I'm sitting in the bleachers at the Dover International Speedway with 40,000 NASCAR fans. The Delaware skies are spurting rain like a leaky radiator, and 43 cars are thundering around the speedway less than 100 feet away, leaving an acrid stench of burned rubber in my nose, a patina of exhaust on the back of my throat, and ringing in my ears. It's frickin' awesome.
Ironically, I'm actually watching the race on a handheld contraption that looks like a turbocharged Treo. This device, the Nextel FanView, is a perfect representation of what NASCAR's all about. The sport's fans, 75 million strong and growing, treasure their access to the drivers—and NASCAR execs have been consistently inventive in making those connections happen. The connections drive loyalty; loyalty fuels revenues.
In this case, technology lets fans ride shotgun with their favorite driver. As the cars roar past, I'm flipping between live video feeds from inside six of the cockpits, listening in on the radio chatter between drivers and pit crews, and looking up racers' real-time stats and personal details. I don't really need to know that Kevin Harvick's wife is DeLana, but knowing it makes me feel more connected somehow. I switch to Harvick's in-car camera—wait, was he picking his nose, or just scratching it? It's this sort of stuff that fans love. I get so transfixed that I forget to look at the track for several laps—looking up only when Todd Bodine slams into another car on lap 156. Of course, I go right back to FanView to check out the video from inside one of the wrecked cars.
It's hard not to be impressed with NASCAR's creativity—and its tech savvy, particularly for the home viewer. TrackPass, an online service with more than 300,000 subscribers, provides real-time race information online, and a cable service called InCar on Demand lets fans watch the race from the perspective of individual drivers. Already, NASCAR is test-driving the next version, adding more cameras and miking the pit crews. No wonder average TV viewership is up 83% in the past decade.
Back at the race, I indulge in a pulled-pork sandwich that drips more oil than Harvick's car and make my way around the track, weaving through the fleets of tractor-trailers selling hats, shirts, key chains, miniature cars, and flags bearing the likeness or car number of every driver. This kaleidoscope of paraphernalia brightens the gray stands and steel of the track, which come alive when the bedecked fans rise to cheer their favorites and jeer the villains.
All of the technology and merchandising would mean nothing if drivers didn't deliver in person. Before races, many of these fans cluster outside the garage area, and when drivers pass by, they happily stop, chat, and sign, just as they do at dozens of off-track appearances during the year. "We go to a grocery-store chain, a car dealership, to sign autographs to promote the products and say thank you to the fans for coming," says Kyle Petty, a third-generation driver. "They feel like they can reach out and touch you."
One of those fans, Ron Chabot, remarks on the sport's unique accessibility. "You're rarely able to go on a field right before a football game and get an autograph," he says. Tugging at the digital camera around his neck, he adds that when he bought batteries for it, he shelled out the extra bucks for the Panasonic brand, because it's an official NASCAR sponsor. Like so many others, Chabot, who's from upstate New York, has been coming to Dover with 12 other friends religiously for the past 10 years. As he puts it, "It's more concrete than church."