Stock car racing is by far the fastest-growing spectator sport in America. Unique in the world, it is a crossover sports-and-entertainment empire set squarely at the confluence of pop culture, commerce and American mythology. NASCAR cites a fan base that comprises nearly one third of our entire population. The prize money, corporate sponsorships, ticket sales, broadcast and cable TV contracts, advertising sales, hotel and restaurant revenues, etc., world without end, push billions of dollars through the economy every year. And just how much money the fans, fully 50% of whom are women, spend on the products whose logos they see emblazoned on the hoods, trunks and quarter panels of the cars, and on the fireproof fronts, backs and bottoms of the drivers themselves, can only be guessed at. Billions more, undoubtedly, on everything from the sponsors' bulldozers to beer to bath mats, from Nike to Tide to Viagra.
Since 1990 attendance figures for the NBA have grown by 20.7%. In the same period NASCAR's attendance rose an astonishing 91%. It has quadrupled since 1980. NASCAR has a consolidated multiyear, multinetwork television package with NBC, Fox, FX and TNT. There are NASCAR theme restaurants and nightly NASCAR-update television shows, NASCAR game cartridges and NASCAR radio networks, NASCAR sheets and NASCAR pillowcases, NASCAR wallpaper and NASCAR telephones, NASCAR silver services and NASCAR staple guns. Last year NASCAR sold more than $1 billion worth of licensed merchandise. That's an awful lot of novelty shot glasses. There's a NASCAR reality show, a NASCAR television network and a big-money, NASCAR-inspired Britney Spears feature film all on the drawing board.
When Dale Earnhardt, one of the sport's winningest racers and greatest heroes, died in that Daytona crash at the beginning of last season, the national outpouring of grief was something unseen since the death of Elvis. Drive anywhere west of the Hudson River and east of the Hollywood Freeway and you'll see Earnhardt's urgent, red-trimmed number 3 displayed in solemn tribute on hundreds of thousands of bumper stickers and pickup truck window decals. Paradoxically, painfully, his death has been a net benefit to the sport. It was the kind of seismic tragedy that sets in motion a tidal wave of media interest, thereby attracting attention from even those pockets of the American public previously unmoved by the sport. Dale Earnhardt's last act was to set the stage for NASCAR's next generation of epic successes.