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NASCAR really stands for fans

Bill Elliott's red Ford Thunderbird whipped into the garage area at Daytona International Speedway, and Bobby Easter sprinted behind it, along with several other guys dressed in matching Budweiser uniforms.

It was only hours before Elliott was to qualify for today's Daytona 500, so naturally everyone in Elliott's garage was anxious to find out what was wrong with the car.

"I'm not sure what the problem is," Easter said.

Easter, though, isn't a member of Elliott's crew, but rather a businessman from Martinsville, Va. You see, in NASCAR racing _ perhaps more than in any other sport _ fans are so much a part of everything that it's hard to tell the difference.

At any given race, fans are peeking under Davey Allison's hood, clocking Alan Kulwicki's lap times and consulting with Derrike Cope's fabricator.

Want your favorite driver's autograph? Have you been dreaming of talking face to face with the "Intimidator," Dale Earnhardt? For NASCAR fans, it's just a matter of picking the time and place.

Take today's Daytona 500. In the 18 days of Speedweeks, there have been an estimated 50 scheduled events where fans could meet drivers _ although it may mean standing in line for as long as six hours. The schedule ranged from live radio shows broadcast from local bars to autograph sessions at area shopping malls.

The other 28 races on the Winston Cup schedule are no different.

"If someone hasn't got their driver's autograph by now, they're not trying hard enough," said Donnie Frey of Battle Creek, Mich., who wore a hat with about 15 drivers' autographs scribbled on it.

Unquestionably, the racetrack is the choice location for fan-driver meetings. In NASCAR, the locker room, so to speak, is open _ even though NASCAR policy forbids fans in the garage area or on pit row. Clever NASCAR fans seem to find ways to get in anyway, mostly as guests of a sponsoring company. Still, the masses have plenty of access to drivers walking leisurely around the paddock areas.

Fans also get inside the huddle, listening in on the conversations of drivers during the race through the use of scanners. Does Allison really whine a lot? Is Harry Gant the same even-tempered guy in the race car or does he curse like a sailor? Just ask a race fan. They know.

But even if you don't live near a NASCAR speedway, getting buddy-buddy with a Mark Martin or Ernie Irvan is no problem. NASCAR's marquee drivers frequently hold autograph sessions in non-Winston Cup race cities and drive in special match races at short tracks in obscure towns from Oregon to Maine.

In the last year, Kyle Petty, Michael Waltrip, Ken Schrader, Irvan and Earnhardt have made appearances in the Tampa Bay area. And earlier this week, 11 drivers made an appearance in Orlando.

"We met Dale (Earnhardt) at a mall in Birmingham," said Birmingham residents Linda Glass and Kay Jennings, who had driver autographs on their T-shirts. "Usually, if you stand by the gates or over by their trailers, you can get (a driver's autograph). Sometimes it's hard, though."

As best as anyone can recall, stock-car racing always has been this way. Back in the early days, a driver was seen as "the fella with them hot rods who works at the local filling station" more so than stars.

Thus, there weren't tall fences and platoons of security guards at every speedway to separate fans from drivers. "When the race was over, you'd just hop over the wall and come on in," said NASCAR official Chip Williams. "And it's just sort of carried over from that."

Petty is widely credited with spawning an even greater openness when he became a regular on the Winston Cup circuit in the 1960s. "If you're a young driver and you see Richard Petty signing 100 autographs, you're going to do that, too," said Williams.

Petty is also one of the drivers who popularized "open houses," where fans are invited (usually to a racing team's shop) for a day of autographs, memorabilia shows, etc. Petty, though, holds his annual get-together outside his home in Level Cross, N.C. Can you imagine Michael Jordan inviting NBA fans to his house?

A few drivers such as Elliott said they've seen some fans so often they've become friends. "There are a few I've even gone to dinner with," said former driver Elmo Langley.

While some drivers aren't always wild about the open-door policy, few ever complain. The drivers' accessibility is part of the reason Winston Cup racing is one of the largest-drawing sports around (average attendance is 101,000). Some 100,000 showed up here Thursday for a pair of qualifying races that didn't even determine the pole, and 75,000 more fans are expected for today's Daytona 500.

Daytona 500

Where: 2.5-mile Daytona International Speedway, Daytona Beach.

When: 12:15 p.m., today

Distance: 200 laps.

TV: Live on CBS.

Radio: Live on WFNS-910 AM.

Defending champion: Ernie Irvan.

Pole sitter: Sterling Marlin.

Notes: This is the Daytona 500 farewell for "The King," Richard Petty, a seven-time winner. Kyle Petty can earn a million-dollar bonus by winning. Irvan is trying to become only the third person in history to win consecutive Daytona 500s.

Tickets: Call 904-253-7223.