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NASCAR For Dummies
By Mark Martin
John Wiley & SonsISBN: 0-7645-7681-X
Chapter OneNASCAR Racing: The Best Sport Around
In This Chapter
* Getting the lowdown on NASCAR past and present
* Scooping the best drivers
* Looking into racing techniques
* Following NASCAR races
* Going big time with sponsors and television
Most people don't know what it's like to dunk a basketball or hit a 100- mph fastball 500 feet for a home run, but almost everyone knows how to drive a car - and that familiarity is the appeal of NASCAR and stock-car racing. Whether they admit it or not, lots of people speed down the highway and daydream about winning the Daytona 500. That daydreamer could be a 17-year-old high school student who just got a driver's license, a 35-year-old orthodontist, or a 70-year-old retired teacher. Driving is nearly universal.
NASCAR's allure has grown in recent years because of its tremendous television exposure; the drivers' accessibility to their fans; and close, competitive racing. In 2003, nearly 7 million fans went to see the NASCAR Cup Series races, which is quadruple the attendance in 1980. And more than 280 million viewers tuned into NASCAR Cup Series events on television in 2003, making NASCAR one of the most popular sports to watch on TV, second only to the NFL.
Here are a few more stats that show how NASCAR has grown from an originally Southern-based sport to a truly national phenomenon:
If you're one of the sport's new fans, this chapter gives you NASCAR in a nutshell, including enough details about its history, cars, drivers, teams, races, and statistics to make you sound like a veteran. If you're an old hand, you can brush up on what's new, as the sport is constantly evolving.
From Back Roads to the Big Time
A few decades ago, stock-car races weren't the professionally run events that they are now, even though many organizations - including the United Stock Car Racing Association, the Stock Car Auto Racing Society, and the National Championship Stock Car Circuit - sanctioned races. The schedule wasn't organized; instead, random races were held here and there, sprinkled throughout the southeastern United States wherever tracks were available (some were well-built, but most were pretty shoddy). Drivers didn't race in each event, so fans had no idea which of their favorites would show up until they got to the track. Worse, some race promoters were less than honest, running off with the ticket receipts and race purses, never to be seen again.
Bill France, Sr., a tall, dynamic stock-car driver and race promoter, thought this was an unprofessional way to run a sport and was determined to set a standard for drivers and track owners. He decided to devote his energy to establishing one preeminent stock-car racing sanctioning body - NASCAR (National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing) - that would oversee different series. A racing series, such as the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series, is similar to a baseball league, featuring a group of drivers who compete in a set number of events and follow rules determined by the sanctioning body. At the end of the season, the sanctioning body in charge of making the rules, running the events, and making sure competitors follow the rules, crowns a series champion. That's exactly what France, also known as "Big Bill," created with his brainchild - NASCAR. In the beginning, France had several goals:
France's goals were realized and today NASCAR sanctions several racing series. The top one is the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series, and I spend most of the book talking about this series. I give you a quick rundown on the NASCAR Busch Series, the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series, and several NASCAR touring series in Chapter 3.
What Is Stock Car Racing?
When different people think of auto racing, the same image of a race car doesn't necessarily pop into their heads. That's because many different types of race cars and hundreds of racing series, or racing leagues, exist throughout the world.
NASCAR stock cars are unique in that they look very much like what a suburbanite drives. But looks can be deceiving. Almost nothing is "stock" when it comes to NASCAR vehicles, whether they run in NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series, NASCAR Busch Series, or NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series events. In addition to bodies (or chassis) reinforced with roll bars, multi-part driver restraint systems, and an escape hatch through the roof, NASCAR vehicles are among the fastest - and safest - on earth.
Three brands of cars compete in the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series - the Chevrolet Monte Carlo, the Ford Taurus, and the Dodge Intrepid. The manufacturers of these brands of cars see the sport as a great marketing tool, hence the saying, "Win on Sunday, sell on Monday."
Here's a quick rundown on the other types of racing vehicles (Figure 1-1 shows you some of the differences):
The Racing Team
One of the best aspects of NASCAR is that its drivers are regular people - that is, until they get to the race track. As is the case with all competitive athletes, NASCAR drivers have their own personalities, which are often magnified when they get behind the wheel. The legendary Richard Petty, whose 200-victory record will probably never be topped (he raced up to 60 times a season) is one of the nicest guys in the garage area, always stopping to sign autographs while flashing his signature smile. But Petty didn't win seven NASCAR Cup championships by being the series' sweetheart during a race; he bumped and banged with the best of them.
Drivers like Tony Stewart and Robby Gordon prefer their on-track performance to talking, while the colorful Rusty Wallace has never been asked a question that he answered in less than 300 words. These days, the prototypical driver more closely resembles multiple NASCAR Cup Series champion Jeff Gordon and up-and-coming star Jimmie Johnson, who keep their tempers to themselves and remain composed in virtually any situation.
During a time when many athletes are out of touch with the fans who pay their bills, NASCAR drivers are seen by many of their supporters as the guy next door. And they are definitely the most accessible of highly hyped superstars. Although some are naturally friendlier and others are more reserved, many retain an innate humbleness, which comes from remembering the early days of their careers when they built and worked on their own cars. They also recognize that without fans, NASCAR wouldn't exist. Although in this modern era drivers are pulled in many directions, from testing their vehicles to making appearances on behalf of their sponsors, they remain fairly accessible. NASCAR drivers still sign autographs and make appearances at malls in the cities in which they race. (For more information on drivers' schedules and their fan clubs, see Chapter 15.)
NASCAR drivers are also known as family men, who bring their wives and children to many races - thanks to modern, comfortable motor homes replacing the need to stay in hotels. Many attend church services on the morning of a race and are very aware they are role models to kids and teens watching their every move. When people talk about the NASCAR family, they don't mean just the competitors. NASCAR fans tend to "adopt" a certain driver to root for, and he becomes a member of their extended family.
Although NASCAR's drivers are front and center when it comes to recognition and attention, they wouldn't be in the racing business were it not for the hundreds of people who run the sport, create the teams, work on the crews, sponsor cars and races, and bring the action to the nation via television, radio, and newspapers.
At the top of any individual race team is the owner, who pays the bills and calls the shots. Team owners also spend a vast amount of time searching for and pleasing sponsors, who spend millions of dollars for the right to put the name of their company across a car's hood. The team owner gets a great deal of help from his general manager and crew chief, who are in charge of everything from hiring employees to setting the testing schedule to being responsible for a car's performance on any given Sunday. Teams employ a large number of specialists who work at the race shop doing everything from painting the driver's cars to answering the telephone.
During the last ten years, it has become common practice for an owner to field more than one team, which is obviously more expensive but gives him or her more chances to share information between teams and have more opportunities to visit victory lane. (For more on team ownership, see Chapter 6.)
Winning a Race Takes Strategy
NASCAR racing is about much more than making rules and driving fast. In fact, becoming successful in NASCAR entails much more than the ability to wheel a race car at high speeds. By the time a race starts, a driver and his crew have put in many hours of work building and tweaking the vehicles so that they handle well for that particular track, whether an oval track, a road course, or a superspeedway. Once at the track, drivers hit the pavement for practice laps, trying to coax the most speed they can out of their cars in order to both qualify and race well. A qualifying lap determines where a driver will start a race; the one who is fastest over one lap gets to start from the front pole position and the second-fastest driver starts next to him on the outside pole.
When the race starts, the objective is to move to the front (if you started in the back) and hold onto the lead if you started up front. The most successful drivers are well-schooled in the art of passing the competition, either by having that day's fastest car or by hooking up with their rivals in a draft, as two or three cars end-to-end can push one another past a car stuck out on its own. (For more information on drafting and race strategy, turn to Chapter 9.) A good pit crew that can change four tires and fill two cans of gas in less than 14 seconds is also crucial to having a winning car. The first car off pit road, especially near the end of the race, often is the one that makes the hard left into victory lane.
Winning has become increasingly difficult as the sport has become more popular and more drivers enter races. That makes winning more special than it used to be. Don't get me wrong, it was special when I won my first NASCAR Cup race in 1989, but today, there isn't as much disparity in equipment between first- and last-place teams. This is fine with me because it makes winning more satisfying.
Heading Out to the Track
Watching a NASCAR race is a total-body experience: the earth-shattering sound of a 790 horsepower engine roaring when a driver flips the ignition switch, the sight of 43 colorful cars flying around a track fender-to-fender as the grandstands shake, and the gritty smell of burned rubber mixed with gasoline. If watching races on television from your living room isn't enough of a rush for you, it's time to head out to the track. Here are several great races you may want to check out yourself (see Chapter 14 for more info on going to races):
Excerpted from NASCAR For Dummies by Mark Martin Excerpted by permission.
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