Tucson's raceway park is the sort of nondescript speedway that drivers steer through on their way up from dirt tracks to Daytona. The oval, set in the Sonoran Desert, is a claustrophobic three eighths of a mile, the bleachers are of unpainted aluminum, and the dusty gravel parking lot is only a sandstorm away from being reclaimed by saguaro and sage.
But following Ron Hornaday Jr., a 20-year NASCAR veteran, around the pit area before a race, you don't get the impression that he is slumming. Nor are any of his fellow drivers. The stands are packed with 6,000 fans. An ESPN crew is setting up. And the dry air thrums with the sound of engines being tuned, perhaps Hornaday's favorite sound in the world. "If it wasn't for these," he says, pointing to the vehicles being adjusted, "I wouldn't be here."
Here is the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series, a $4 million circuit in which the stars are pickup trucks. "Truck racing is more like Saturday-night racing than the Winston Cup," Hornaday says, referring to NASCAR's elite level.
Moments later the 200-lap race starts, and trucks going up to 100 mph smash into each other on the tight turns so often that the event seems more like a demolition derby than a NASCAR race. It's ironic, given the crowd's enthusiasm for collisions, that one of the reasons NASCAR embraced truck racing was to appeal to more upscale fans. Pickups, the best-selling models in the U.S., were an obvious and smart choice. The combination of NASCAR's stereotypical motorhead crowd and the designer-jean set added up to 57,000 spectators at the series championship in Phoenix last October. As Dennis Huth, NASCAR's vice president for administration and its truck-race marketing guru, says, "Trucks are where it's at."
"I saw a chance to bring NASCAR racing to major new markets all over the country," says Richard Childress, who is fielding a truck-racing team, as well as Dale Earnhardt's Winston Cup team. (Earnhardt has his own truck-racing syndicate, with Hornaday as his driver.) The series, in its second year, goes to states such as Washington, Oregon and Colorado, which the Winston Cup may never visit. As a result, Childress says, "trucks are bringing a new group of heroes to NASCAR."
Heroes such as Hornaday, 38, a second-generation stock car driver who bounced around mom-and-pop tracks before being called to drive for Earnhardt. Hornaday finished third overall in the 20-race 1995 series, earning $296,715. This year NASCAR expanded the series to 24 races, and after 18 events Hornaday is leading, with four victories and $312,375.
There are no traditional pit stops in truck racing. Instead, races are halted at the midway point for a 10-minute intermission. That makes for different tactics before and after the break. "You hang back a little and don't show everything you've got in the first half, because we don't start racing for money until after intermission," says Hornaday. Halfway through he is running third.
Mike Skinner, the 1995 series champion, moves into a precarious lead early in the second half. So tight is the track that Skinner, Hornaday and Rich Bickle wail through a seemingly perpetual left turn, at 85 mph, staying only inches apart. The crowd is intent now, focusing less on crashes. It's as if the first half of the race was the light-hearted opening act and the second half is the drama the fans all came to see.
Then, suddenly, it's over. Hornaday is not able to get past on the inside line. Skinner wins by .8 of a second, and his pit crew douses him with bottled water.
As Raceway Park empties out, thousands of pickups—the ones carrying new NASCAR fans, not racers—line up to leave the parking lot on their way back to Tucson.