Americans Love Life in the Fast Lane

Gentlemen, this is not your daddy's NASCAR.

In the last 10 years, drivers have become superstars and stockcar racing has moved beyond its Southern roots to become America's fastest growing spectator sport with 75 million fans. And now corporations, political strategists and Hollywood are all clamoring to join the race.

"You can argue that it's the second most powerful sport behind the NFL," said Godwin Kelly, motorsports editor for the Daytona Beach News-Journal.

At this year's Daytona 500, Whoopi Goldberg dropped the green signal flag, Ben Affleck drove the pace car, LeAnn Rimes (search) sang the national anthem and actor James Caviezel (search), who plays Jesus in "The Passion of the Christ," spent time in the pit of Bobby Labonte (search), whose car advertised the film.

"At almost every race there's someone plugging something, and NASCAR has embraced that," said Kelly, who has covered the sport since 1979.

Twenty years ago, most fans were white, blue-collar men from the South, Kelly said. But with national television exposure and racetracks in most major markets, the fan base keeps getting bigger and broader, putting it on the national radar.

President Bush, who opened this year's Daytona with, "Gentleman, start your engines!" is doing his best to court "NASCAR dads," the prized voter profile in this year's presidential race.

Political strategists would probably categorize Rick Donaty, a 32-year-old mechanic from Fredericksburg, Va., as a NASCAR dad.

"There's nothing like the smell of racing fuel, and once the race starts, the sound of the engine is so loud," said Donaty, who attends three races a year. "We leave early in the morning, hang out, cook out. There's usually 15 to 20 of us."

A lifelong fan, Donaty is passing on his NASCAR enthusiasm to his young sons, and this week plans to take them to "NASCAR 3D: The Imax Experience," which opens Friday.

The film is just one sign that the film industry is finally catching on to this wildly popular sport. NASCAR hopes the documentary, narrated by "24" star Kiefer Sutherland, will win over new fans by capturing the inside-the-car feeling and split-second choreography of the pit crews.

"Seattle does not have a race, but it does have a great IMAX theater. I think [the film] will make great inroads for the sport there," said Greg Foster, president of filmed entertainment at IMAX Corp. (search)

Meanwhile, the film has bits that only die-hard fans may spot, such as cameos of two of today's hottest drivers, Ryan Newman (search) and Jimmi Johnson (search), playing 1949 bootleggers outdriving the police.

The new NASCAR has also attracted a large celebrity following, including country music's Lee Greenwood, boxer Evander Holyfield, Kid Rock, Jessica Simpson, Sheryl Crow, skateboarder Tony Hawk and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who introduced the "Terminator 3" car at the California Speedway last April.

Britney Spears, who was the grand marshal for the 2001 Pepsi 400, will play the daughter of a fictitious NASCAR team owner in an upcoming feature film.

And NASCAR seems to like its increasingly high profile complete with glittery stars.

"It's all about broadening the fan base," said Sarah Nettinga, NASCAR's director of entertainment. "But it's really important for us to align with celebrities that are actual fans of the sport."

But there is a downside to the surge in popularity, according to Kelly.

"In the old days of Richard Petty (search) the interaction between the race fan and race driver was unbelievable," said the motorsports writer. "But as the series has grown in popularity, it's almost impossible to meet your heroes these days."

Indeed, NASCAR is known for it's family-friendly atmosphere, community feeling and the interaction between fans and drivers.

Kelly credits Jeff Gordon (search), who was 21 when he came onto the scene in the early 1990s, for changing the face of stockcar racing.

"All of a sudden you've got Generation X getting interested in NASCAR," Kelly said.

Gordon's superstar status paved the way for NASCAR's driver-of-the-moment, Dale Earnhardt Jr. (search), 29. And right behind Junior are the hotshot rookies.

"They're young, they're brash and they're bold," Kelly said. "Back in the old days, training was to drink as many beers before the race. The new guys have strict diets and workout routines."

Gordon especially helped draw in female fans, said Kelly. Women now make up 40 percent of NASCAR fans.

Jennifer Roberts, a 37-year-old public relations professor at St. John Fisher College in Rochester, N.Y., got hooked on the sport after attending her first race four years ago. Although she's not who people might picture when imagining a NASCAR fan, she said her dedication is unwavering.

"To all of my friends who look at me askance, I say, 'Go to a race,'" Roberts said. "My students all get a kick out of the fact that I'm a huge NASCAR fan."

And Tim Goodwin, a 29-year-old record store manager from Rochester, N.Y., whose favorite music is industrial — not country — is an example of a less stereotypical fan.

"I started watching in 1997," he said. "Jeff Gordon was young and winning a tremendous amount of races. He's kind of the anti-NASCAR mold."

Despite being a newer fan, Goodwin counts himself among the dedicated. Like many NASCAR fans, he follows the races on television, but says nothing can replace the real deal.

"Television doesn't do it justice," he said. "The whole community is such a scene. It's almost like going to a motor-racing Woodstock."