing as violent, beer-drinking, right wing, knuckle-dragging, segregationist idiots.

Well, I’m here to tell you that the sport is much more than going fast and turning left and that few fans of the sport match the expectation of those who do not understand the sport and its supporters.

And, the number of Nascar supporters grows by leaps and bounds each year. That is true even in the bluest of blue states – New York.

The first nine races this year have drawn a national rating of 6.2, double the average that the Fox Network pulled for its Major League Baseball games last week.

Fox pulled a 2.2 rating in New York City, up a full ten percent from last year. Those are respectable numbers for a major market such as ours, and the number of people who watch increases with each race.

“For a market that does not have a nearby track, those are fantastic numbers,” said one Nascar official. “We can’t wait to get a track in the New York City area.”

The tens of thousands of Nascar fans in New York City, many of whom are afraid to admit their addiction and sit in the dark each Saturday watching the Busch Series race (the triple-A league of racing) or the Nextel Series Race on Sunday (the big leagues, what was called the Winston Cup until cigarette smoking became déclassé).

Perhaps once a year they take a trek to the nearest tracks – The Pocono Speedway in Long Pond, Pennsylvania; Watkin’s Glenn in upstate New York or the Dover (Delaware) track. Since all of the tracks are in fairly rural areas, it takes a few hours to get from New York to the track’s vicinity and another hour or so to actually get parked and to walk to the grandstand.

That may all change in a few years. The International Speedway Corporation has bought property in Staten Island where it hopes to build a 95,000-seat speedway. That’s right, 95,000 seats. And, on race day, every one of them will be filled.

For years, I pushed for a track on the Arverne Urban Renewal Area, but it would have taken the entire site to make a decent speedway, and the city was more interested in housing than in recreation – especially a Nascar track. I can only imagine what our patrician mayor, Mike Bloomberg, thinks of race fans.

Our local politicians also laughed at the notion, but it would have been a great deal for Rockaway in the long run.

In any case, Nascar is making a run at American culture, not only in the rural outback’s of the nation, but in its big cities. More and more, you see race jackets and bumper stickers extolling one driver or another. I know that many of those who wear the jackets have never seen a race and have no idea what the jacket means outside of the fact that it is colorful and interesting.

Most who wear their driver’s colors, however, are genuinely interested in the sport, in the driver and are knowledgeable about the sport that is so much more than go fast and turn left.

I happen to be a Sterling Marlin fan. That is because I began my interest in Nascar several years ago when Marlin was driving the Four Car for Kodak Film. Since I was shooting so much of the film in my job at The Wave, I decided that I would root for Marlin. Today, he drives the Number Forty Car for Coor’s Beer, but I still root for him in the twilight of his career.

My son is a Rusty Wallace fan. He drives The Number Two Car for Miller Beer. Rusty is in his last year on the circuit.

My young grandsons have their favorites as well, even though they have never seen a live race. The younger one roots for the M & M Car, for obvious reasons and the older for Ryan Newman because his first name is Ryan.

Everybody has a choice.

There are plenty of drivers to root for and everybody has a favorite that they proudly display with jackets, hats, water bottles and the like.

Most of the fans at the race wear large earphones that look more like they belong at an airfield than a sports event. Those earphones serve two purposes.

First, they block out the noise of 64 high-performance automobiles roaring down the straightaway three-wide at more than 200 miles per hour.

Secondly, they are listening to their favorite driver talk to his crew chief and to his spotters high up on the grandstands.

For example, when I attended the races at Pocono (a short track) and Watkin’s Glenn (a road race track), I listened into Sterling as he decided when to come into the pit, how many new tires to take on, how much fuel he had left until the next “green flag pit stop, who he should “draft” with in the coming laps and how long he could go before he badly needed to pit.

The truism of racing is that the race is not won or lost by the driver on the track, although that sometimes happens. More often, the race is won or lost in the pits, where the drivers come for adjustments, fuel, a quick drink, and new tires.

A good pit crew can fill the gas tank, wipe the windows, make a track bar adjustment and put four new tires on the car in 12.8 seconds, all with a strictly limited crew of eight or nine men.

Try that at your local gas station sometime.

There is lots of strategy in auto racing that the casual watcher does not see or understand. Going to an auto race without some knowledge of what it takes to go fast and turn left 500 times over five hours is like going to a football game without ever knowing the rules of the game.

It might be entertaining, but there can be no real enjoyment of what is going on down on the field.

In the stands there are upwards of 100,000 fans. Many do not watch the entire race.

They walk around, visit the sales trailers that hawk the wares of their favorite drivers, grab a frank and a brew, visit with friends in other parts of the track and wait on long lines to hit the bathroom.

It is a spectacle and yet I have never seen a fight at an event nor heard the cursing that you hear at a Knick or Ranger game.

Certainly, there is nothing like what goes on in the bleachers at Yankee Stadium at every game.

A Nascar crowd is a family crowd. It is noisy but respectful.

All of you who look down your noses at the sport ought to learn a little bit about it and then take a road trip to Long Pond or Dover.

You might be surprised to find that you have become a fan.

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