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Consumers relate to NASCAR _ or at least, advertisers hope so

It may not have the same heart-pounding impact of "Gentlemen, start your engines," but it starts a lot of engines the rest of the year. In the multi-million-dollar world of the National Association of Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR), the most meaningful slogan is "Win it on Sunday, sell it on Monday." And after Dale Earnhardt's Chevrolet or Geoff Bodine's Ford or Richard Petty's Pontiac or any of the 39 other entries wins Sunday's Daytona 500, you're sure to see a full-page newspaper advertisement trumpeting the car's success in this most prestigious of stock-car spectacles.

"The Indianapolis 500 is the biggest race each year, but right after that you've got this one and Talladega and a lot of the stock-car races," said Ned Jarrett, who raced the Daytona 500 during 1960-66 and now does race-day analysis for CBS.

"I think people identify with stock cars in general and this (race) in particular. The cars look similar to cars they drive on the street. Of course, they're really nothing like them. The only thing that's the same as a street car is the brand name and the body design.

"But Americans still have a love affair with the automobile. I don't think too many people see themselves as (Indy-car drivers) Emerson Fittipaldi or even Mario Andretti, but a guy getting up to go to work on Monday morning can get into his Chevy or Ford or whatever and imagine he's Bill Elliott or Darrell Waltrip," Jarrett said. "He can say to himself, "My car won.'

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Said Mark Carlson, director of sports information for CBS, which is televising today's Daytona 500: "There's a different perception of this than there is of the Indy 500. This is America's race. It's run in American cars, run using American drivers. It's totally America. If the Indy 500 is the Olympics, this is the auto-racing fans' Super Bowl, World Series, NBA Finals."

More of them are seeing it. Auto-racing attendance in North America increased, sometimes dramatically, in 1989, according to statistics compiled by the Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. Overall, attendance was up 6.5 percent to 11,207,481. Of that total, 3,127,130 belong to NASCAR.

And television coverage has jumped markedly. CBS didn't even begin flag-to-flag telecasts of NASCAR races until 1979, when it showed the Daytona 500. Now all three over-the-air networks carry selected races.

Spokesmen for Chevrolet and Ford said it is hard to document exactly how much of an impact a NASCAR victory has on the car-buying public, but there's something there.

"We have all kinds of studies that show people are influenced by the fact that car companies go racing, that people _ even those who don't follow auto racing _ believe that car companies who compete produce better cars," said Dave Hederich, Chevrolet's manager of motorsports.

"You can see some of the extremes in the infield (of stock car tracks). I've seen a Chevy, somebody's personal car, done up exactly like Dale Earnhardt's."

And Lee Morse, manager of Ford's Special Vehicle Operations, said the company's sales success, "whether for Thunderbirds or Tempos or Escorts or LTDs, was synonymous with Bill Elliott's winning performance in the mid-80s. There's no doubt that a win here boosts showroom traffic."

The car is only part of the mystique.

A generation ago, most of the cars' sponsors were either auto dealerships or otherwise automotive-related (oil filters, engine or suspension parts, fuel additives and so on), plus breweries and tobacco companies. So-called men's products.

Today, though, the sponsors include Alka-Seltzer, Ultra Slim Fast, Snickers, Publix and Tide.

"There has been a great increase in the number of female fans that attend our sport. It's up to 40 percent of the total crowd, based on NASCAR studies," said Kirby Boone, motorsports manager for Tide.

"And that following, men and women, is very brand-loyal. In other words, they support the people who support racing." That, Boone said, is why Proctor & Gamble, the parent company for both Tide (Darrell Waltrip's car) and Folger's Coffee (Mark Martin's car), decided to join the NASCAR circuit in 1987.

When Waltrip won last year's Daytona 500, it was worth more than $2-million in publicity for Tide, based on how much the car was seen on television and how much it would have cost to buy that time.

"You can't say so many people bought so many boxes of our laundry detergent," Boone said, "but I can tell you we've got a following. There was this little girl, about 11 years old, here the other day and she saw Darrell. She didn't know his name but she knew who he was. She called him the Tide driver."

Although Publix is a predominantly Florida-based supermarket chain, it is sponsoring Larry Pearson's Buick because Florida is a tourist mecca "and when they visit this state they might now be more apt to visit one of our stores," said the company's merchandising director, Fred Lankford.

NASCAR's drivers, once almost exclusively from the deep South, now come from New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Arizona, California, Washington and elsewhere north of the Mason-Dixon Line and west of the Mississippi.

What began as a chase along the backroads of the Carolinas, with tax revenuers pursuing the moonshiners of two generations ago, has become arguably one of the nation's most popular spectator sports.

It has outdrawn the more traditional and more chic Indy-car races at Riverside, Calif., at Pocono, Pa., at Watkins Glen, N.Y., at Phoenix, at Michigan.

"This isn't a regional sport anymore," said the 52-year-old Petty, who has been running at Daytona International Speedway since the track opened in 1959.

"Television took care of that a long time ago. Some guy in Wisconsin or California or New York, he's watching this race and the cat (TV announcer) says it's from Daytona Beach, Florida, and that's as much as they find out about it. The next week we'll be in (Richmond) Virginia and the people in Wisconsin and California and New York, they're still watching. They don't care where it's coming from.

"It's like football," Petty said. "They don't care if the game's under a dome or in the rain or up north or down south. The field's the same, the competition's the same, and that's what people want to see."

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