NASCAR's brand of homogenized, low-tech racing is back for another season. Fields of 35-45 "athletes" will pilot tube-framed 'Murican V-8s in 40 races from today through late November. Aside from a handful of visits to road-courses, all these races will be on ovals, ranging from the bullring half-mile of Bristol to the world's fastest track, the 2.66 mile tri-oval at Talledega.

Nascar is at once Good-Ole-Boy, downhome charm and a corporate juggernaut that's the secondmost lucrative sport behind football. Once confined to circuits in the Southeast, the series ranges from coast to cost, north to south. Whereas the man on the street 30 years ago might equate "car racing" with "Indy 500", he now thinks "NASCAR".

The big question is WHY? Why is the sport so popular? And what do I think about it?

In a word, it's accessible: Much like baseball, NASCAR provides hooks for everyone from the casual fan (even the antagonist who "only watches for the wrecks") to the total fanatic, who has his driver tatooed on his butt and subscribes to online updates from "his" team's garage Blog. There are other parallels to baseball: The long season "frames" the productive year from the first inkling of spring to after the first frost, and the events themselves develop like a baseball game, with long stretches of tedium, punctuated by intense incidents. And, let's face it, more people drive these days than play baseball.

As for my opinion: At its essence, NASCAR fields uninteresting cars that aren't close to "stock" chasing their tails for two hours or more. Still yet, the drivers are real personalities, and they embrace their fans, unlike most series that either have no fan support (club racing, SCCA) or which actively disdain them (Formula 1). Fans ARE Nascar, so much so that the sport's hijinks both on and off the track seem like Pro Wrestling. Only NASCAR's obsession with "runnin' equal" keeps it near, but not over, the line between competition and scripted exhibition.

I'll watch a few of the marquee races, especially the roadcourses, but I don't care much about the meat of the season at the cookie-cutter ovals.


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