Trucks Pick Up Fans, Sponsors

Saturday: 150-lap NASCAR SuperTruck event at Evergreen Speedway in Monroe; time trials begin at 4:30 p.m., racing at 7.


Long considered the buck-toothed, overall-clad cousin of the automotive family, the pickup truck has become respected kin.

Sales figures, market profiles identifying upper-middle class buyers and rapid acceptance of the NASCAR SuperTruck racing series have elevated the pickup from down-home to uptown status.

The top two best-selling vehicles in the United States last year were full-sized pickup trucks: Ford F-Series models (646,039 sold) and Chevrolet C models (580,445 sold), according to Ward's Automotive Reports. Add 232,000 Dodge Rams plus the smaller domestic and import models and the total suggests that two-car garages are becoming misnamed.

In addition to positive sales figures and favorable demographic profiles, the success of NASCAR's latest racing venture - the SuperTruck Series for full-size, American-manufactured pickups - reflects truck madness.

Included in the series of 20 races that began in February in Phoenix and will continue at tracks throughout the country until October is a 150-lap event Saturday night at Evergreen Speedway in Monroe.

Less than a year after NASCAR announced series plans, significant segments of corporate America have embraced it.

-- Ford and Chevrolet have provided purse money, support money for racing teams and engineering expertise.

-- A wide spectrum of sponsors new to motor racing, including manufacturers of pickup-only products such as bed liners and headlight bars, have invested money in race teams and contingency prizes for top finishes. Craftsman Tools, as the overall series sponsor, has created a season-points fund in excess of $500,000.

-- Television networks, particularly cable's The Nashville Network (TNN), gave the series credibility before it began by televising live four "Winter Heat" races from Tucson that served as dress rehearsals for competitors and organizers prior to the series start in February.

In addition to TNN's 10-race commitment, ESPN will televise seven races and CBS two. ABC devoted its Wide World of Sports show to the race at Bakersfield, Calif., April 22.

"You look at the numbers of trucks being sold in the United States today and the love people have for trucks and our decision wasn't difficult to make," said David Hall, who is responsible for TNN as senior vice president of cable networks for the Gaylord Entertainment Co.

His decision, he said, was rewarded early when TNN, which is televising half the series races (including the event in Monroe), attracted a rating of 2.5 for the opener at Phoenix.

"It was bigger than anticipated," Hall said. "We figured it would take more of an uphill battle."

Ratings of about 5.0 are typical for TNN's telecast of NASCAR Winston Cup races at Rockingham, N.C., Hall said. The SuperTruck's 2.5 at Phoenix was similar to what the network earns for NASCAR Busch Series events.

Big crowds greeted the trucks at the five tracks where the SuperTrucks have raced: a record (by 10,000) of 38,000 for the Copper World Classic at Phoenix; capacity crowds of 8,000 at Tucson and Saugus Speedway near Los Angeles; 10,000 at Bakersfield and 10,000 at Portland.

Promoters for the Evergreen race predict near-sellout crowds at the 10,000-seat track, where tickets are priced from $18.50 to $30.50.

Although NASCAR, which has been promoting stock-car races for almost 50 years, was the logical sanctioning body for the SuperTruck series, it did not come up with the idea. The originators were four successful businessmen and off-road, desert-racing enthusiasts in Southern California - Jim Venable, Jim Smith, Dick Landfield and Frank "Scoop" Vessels.

Concerned about problems that were threatening the future of desert racing, "we were looking for a way to take our show on the road," Venable said.

"We said, `Why can't we take these trucks and race them on pavement?' " Venable said. "We were thinking we were going to be our own promoters, build the trucks, get our own TV package and put a schedule together."

When that proved difficult, the group made a pitch to Ken Clapp, NASCAR vice president for Western Operations, in 1991. Clapp took their idea to Bill France, NASCAR president, but it went nowhere.

After exhausting other avenues, the group went back to Clapp, who told them that nothing would happen until they built a truck and showed what it could do on a pavement track.

"So we built one," Venable said.

Gary Collins, a race-car fabricator in Bakersfield, Calif., built the first truck and Venable and his partners displayed it at Daytona International Raceway during Daytona 500 Speedweek in February, 1994.

"We called it a NASTRUCK," Venable said.

When fans and racers showed interest in the truck, NASCAR executives became interested too. That led to the Venable group meeting with Clapp and another NASCAR vice president, Dennis Huth, in a Burbank, Calif., hotel on April 11, 1994. And at that meeting the SuperTruck Series was born.

"We didn't ask them (NASCAR) for anything," Venable said. "We said that all we wanted was the series. We're racers, we're not promoters.

"They (NASCAR) took it and the next thing we know is we've got a 20-race series with live television . . . everything we wanted."

The series was announced last May and four exhibition races involving four or five trucks were conducted on West Coast tracks last summer. The Winter Heat series of four races at Tucson resulted in a steady increase in competitors.

Diversity, and door-handle-to-door-handle competition, seem to be the series' top traits.

The lineup - more than 30 trucks are expected at Evergreen - includes sprint-car star Sammy Swindell; off-road racing legend Walker Evans; an open-wheel pavement star, Mike Bliss; Winston Cup's Ken Schrader and Geoff Bodine, and Jerry Glanville, former coach of the NFL's Atlanta Falcons.

Ron Hornaday Jr. has won two SuperTruck races in a Chevrolet owned by the wife of the reigning Winston Cup champion, Dale Earnhardt. Mike Skinner, is driving a Chevrolet owned by Richard Childress, who owns Earnhardt's Winston Cup cars.

Driving a Ford owned by Venable is Kirkland native Tobey Butler, who is returning to his home track at Evergreen.

Diverse, too, are the racing venues, which include the mile-long, banked tracks at Phoenix and Milwaukee and the flat, one-third mile Saugus Speedway circuit at Santa Clarita, Calif. Evergreen's oval is .646 of a mile.

What's next for this growing sport is uncertain. Next season's schedules and racing rules won't be finalized until this year's series is over, Huth said.

But one thing is certain: The pickup has shed its reputation as a support vehicle and has emerged as a motor-racing superstar.

----------------------------------------------------. Who's driving pickups?

According to Doublebase Mediamark Research, Inc., a typical pickup-truck owner in 1994:

-- Was 41 years old and married.

-- Lived in a three- to four-member family household with an annual income of $41,576.

-- Worked in precision/crafts/repair fields (51 percent). Others were executive/administrative fields (11 percent), professional fields (8 percent) or clerical/sales/technical fields (3 percent).

-- Lived in the South (34 percent), West (26 percent) or North Central U.S. (25 percent) in greater numbers than in the Northeast (15 percent).