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|As many as 75 million people could know who Jeff Gordon -- or maybe his wife Ingrid Vandebosch -- is, but are they really fans?|
NASCAR has claimed for years that 75 million of us are fans, roughly one out of four Americans and one out of every three adults.
Hmmm. Even with the NASCAR stars in town this week, I'll take a wild guess and say a quick survey might fail to produce such a lofty number of NASCAR followers scurrying about Manhattan.
Should I be so inclined, and I'm not, I could stand on the corner today at Rockefeller Center and ask folks who walked by if they were NASCAR fans.
Even excluding the ones who glared at or cursed me, I seriously doubt one in four would claim a membership in the NASCAR Nation. Maybe one in 40.
Several thousand fans showed up for the Victory Lap ceremony at Times Square on Wednesday, but don't get misled. If you surveyed Midtown workers today, the fan ratio wouldn't approach 25 percent.
OK, using New York City to debunk the total isn't entirely fair. Do the same test in downtown Charlotte and the positive response probably would top 50 percent.
But we're talking nationwide. To say 33 percent of American adults are NASCAR fans just doesn't add up.
NASCAR has millions of fans, and the numbers have gone up dramatically over the last 10 years. Attendance increased 28 percent from 1996 to 2005 before declining slightly this year.
Sales of NASCAR merchandise have skyrocketed over that span, from $600 million in 1996 to $2.2 billion in sales last year.
Along with those verifiable figures, 75 million has become the accepted number when discussing NASCAR fandom without anyone really questioning its validity.
Anne Finucane, chief marketing officer for Bank of America, used that figure on Monday while announcing a new partnership as the official bank of NASCAR.
Kerry Tharp, NASCAR's director of public relations, said the 75 million figure is easily explained.
"The figure means that 75 million people indicated they follow the sport in one form or another," Tharp said.
OK, but what's the criteria? They know who Jeff Gordon is? They were flipping channels and watched a NASCAR race for 10 laps?
NASCAR's research lists five categories to get to the 75 million mark. The top two categories avid fans and serious fans account for 41 million. It's the other 34 million that gets a little iffy.
About 15 million of the total is listed as general sports fans who follow NASCAR but aren't passionate about it. Then there are 10 million more considered passive TV fans, people who watch broadcasts of races but don't follow the sport in other ways.
But the biggest stretch of the "NASCAR fan" moniker is another nine million categorized as uninvolved TV fans, people who sometimes watch races.
You have to wonder how many in those bottom two categories are paying attention to the sport.
The Daytona 500, NASCAR's premiere event, had an 11.3 rating this year. It was the highest TV rating in NASCAR history.
That rating equals about 37 million viewers. So only half of the fan base watched the biggest event of the year?
TV ratings were down 5 to 10 percent this season at most races. So where are those 75 million fans? That never was a realistic figure, but it looks silly when attendance and TV ratings decline a little as they did this year.
Veteran driver Mark Martin thinks people spend too much time trying to evaluate numbers. He knows what he sees now is a huge difference from 1982, the first time he attended NASCAR's awards banquet in New York.
"I don't understand TV ratings," Martin said. "But everywhere I go and every function and every race, the response is bigger than ever before, including here in New York."
NASCAR has tons of loyal fans from New York to San Diego, but 75 million of them? Not yet.
Terry Blount covers motorsports for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.