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NASCAR: not just talking moonshine 

Let's do away with all your high-horsed jokes before we continue. Yes, NASCAR's roots are in the Deep South, where terms like "y'all" and "you've got a pretty mouth" are common vernacular.

          Yes, NASCAR apparel is the most ungodly thing ever created, full of wraparound-print T-shirts and hats that are louder than a hot Prohibition-era swing band. Yes, there really is a driver named Dick Trickle. And yes, yes --- exasperated sigh --- they all drive around in circles.

          "You can pooh-pooh any sport by describing it at its basic, boring level," says Mike Pazdyk, longtime voice of WDKX 104 FM's morning show. Pazdyk also moonlights as an announcer at a good chunk of NASCAR's most prestigious tracks.

          "What is football? It's 11 guys going back and forth down the football field. What's baseball? It's 11 guys standing in a field waiting for a ball to be hit. What's basketball? Two five-man teams going back and forth, back and forth, back and forth down the court till the time's over."

          Pazdyk --- Paz to those that know him --- is one of the biggest fans of a sport that is slowly but surely taking over America. Don't believe it? "NASCAR dads" --- white, working-class fathers --- are the political target demographic du jour. George W. proved it when he popped up at this year's Daytona 500 to give the traditional "start your engines" call.

          That was Dale Earnhardt, Jr. in all those Super Bowl ads; Jeff Gordon hosted Saturday Night Live last year having already appeared on the The Drew Carey Show before that. And you'll be hard-pressed to drive around this city and not see someone sporting a "3" (for the late Dale Earnhardt, Sr.) on their bumper.

Here's a quick history (which some have traced back as far as the 1794 Whiskey Rebellion). Back in the days of prohibition, bootleggers would modify their cars to smuggle alcohol all over the South. And they started racing each other for bragging rights.

          Pretty soon, NASCAR founder William H.G. France had the good ol' boys racing on Daytona Beach in Florida. Brave souls would wait by the sides of the makeshift track to throw buckets of water onto the passing racers' windshields to wash off the mud.

          Now, over fifty years later, NASCAR professes 72 million fans. And for those of you who would think it the plebian sport, 42percent of those fans make $50, 000 a year or more.

          With a growing fan base, the sport has become a doctoral thesis in marketing: drivers festooned in corporate logos drive cars bedecked in corporate logos around racetracks bejeweled with corporate logos, brought to you by corporate logos, and broadcast on the corporate-logo box.

          And the product placement has fueled the sport's growth. With people buying more of the stuff they see plastered all over such things as the "brake cam," smart companies are trying to get their names on anything and everything within sight of NASCAR tracks. NASCAR gets to use the money to spread its wings.

          NASCAR reports that its fans' brand loyalty is at a whopping 72 percent (the next closest is golf, with 52 percent). PBS.com describes Kodak's 1993 poll of NASCAR fans: 95 percent of them chose Kodak --- a longtime car sponsor --- over other brands.

          And why are so many people running around wearing those unsightly T-shirts? If you found out that people were spending $400 million in 1994 on NASCAR apparel, you'd probably try to pump out a few, too. Just don't forget to put that American flag and eagle behind your car of choice.

          But this corporate brainwashing is ancillary to the sport, which is, of course, the time-honored tradition of racing things with wheels. Dangerous? Yes. Fast? Undeniably so.

          "It's exciting to watch this stuff," Paz says. "Especially if [people] see it in person. You've got 43 guys going after it really fast, which is something to see."

          People frowning upon the demure practice of driving around in circles need only see Wally Dallenbach drive celebrities around tracks before NBC's race broadcasts to appreciate what's involved. David Spade let out a genuine wail when Dallenbach skimmed a wall, and Ben Affleck looked like he just about J.Lo-ed his pants while speeding around Daytona.

          There's nothing fans love more than seeing two drivers getting loose late in a run and trading paint at 180 miles per hour.

NASCAR, The National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing, actually presides over a myriad of racing circuits: everything from trucks to the Triple-A-League feel of the Busch Series. But the Nextel Cup Series --- what was once the Winston Cup Series --- is the one you'll see on the nightly news. It's NASCAR'S crown jewel.

          The 2004 season has already begun and it is poised to be a significant year in NASCAR'S history. The face of the sport is --- literally and figuratively --- changing. Some fear that it is distancing itself from its roots, as well.

          Beginning with Jeff Gordon 10 years ago, the sport has been besieged by young, good-looking (read: marketable) racers who have upped the bar. These "young guns" have been winning races with a fervor that has drawn considerable attention away from such legendary old-school drivers like Dale Jarrett and Bobby Labonte.

          And the worst part of it: A bunch of them aren't even from the South. Gordon --- already fourth on the all-time victories list --- is from Indiana, and barely past 30. And Ryan Newman --- the biggest winner of last year --- has an engineering degree, a far cry from running moonshine.

          The sport has definitely flourished with younger drivers whose backgrounds are not relegated to the Deep South. Gordon's meteoric rise to fame --- and marketability --- was unheard of in the history of the sport, and opened up a whole new demographic.

          "[Gordon] was the first young star to be signed to a big contract," Paz says. "He became the magnet for the younger people to start being attracted to NASCAR." Nowadays, 21 percent of NASCAR's fan base is between the ages of 25 and 34, with that figure expected to rise with further mainstream crossover success.

          The 2004 season offers more immediate changes for fans to contend with: NASCAR has a new chairman (though Brian France is the third France to serve as chair), there's a new points system which will hopefully make the end of the season a little more exciting, and NASCAR's premier sponsor has changed from tobacco giant Winston to cell-phone mogul Nextel. The deal signed by Nextel is rumored to be somewhere around $700 million, and it makes the sport more appealing to an increasingly anti-smoking nation.

          "It's the start of the next level," Paz says.

          Change in NASCAR is always met with much jeering from diehard fans. But at this month's Daytona 500, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. --- the young gun considered by many to be the future of NASCAR and the son of its greatest driver --- won the prestigious race for the first time. He took the checkered flag six years to the day after his dad won and maybe offered a best-case scenario for the future.

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