In passenger cars, pickup trucks and motor homes the fans come to the central Florida coast. More than 180,000 of them arrive from around the country, some sleeping in their vehicles for a week. They turn hundreds of acres of land into the “biggest campground in the world”, waiting eagerly for the “Great American Race”. It is the opening of the Nascar racing league’s season – the Daytona 500.

A surreal brew of patriotism, religion, politics and sports, Nascar – or the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing – races are touchstones for the American heartland, providing a racing calendar that unites fans from the Deep South to central California. Nascar Nation, as it is affectionately known, is rooted in the country’s love affair with cars. “America has always had an affinity for the automobile,” Brian France, chief executive of Nascar, tells me before the race. “It’s something everybody can understand. A bunch of cars competing, and the fastest guy wins.”

The races are big business, drawing millions of fans to the tracks, millions more on television and generating billions of dollars in revenues through broadcast deals, sponsorships and merchandise sales. Yet Nascar has been stuck in neutral. Attendance, television ratings and revenues have all declined in the past five years, as cash-strapped consumers and an ageing fan base eroded support for the sport. Last season provided a glimmer of hope, however. Compelling storylines, a young winner of the Daytona 500, and an exciting end to the season helped TV ratings tick up, sparking hopes that Nascar might turn around its sliding performance.

As dawn breaks on race day in Daytona, the sport’s marquee event and the first race of Nascar’s Sprint Cup Series, the first test of a reinvigorated league begins in earnest. Problems are on the horizon from the start. Overcast skies threaten to break open, leaving drivers and their teams skittish, and fans hunkered down. Corey Mathias, a sales rep, is here with a friend. He was up at dawn, driving 50 miles from Orlando. He has been coming to Daytona for 25 years. “My parents took me for my 15th birthday and I’ve been hooked ever since,” he says. Yet he will spend much of the day in his car, listening to the radio.

Fans photograph cars

Organisers try to remain optimistic, noting that the race had never been postponed. “If you don’t like the weather in central Florida, stick around a few minutes,” goes the refrain. “It’ll change.” Yet on this Sunday, weather forecasters predict steady rain, worsening as the day wears on.

I arrive at the track early, driving through a tunnel to enter the infield of the 2.5-mile track, then weaving through a labyrinth of camper buses and campsites adorned with the flags of favourite race cars, before finally arriving near “pit road”, where the cars are serviced mid-race. Nascar drivers race so-called “stock cars”.Unlike the specially designed vehicles used by Formula One, stock cars are modelled on production vehicles such as the Ford Fusion and Chevrolet Impala. The guts of the cars, however, have been transformed to allow the drivers to accelerate past 200mph.

I start the day with a few laps around the track in a pace car, a 2012 Toyota Camry. It is driven by former Nascar racer Brett Bodine, who has us cruising at 125mph. As we approach the first turn, where the track shifts to a steep 31 degrees, I feel the G-forces exerting pressure on my organs, a small taste of what Nascar drivers endure in races that last up to five hours. Our car is just feet from the wall as Bodine accelerates, taking us near 130mph, and hollers: “It’s like driving up the side of a building!”

Nascar driver Marcos Ambrose

With rain on the horizon, the drivers are getting antsy. Marcos Ambrose, the Australian driver of the #9 car, a Ford sponsored by Stanley, is in his trailer trying to stay focused, and relaxed. “This is the biggest race of the year,” he says. “A lot of pressure, a lot of excitement, the biggest crowd. You’ve got to keep your emotions in check.” The racing itself is punishing. “It starts out intense and ends frantic,” Ambrose says as he tells me that temperatures in the car can reach 150F, searing his feet with third-degree burns.

Ambrose raced in the V8 Supercar series in Australia and in Europe before joining Nascar in 2006. “I chased the Formula One dream for awhile,” he says. “But if you’re a driver and you want to race for a living, then you’ve got to come where the money is.” Whereas Formula One races pay a few hundred thousand dollars to the winners, victors of Nascar races can take home upwards of $1.5m.

Nascar can afford such lavish purses thanks to the seven-year $4.5bn deal it began with broadcasters in 2007. The races are aired on Fox, Speed, TNT, ESPN and ABC. Those rights will come up for negotiation soon and, despite Nascar’s softened ratings, France and his team will seek to capitalise on the rising value of sports rights. “There’s this insatiable appetite for live sports,” says Steve Herbst, vice-president of broadcasting for Nascar. “There’s still nothing out there that can compete as a draw.”

Yet for all the money flowing in through the broadcast deals, little stays with the league itself. Nascar is a private company, founded by Brian France’s grandfather, Bill France Sr, in 1948. It keeps just 10 per cent of revenues from broadcast deals, receives fees from the tracks that host the races and makes some money from merchandise sales. Most of the money in the sport goes to the racetrack operators, who require significant capital to maintain their facilities. International Speedway Corporation is the largest operator in the country, with the Daytona Speedway and a dozen other tracks. It keeps 90 per cent of the broadcast revenues for the races it hosts, but distributes 25 per cent to drivers as award money. ISC also keeps all of the ticket sales for the live events. Nascar events accounted for 90 per cent of the company’s $630m in 2011 revenues. The France family is not excluded from this bounty, however. Members of the family own 38 per cent of ISC and control 70 per cent of the voting rights.

Passing time before the race starts

While the drivers make last-minute preparations with their crews, sponsors and executives wait for the race to begin in a hospitality tent. As some start their day with cans of Coors Light, the official beer of Nascar, others feast on a breakfast of pulled pork sliders on biscuits, sweet potatoes and sausage, and ribs. Clouds of exhaust and fumes from oil and fuel mingle with the smoke of barbecue. Outside it begins to drizzle.

Huddled in the crowded tent are members of the hundreds of companies that work with Nascar, providing sponsorship and car parts, and promoting their products on the grounds of the races. At the race are Toyota chief executive Akio Toyoda, the chief of wireless company Sprint, and board directors from Ford and Goodyear, the tyre manufacturer. “It’s a commercial and sports day wrapped all into one,” France tells me.

For brands in the US, Nascar offers a unique opportunity to be featured in the action itself. Unlike football jerseys elsewhere, corporate logos do not adorn the apparel of professional baseball, basketball, football or hockey players in the US. “[Nascar is] the most prolific branding experience in all sports,” says France.

Standing near the troughs of ribs, Nehl Horton, the chief public affairs officer of MillerCoors, says being sponsor of both the league and the #2 car driven by Brad Keselowski was effective marketing. Coors Light recently passed Budweiser as the second-most popular beer in the US. “Having a car and the league sponsorship is a great one-two punch for us,” Horton says.

But sponsorships have become harder to come by. Companies including United Parcel Service and General Mills have reduced theirs, costing some teams the cash needed to compete. Other companies, such as Red Bull, have pulled out entirely. The value of sponsorships has grown smaller, too, from about $25m to $13m in recent years.

The corporatisation of Nascar is perhaps inevitable, but fans notice the changes. “It has gotten more corporate, that’s where the dollars are,” says Mathias, reminiscing about the days when fans could roam the garages and mingle with drivers and crews. Yet he remains loyal, attending several races a year, and appreciates the drivers’ willingness to interact with the fans. “They’re still multimillionaires, but they know where the bread is buttered,” he says. “Without the fans, they wouldn’t have a job.”

With the 1pm start time of the race approaching, Nascar decides to go ahead with the pre-race festivities. At the drivers’ meeting US Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney wishes the racers good luck. Later he is asked if he is a fan of the sport. He replies: “I have some great friends who are Nascar team owners.” Afterwards pastor Sonny Gallman of Daytona’s Central Baptist Church delivers an invocation to the drivers. “Father we thank you for this Great American Race… Lord bless this race in ways that only you can. In Christ’s name, Amen.”

A fan admires the cars

What attracts politicians and advertisers to Nascar is the unique demographic makeup of its fan base. Overwhelmingly white and male, the fans are older than those of other sports, and are concentrated in the south and Midwest. Nascar itself has its roots in the south, where stock-car racing began as a hobby in the 1940s. “Nascar came along and it was really a cobbled together sport, very amateurish in the early days,” says Neal Thompson, author of Driving with the Devil, a book about the sport. “Formula One is an upscale sporting event. Nascar is the opposite of that.” Indeed, many of the early patrons were outlaws who grew adept at driving while delivering moonshine alcohol during Prohibition. “These were guys who learned how to drive fast on dirt, trying to escape the law,” Thompson says.

Until the mid 1960s, there were no professional sports leagues in the south, a factor that allowed Nascar to establish deep ties in the communities there. This regional, rebellious attitude still infuses the sport, even as it has been inundated by commercialism. “Particularly in the heartland, people feel like this is our sport,” says Thompson. “They’re still possessive of it and passionate about it.”

The drivers shuffle out into a steady rain. The race will be delayed for a few hours at least. Yet the festivities continue. Lenny Kravitz, the rock star, plays for a wet crowd. The band Train sings the national anthem and the Air Force Thunderbirds perform a flyover. The drivers are introduced as fireworks explode overhead. Each then stands in the bed of a pickup truck and is driven around the track with a member of the military at their side.

The national anthem and prayer ceremony

By 3pm the rain has stopped and Nascar sends track-dryers out to try to prepare the course. The blower trucks are energy-intensive machines, using jet fuel to blast hot air on to the pavement. It takes at least two hours to dry the track. Nascar is working to develop a more energy-efficient method, part of an industry wide effort to promote green technologies. “People described it as an oxymoron,” says Mike Lynch, Nascar’s managing director of green innovation, noting the irony of an eco-friendly racing league.

But Lynch says Nascar is making meaningful strides, recycling 12.5 million bottles and cans last year, recycling oil and planting 100 trees for every race run. At Pocono Raceway in Pennsylvania, a newly completed 3MW solar plant powers the track and a nearby community, making it the largest solar-powered sports facility in the world. Even the Sunoco fuel used to run the racecars is now 15 per cent ethanol. All those efforts, however, can only do so much to offset a league that consumes 450,000 gallons of gasoline a year.

The track dryers are still on the course when it begins to rain again. By 5pm the race is called. The Daytona 500 is postponed for the first time in its 53-year history. Nascar says it will run the race the following day at 1pm. Mathias and his friend begin their wet drive back to Orlando. And I head back to New York, where I will watch the race on TV.

A full day later, it is still raining in Daytona. The start of the race is pushed back to 7pm, a slot that gives Nascar a chance of capturing an even bigger television audience. The previous night, the race was up against the Academy Awards and the NBA All Star Games. On Monday, its only major competition is reality shows. The green flag finally comes down with 140,000 fans still in the stands. It is the first Daytona 500 run at night, under the lights.

Inside the track’s dining room – a picture of Marvin Panch, who won the race in 1960, is on the table

Before the race, Herbst talked to me about the unpredictability of Nascar. “There’s only so much we can control,” he says. “But that lends to the beauty of live sports. Nothing you can do can impact what happens on that racetrack at the end of the day. Human nature takes over, the drivers take over, and they will decide if it will be a close race, a blowout race. That’s why we all fell in love with live sports. They’re completely unpredictable, unscripted, and the last real reality programming.”

The first lap sees the 43 cars quickly accelerating to 200mph. Mathias and his friend have returned, and are sitting near the finish line. “Having a whole pack of 43 cars going by you at 200 miles per hour is the most exhilarating, scary experience in the world,” he says. “When you’re down low next to that fence, it’s unbelievable. It’s hard to understand how fast that is.”

But as the second lap begins, a car bumps crowd favourite Jimmie Johnson. Johnson loses control and smashes head-on into the wall. A flurry of collisions ensues, taking out last year’s popular winner, Trevor Bayne, as well as Danica Patrick, the highly marketable female driver. Johnson hit the wall hard, and a hush falls. Inevitably, minds turn to the fate of Dale Earnhardt, the most popular Nascar driver in history, who died when he crashed into the wall during the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500. His son, Dale Earnhardt Jr, came in second that year. That tragedy led to a series of reforms that made the sport safer, though accidents, and deaths, remain a part of racing culture. “A crash is part of the game,” France says. “We’ve tried to make the cars a lot safer. There’s no getting around it though. We’re a contact sport.”

Johnson is unharmed and the race continues. But hours later, with 40 laps to go, an unprecedented accident occurs. During a caution period that had the jet blowers on the track to clear debris, a car being driven by Juan Pablo Montoya spins into one of the blower trucks loaded with 200 gallons of jet fuel and explodes. Soon the truck is alight, spilling jet fuel on to the track and forming a river of fire that takes two hours to clean up.

During the stoppage, other drivers get out of their cars and mingle on the track. Keselowski, driver of the Miller Lite car, takes out his cellphone and posts pictures of the scene on Twitter. The snapshots go viral and Keselowski soon has more than 130,000 new followers. The diversion is serendipitous for Nascar, which has made increasing its social-media prowess an industry-wide initiative.

As the checkered flag comes down at nearly 1am on Tuesday, only half the cars that started the race make it across the finish line. Matt Kenseth, driving the #17 car sponsored by Best Buy, wins the race, earning $1.6m. Earnhardt Jr comes in second. Ambrose places a respectable 13th, winning $341,858. Fox, which broadcast the race, calls it the most-watched Daytona 500 in the network’s history, with 36.5 million viewers. has 2.3 million unique visitors on race day, besting the previous high by 38 per cent.

Reviewing the events of the previous two days, I am reminded of something Ambrose told me before the race that seems to apply as much to the drivers as to Nascar itself: “You’ve just got to get to the end of the race and hope Lady Luck is on your side,” he says. “That’s the one thing you can’t control.”

David Gelles is the FT’s US media and marketing correspondent.

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