Stock Cars

‘A LITTLE REDNECK'

DANYLO HAWALESHKA finds Canadians flocking to the NASCAR circuit

July 4 2005
Stock Cars

‘A LITTLE REDNECK'

DANYLO HAWALESHKA finds Canadians flocking to the NASCAR circuit

July 4 2005

‘A LITTLE REDNECK'

Stock Cars

DANYLO HAWALESHKA finds Canadians flocking to the NASCAR circuit

IT ISN’T EVEN NOON yet on a blisteringly hot Sunday, but the odds are pretty good the shirtless guy hanging on for dear life behind the wheel of his Jeep 4x4 isn’t sober. The infield at Turn 1 of the Pocono Raceway in Long Pond, Pa., is, after all, known for the partying. That’s saying something when it comes to NASCAR and the 150,000 fans who arrived for June’s Pocono 500. “All right!” someone yells, as the Jeep’s outsized tires kick up a rooster tail of dirt. Straining to make himself heard above the racket, Mucker Chambers from Saint John, N.B.— can of Coors Light in hand—watches somewhat glassy-eyed and smiles as debris scatters. “Better step back,” Chambers warns a visitor. “You get rocks flying sometimes.”

Chambers is tall, extensively tattooed and sports a full-blown Fu Manchu moustache. He looks every bit the Harley-driving biker that he is. For this trip, though, he left his hog behind and made the 12-hour pilgrimage to the track aboard his 1976 Winnebago—“the love shack,” he calls it. His companion, Rockin’ Robyn Gibson, is wearing a lime green bikini top and a short jean skirt. Chambers, 46, and Gibson, “let’s say 36,” arrived at their infield roost at 3 a.m. With the start of the race less than 12 hours away, there didn’t seem much point in sleeping. Up went their Canadian flag. It would be “awesome” if NASCAR came to Canada, Chambers says. “I mean these guys take our hockey players, right? Why not bring the racing to us?”

A lot of Canadian NASCAR fans have the same thing on their minds, wondering when the continent’s premier stock-car racers will head north. It will happen. It has to. Like they say when a race car’s running well, “that dog can hunt.” Because right now NASCAR, firing on all cylinders, wants to grow the Canadian market. Landing a Nextel Cup event, NASCAR’s premier series, is a long shot. But the Busch Series, the No. 2 circuit in the U.S., is looking a lot more promising.

NASCAR oversees three national series: Nextel, Busch and another called Craftsman, for trucks. In March, Busch staged a race in Mexico City, the first NASCARsanctioned contest outside the United States that counted toward its driver championship. “I don’t know why the hell we don’t race in Canada,” says Rusty Wallace, the veteran Nextel driver for the No. 2 Miller Lite Dodge. “We’re already at Michigan International Speedway.”

So, in Canada by when? “Oh boy,” sighs Robbie Weiss, NASCAR’s Los Angeles-based managing director of international operations. “Hard to say. You’d like to think by 2007.” Where? There are several options across the country, says Weiss, from existing tracks to temporary road courses. NASCAR’s Nextel Cup calendar is packed, though, and Canada’s window of opportunity, because of the weather, is tight: only June, July and August. (Unlike Formula One, NASCAR doesn’t race in the rain.) And while no deals have been signed, a Canadian race in 2006 is still a possibility. Look at what happened with Busch in Mexico, says Weiss. “At this point last year, we didn’t even have an agreement,” he says. “Things can move quickly.”

THE NATIONAL Association for Stock Car Auto Racing—NASCAR—bills itself as the fastest growing sport in North America. It’s the No. 1 spectator draw in the U.S., often pulling in bigger crowds than championship games of football, basketball and baseball combined. More Fortune 500 companies have sponsorships in NASCAR than in any other sport. Its U.S. fan base stands at 75 million—one-third of all adults. Between 1995 and 2004, the number of televised events climbed 420 per cent. Sales of NASCARlicensed merchandise have increased 250 per cent in the past decade, totalling US$2.1 billion in 2004. A NASCAR event can add US$200 million to a regional economy. Each week, the races are broadcast in 23 languages in more than 150 countries.

In Canada, NASCAR is the No. 1 televised motorsport. This year’s Daytona 500, the Super Bowl of stock-car racing, drew an average of 506,000 viewers per minute on The Sports Network, more than double the 240,000 who watched when TSN last televised the contest two years ago. According

to the polling firm Ipsos-Insight, Canada has 5.8 million NASCAR fans—one in four adults. The true believers among them spend, on average, eight hours a week following the series in print, on TV or the Internet. Onequarter of these have attended a race. Advertisers love the demographics: one-third of fans are in the coveted 18-to-34 age category—young spenders with disposable income. In a sign that NASCAR is taking

ON THE packed

track, a faster driver will give a slowpoke the ‘chrome horn’ and push him out of the way

Canada seriously, it joined up with TSN last year to form NASCAR Canada. In June, the joint marketing venture began to roll out NASCAR-branded merchandise—T-shirts, sweatshirts, hats, jackets, backpacks, lunch bags and bedding—in Mark’s Work Wearhouse and some Canadian Tire stores.

NASCAR Nextel Cup runs 36 races at 22 tracks over its 10-month season. The Pocono raceway, in the mountains of the same name in northeastern Pennsylvania, hosts two events each year, in June and July. But there has been talk for years of moving one of

those races from Pocono’s 2.5-mile triangular track, possibly to Staten Island, N.Y. That destination doesn’t sit well with Beth Ann Morgenthau, co-owner of the No. 49 Schwan’s Home Service Dodge driven by Ken Schrader. “I’d rather go to Canada,” she says. “Staten Island is a horrendous place to get traffic in and out.”

Whatever happens with Pocono, legendary car owner Jack Roush is optimistic Canada will see NASCAR racing. “I’ve certainly expressed my support for it over several years,” said Roush, who by late June had three Cup drivers sitting in the top five in the points standings. “It’s not imminent, but there’s a real opportunity.”

NEXTEL CUP teams lug equipment to the track in “haulers,” oversized semi-trailers jam-packed with two race cars, spare engines, transmissions and all sorts of other gear. On the Friday before the Pocono 500, driver Jamie McMurray plops himself down heavily on the leather couch in his hauler. The air conditioning feels almost cold enough to hang meat. McMurray, the 29-year-old driver of the No. 42 Texaco/Havoline Dodge, drives in both Nextel and Busch series races. He ran in Mexico. “The one thing that I hear everyone saying about Canada is how beautiful the women are,” jokes the Missouri native, “so I’m all for racing there.”

A fan reaches for a driver’s autograph; Housar enjoys the Pocono atmosphere

NO MATTER how often NASCAR says the sport is about family, race weekends still tend to be more about large public displays of drunkenness. And so what if Brandweek magazine ranks NASCAR drivers No. 2 behind professional golfers as the best role models among athletes? The fact is, there’s no shortage of stories about fans who get loaded, pass out and miss the race. It’s particularly rowdy at big tracks with infield camping. The motorhomes and pickups plow in, the coolers come out and the drinking and sunburning don’t let up until after the checkered flag drops. The saving grace: the fans are really friendly. It’s part of the appeal. For some, anyway.

Take Bruce Wright and his wife, Geri, from Oshawa, Ont., sitting atop their 37-foot motorhome up against the fence at Turn 3. They’re not only watching a preliminary race, they have it on satellite TV, too. Geri, 60, recalls a time she ran out of hot dog buns. “Before you knew it, somebody ran me up a package of buns,” she says. “There’s just no selfishness here.” Bruce, 61, who fixes tractor-trailers part-time, nods in agree-

ment as a cold bottle of Moosehead sweats at his feet. But he realizes why NASCAR may not be for everyone. “In Canada,” he says, “we’d call ourselves a little redneck.” To drive home his point, he nods subtly toward the motorhome parked beside him, where a woman of Rubenesque proportions in a one-piece bathing suit is watching the same race. “Last night,” he says, lowering his voice, “we had a little titty show next door.”

That’s NASCAR for you. Friendly, and a little off-colour. A place Canadians feel welcomed, even if we didn’t fight in “Eye-raq.” Holding a plastic cup brimming with something pink and powerful, George Housar, a millwright who’s driven down from Stirling, Ont., near Belleville, says he loves the camaraderie. “No one gives a shit if you’re Canadian or American,” says Housar, throwing a bear-like limb around his unsteady friend’s neck. “We all like each other here.”

But for all the jollity, it’s hard not to notice a lack of visible minorities at the track. Maybe blacks can’t relate to all the lily-white drivers. Maybe it’s the Stars and Bars, the Confederate flags that blanket NASCAR infields, testament to stock car racing’s strong southern roots. Pretty much the only African-Americans in sight at Pocono were two NASCAR officials and the guy who handed out paper towels in the toilet. In a recent television interview on Fox, driver Dale Earnhardt Jr., NASCAR’s biggest star, was asked to say something about himself that people don’t know. “That I don’t like the way people use racial slurs around me,” replied Junior, the 30-year-old driver of the No. 8 Budweiser Chevrolet. “That’s something a lot of people don’t know.”

IN FORMULA ONE, Europe’s elite, openwheel racing series, one or two drivers typically have a chance to win. In NASCAR, any one of 15 drivers can win. The cars are packed together, with frequent lead changes. It’s aggressive. Chances are good a fast driver will give you the “chrome horn” and push you out of the way if you’re holding him

up. Personalities, like front ends, clash. It’s hard racing, free of fiascos like the recent one at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, where 14 out of 20 Formula One cars withdrew just before the start of a race because of safety concerns over their tires.

The 2005 Pocono 500, it turns out, is hard on the tires. By day’s end, an astonishing 11 cars will have had 22 tires go down. A bad day for Goodyear. On lap 57, for instance, Junior radios in that he has a flat left-front tire. His pit crew replaces it. A few laps later he pulls in again—the entire left-front wheel is on fire. Acrid smoke fills the driver compartment as a crew member douses the flames. Earnhardt’s crew chief radios his driver: “Just want to see if you’re still breathing in there.”

Kyle Busch, the driver of the No. 5 Kellogg’s Chevrolet, has a remarkable day. Busch, who’s 20 but looks 16, started the race in 38th place. By lap 148, when he pits for tires, he’s third. He leaves the pits in ninth and proceeds to, as they say, drive it like he stole it. Lap 169 and he pits again, this time for leftside tires only. Front-tire changer Murray Timm from Kitchener, Ont., sails over the pit wall, air gun in hand. Five lug nuts off, worn rubber removed, new front wheel on, lugs tightened. As Timm bolts across the front of the vehicle, the jack man drops the car. It takes off in a puff of white tire smoke, grazing Timm’s leg as Busch red-lines it through the gears and back into the fray circling the track.

Uncharacteristically, the finish is somewhat anticlimactic. A late crash forces the field to end the race under caution—the cars frozen in order and reduced to a crawl. The winner is Carl Edwards. Busch holds on for an impressive fourth, a great run. After the race, Timm is jubilant, his dangerous brush with Busch’s fender a distant memory. “It worked out perfect—I’d do it again,” he says, adding: “Those drivers are so good, they don’t usually run you over.”

THE BIG SHOW will continue to attract Canadians to U.S. tracks, fans like Lynne Carrière, 39. She has dedicated a wall in her home in Gatineau, Que., to NASCAR merchandisestickers, posters and “an authentic Dale Junior clock right in the middle.” Carrière loves the feeling just before a race starts. “It gives you the shivers all over, I’m telling you,” she says. “We’re looking forward to the day NASCAR comes to Canada—very much.” I?]