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Nascar’s O-boys

  In the mid-1970s, when David, Mark, and Jeff Green were tearing around western Kentucky and southern Indiana on go-carts, about the only thing they knew about stock cars was that Darrell Waltrip had made a big name racing them, and that Darrell Waltrip was from Owensboro.

  Today all three Green boys, racing for the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR), know a lot more-and so do millions of fans. 

  Auto racing has become the fastest growing spectator sport in the nation with more than 17 million fans attending major racing events last year. Worldwide, only soccer draws more fans. What’s going on here?

  Some credit NASCAR’s popularity to the fact that the cars look like something that might be in your driveway. Others say it’s the approachable personality of the drivers. Some say it’s the family-oriented nature of the sport. 

  Of the dozen or so groups that sanction and organize auto racing, NASCAR is by far the largest, and it is well-represented by Kentucky-from producing drivers to breaking ground for a new racetrack.

  Six drivers, all with Owensboro roots, “the O-Boys” as sports writers have called them, represent Kentucky on the two most popular NASCAR circuits, the top-ranked Winston Cup Series and the “minor league” Busch Series Grand National. David Green, winner of the 1994 Busch Series title, now drives #41 on NASCAR’s Winston Cup circuit. David’s brother Jeff drives #32 and brother Mark drives # 50, both on the Busch circuit. (One of the first things a newcomer learns about NASCAR is that it is family-oriented: Racing tends to run in families and fans attend races in family groups.) Darrell Waltrip, the senior of the O-Boys and, as three-time winner of American Driver of the Year, a dominant power in the sport, drives #66 on the Winston series. On that same series, his brother Michael, whose winnings topped $1 million last year, drives #7. Jeremy May-field, driving car # 12, ranked 13th in the Winston Cup series early last month.

  Both David and Jeff Green live in North Carolina. While the headquarters for Mark’s cars and crew is in Lexington, North Carolina, he retains his residence in Owensboro, the only one of the O-Boys still living in the state. 

  The O-Boys honed their skills at tracks in Louisville and Whitesville, and chances are they will eventually be again racing in their home state at the Kentucky Speedway. This $100 million, 1.5-mile supertrack under construction near Sparta (60 miles northeast of Louisville) is designed to be faster than the highly touted new Las Vegas speedway. Kentucky Speedway’s opening phase will have 60,000 seats (planned expansion will provide an eventual 100,000 seats) plus 50 luxury boxes-yours for $105,000 each. Racing is expected to begin at Kentucky Speedway in June of next year. 

  The track will have a public preview July 31 this year, with entertainment and drivers visiting and signing autographs.

From Southern country lanes and county fairs to supertracks like Kentucky Speedway, stock-car racing has come a long way. The sport evolved when moonshiners, left with no revenuers to outrun after the repeal of Prohibition, hooked up with car manufacturers anxious to show their wares. “Stock” cars were just that, cars directly off the production lines, raced to advertise their power. “Stock” they remain in name and outward form-Ford Taurus, Chevrolet Monte Carlo, and Pontiac Grand Prix-but under the hood it’s a whole different story.

  Dealer-ready models come equipped with front-wheel drive, V-6 engines, and 245-horsepower motors. Race-ready cars have rear-wheel drive, V-8 engines, and thoroughbred horsepower. (Winston Cup car motors run on 750-hp motors and Busch cars on 500-hp.) Sanctioned tracks vary in size from half a mile to two and a half, and cars are specially built for different circumstances. O-Boy Mark Green’s Busch Series Chevrolet team maintains five cars: one for Daytona, two for intermediate tracks like Charlotte and Atlanta, and two for short tracks like Nashville and Myrtle Beach.

  Green and his brothers and their cohorts did not just wander in off the street and start to race. Most of them bring years of mechanical and racing experience to the driver’s seat.

  “I started like lots of Indy drivers and stock-car drivers, racing go-carts,” Mark says. “We raced with the Southern Indiana Racing Association, raced in small-town streets. Then I raced cars at the Whitesville track. And then I went to Nashville and on to the NASCAR Busch Series.”

  His Busch Series team has gotten extra publicity because its owners, former NFL running back Joe Washington and “Doctor J” Julius Erving, are the first African-American NASCAR owners. 

Auto racing is a huge business with mind-boggling numbers. A brand-new race-ready car can cost $125,000, and then there is the constant upkeep; for example, a Winston Series car can go through 12 sets of tires in one race. The cost of keeping a race team going runs from $500,000 to $10 million. But, for the winners, the purses can be dandy.

  “Most of the guys shoot for ending up in the top 10,” Mark Green says, “which means total winnings of $100,000 to $500,000 (split in various ways with crew and owners).” And there’s always the dream of stupendous money and fame: Jeff Gordon, the current golden boy of NASCAR, had winnings of $9.3 million last year, not including endorsements and licensing agreements. 

  Retail sales of driver-endorsed and other NASCAR-related items could exceed $1 billion this year. (NASCAR Barbie, introduced last year in commemoration of NASCAR’s 50th anniversary, sold more than a million dolls.) In the April 12, 1999, issue of Fortune magazine, Roy S. Johnson wrote, “Stock-car racing, long viewed as a backwater bumpkin (or worse) in the big-business arena of professional sports, is suddenly a thriving $2 billion industry.” 

  Sponsors have proved vital to auto racing because the sport has not been able to charge big bucks for admissions or television rights. Ads for soap, soft drinks, motor oil, cigarettes, and a multitude of other products plaster the cars and the drivers’ uniforms. Detroit’s Big Three auto makers, continuing a long tradition of advertising through racing, annually pour more than $100 million into sponsorships and marketing. (Every Monday morning when employees at the Louisville Ford plants turn on their computers, the company news they see includes weekend race results.)

  For the privilege of being part of these fast-moving billboards, sponsors pay from $25,000 (on the lower side of the car) to $6 million (on the hood-clearly visible on TV). 

  Fans are fervently loyal to drivers and to the products, and the opportunities to express that loyalty grow daily. A North Carolina investment firm has developed StockCar Stocks, a racing index mutual fund that invests only in companies with NASCAR connections. What inspires this fervor? 

  Michelle Moss, of Racing Legends, a racing memorabilia shop in Louisville, sees a wide variety of fans. She says, “It is a family sport, feasible to pay for, with a weekend schedule, with access to the drivers. You can relate to them -no Michael Jordans-they are more laid-back, and down to earth, they are nice guys.”

  But there’s more to auto racing’s accelerating popularity than tradition and good guys. We can look past those advertising logos covering the cars like quilts and see a vehicle that very much resembles our own car-and who hasn’t had an urge to put that baby in high gear, floorboard it, and leave the pack behind?

Electric Race

  Mickey Miller, president and CEO of Nolin Rural Electric Cooperative in Elizabethtown, hands the trophy to Terry Labonte, winner of the second annual Touchstone Energy® 300 at Alabama’s Talladega Superspeedway in April. Labonte won by just .002 seconds. That’s about 6 inches at 190 miles per hour. Tight races seem to be a tradition at Talladega, though. A few years ago Labonte said, “Talladega is the only place where we finish closer than we start.” Miller presented the award and served as the race’s official grand marshal by virtue of chairing the Touchstone Energy Executive Council, which sponsored the 300-mile Busch Grand Nationals series race. Touchstone Energy is an alliance of local, consumer-owned utilities across the country committed to providing high-quality service at affordable rates to all customers, large and small. Touchstone Energy co-ops serve more than 5.6 million households and businesses reaching more than 15 million people in 36 states, including nearly 470,000 in
Kentucky.

Kentucky Speedway preview

  The first race at the Kentucky Speedway at Sparta is nearly a year away, but you can get a taste of what’s to come at Race Day Festival ’99, from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., Saturday, July 31. There will be tours, show cars, simulators, entertainment, food and drink, and drivers to chat with and to sign autographs. Admission is $10, children under 6 free. For more information call (888) 652-RACE or use your computer and modem to visit the website at
www.kentuckyspeedway.com
.

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