Drivers bring their cars through the tri-oval during the NASCAR...

Drivers bring their cars through the tri-oval during the NASCAR Daytona 500. (Feb 14, 2010) Credit: AP


Jocelyn Schwartz has heard it all.

Friends joking about her being a "redneck,'' questioning the appeal of cars making endless left turns, wondering where a Syosset girl went terribly wrong.

"No one would have expected this wholesome, Long Island Jewish family would have become these big NASCAR fans,'' she said. "But it completely transformed our lives.''

What began innocently enough with a visit to the 2007 Daytona 500 as part of her father David's 50th birthday celebration has turned 25-year-old Jocelyn into a demographic dream for NASCAR:

She is young, she is enthusiastic, she is a potential people-influencer in freelance film production and she is from New York.

As the sport confronts declines from its mid-2000s peaks in attendance and TV ratings, this is a fine time for it to tap into markets where there is room for growth.

And there is no area with more room than New York, which usually finishes at or near the bottom in NASCAR TV ratings. It ranked 56th and last for the 2009 Chase for the Cup races with an average of 1.2 percent of homes.

"There definitely is a stereotype with NASCAR, a stigma to it,'' Schwartz said. "Either people [in New York] don't understand the sport or don't want to understand the sport.''

The flip side of the TV ratings, which measures the percentage of homes watching, is that given the size of the New York market even low ratings translate into big viewership.

Only Atlanta is averaging more homes for Sprint Cup races this season than New York, which last year was one of the few markets whose ratings rose compared to 2008.

So, to review: NASCAR has many more fans in New York in general and Long Island in particular than you might think, but not as many as it would like.

The challenge is growing in the face of a longstanding cultural bias.

"It carries this aura like it's a bunch of dumb rednecks going in circles,'' said Russ Friedman, 29, of Huntington, an Iraq War veteran who was awarded two Purple Hearts and had a race in Richmond last year named in his honor. "It's so not that.''

Everyone in NASCAR agrees having a track in or near the city would help attract fans and sponsors, but an effort to build one on Staten Island fell through in the face of local opposition in 2006.

"Clearly, in the New York area there are a lot of avid sports fans who just need more exposure to the sport,'' said four-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson, who owns an apartment in Greenwich Village. "And I just don't know how we're going to do it. You need so much land and we make so much noise.''

Andrew Giangola, NASCAR's Director of Corporate Communications and a Malverne native, said, "It is a challenge. In New York our home track is Pocono, but some New Yorkers think of Pocono as going to Wyoming.

"It's tough to get people out, and that also affects us on the business front. MLB can get on a subway and take people up to Yankee Stadium. So that hinders us a bit.''

(NASCAR is not the only form of auto racing that suffers from the lack of a New York venue. Said IndyCar owner/driver Sarah Fisher: "Our fans aren't New Yorkers; New York doesn't care. In order to get them to care, we need to get an event near here.'')

The two closest Sprint Cup stops are Pocono and Dover, which host a total of four races each season, including today's 500-mile event at Pocono, in Long Pond, Pa. The other races in the Northeast are one at Watkins Glen and two in Loudon, N.H.

It is crucial for NASCAR to get potential fans, or at least curious ones, to sample a race live.

There might be no sport in which the television and in-person experiences differ more than auto racing, whose speed and noise are impossible to capture on TV.

"That's the one thing unfortunately for NASCAR they can't do; they can't bring the noise and rumble into your living room,'' Friedman said. "You have to go to a race.''

NASCAR has tried reaching out to New York-area fans, or at least New York-area media, by holding events in the city, including an annual visit by the newly crowned Daytona 500 winner.

Johnson has noticed that people notice - to a point.

"I've been extremely surprised from Day One of being in the city in that NASCAR is pretty well known and well received,'' he said.

So, how often is he recognized? "More in Charlotte,'' he said, "but just as much in New York as in Louisiana or Texas or anywhere else we go to.''

Rodney Fetters, jackman for Greg Biffle's pit crew, who grew up in State College, Pa., and Niagara Falls, said many underestimate the deep auto racing roots in the Northeast, forgetting there are many outlets for the sport, even if they aren't at the Sprint Cup level. (There has been racing at Riverhead for six decades now.)

"There are places all over that have races every night of the week, and there are race fans everywhere,'' Fetters said as Biffle's crew prepared at Dover last month.

"They might not have been born-and-bred-in-the-South NASCAR people, but they're racing people, so they want to see it.''

Fetters has lived in the South for 22 years, but whatever anti-Northerner bias he experienced in the late 1980s has faded as the sport has grown more national.

Andy Lally made a similar move from Northport to Atlanta as he followed his racing dreams, and now is among the most successful drivers on the NASCAR-owned Grand-Am circuit. (He made his Sprint Cup debut at Watkins Glen last year.)

Lally said there are many racing fans on Long Island. Still, there is no denying perceptions die hard.

"There's the old school way that auto racing is viewed as sort of an archaic, Southern style; we've so outgrown that,'' he said.

"This isn't just a bunch of Southern guys cruising around and banging into each other.''

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