ON A CHILLY SATURDAY MORNING in mid-January, two thousand people braved winds whipping across the prairie fifteen miles north of Fort Worth to stand in line in front of a one-story building. Some of them had camped out overnight. At nine the doors opened, and they all patiently filed in for their turn to buy tickets, priced anywhere from $5 to $80 each, that would admit them nearly three months later to the grandstands of the Texas Motor Speedway, still under construction half a mile to the west.

At least they got what they came for. Others, who tried to get tickets over the phone, were less fortunate. An hour after the doors had opened, so many callers flooded the switchboard that the telephone system melted down. Within ten days 150,000 tickets had been snapped up, assuring that on April 6—the inaugural run of the Interstate Batteries 500 and the highlight of the first weekend of major league automobile racing in Texas—more people would be on hand than could fit in Texas Stadium, the Ballpark in Arlington, and Reunion Arena combined.

But even with those mammoth sales figures, 50,000 standing-room tickets in the infield remained at $35 to $50, and anyone who ponied up from $750 to $2,000 for a Lifetime-Plus Preferred Seat License could buy a season-ticket package and the right to prime seats for years to come. Otherwise, fans of the hottest sports entertainment going would have to settle for watching the big event on CBS and attending the warm-up Coca-Cola 300 Busch Grand National Series race the day before or one of the two Coors Light Silver Bullet Qualifying Day rounds open to the public on April 3 and 4. Plus, there would be other, less prestigious contests in June, including the first-ever night racing of Indy-style cars.

The rest of the year, the track and the surrounding buildings will host non-racing events like sales meetings, auto shows, and driving schools that let you ride in or even drive a race car. On June 14 CountryFest 97, a country music concert starring Wynonna, Vince Gill, and Travis Tritt, among others, is being staged; promoters predict it will attract more than 250,000 people, the largest mass gathering ever in Texas. And RockFest 97, held at the speedway a week later with bands like Bush and Counting Crows, could draw just as big a crowd. But make no mistake about it: It’s speed—in particular, the touring races organized by the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR)—that will make this facility hum. From humble beginnings in the South nearly fifty years ago, NASCAR has spread to the West Coast and the Northeast, and today no fewer than seventy Fortune 500 companies have a stake in stock car racing. Still, not even the sport’s biggest supporters dreamed how well it would play in Texas. “To be honest, we underestimated NASCAR’s appeal here,” said Eddie Gossage, the general manager and executive vice president of the Texas Motor Speedway (TMS). “It has exceeded what we expected so much that we haven’t really had the time to tell our story yet. We’re too busy building.” Gossage, a dapper 38-year-old with a trim beard, oozed confidence and spoke in the understated, button-down manner of an investment banker. Looking forward to Texas’ first major NASCAR race, he said, “It’s like attending the first-ever Dallas Cowboys game in 1960, except this isn’t being played in a high school stadium.”

No kidding. The TMS cost $107 million to build and is the largest spectator-sport facility in Texas and the third largest in the world, behind the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the Maracana soccer stadium in Rio de Janeiro. In the middle of the track, which is called the infield, rises the eleven-story Lone Star Tower, which has 67 condominiums, priced between $275,000 and $575,000. (All of them have been sold to promoters, advertisers, and wealthy fans—even though the building won’t be finished until November.) Each of the track’s 208 luxury boxes is as plush as any in Irving or Arlington, with two rows of theater-style seats behind a full glass window, the best view of the track from high above the grandstands, a wet bar, closed-circuit televisions, his and her restrooms, and VIP parking. (Half of the boxes have been leased for $65,000 to $100,000 a season, which covers seven to nine event days a year.) The infield, large enough to contain eight Texas Stadiums, has two covered, climate-controlled garages; a hospital with a helipad; parking for 1,300 RVs; two cafeterias; and a full-service media center, including individual darkrooms, interview booths, and an auditorium with theater-style seats and a stage big enough to roll in the winning car along with the winning driver.

The TMS’s centerpiece, its one-and-a-half-mile asphalt track, sports a double-dogleg front stretch and 24-degree high-banked turns. Giving me a tour of the track, public relations director Tony Troiano stopped his Bronco on one of them. It was so steep, I almost fell out of my seat. NASCAR racers ride high on the banks to take advantage of centrifugal force, which lets them maintain top speeds as they hug the turns. “When I push the speed above eighty, I can go around and around without steering,” Troiano said with a laugh. He punched the accelerator and the Bronco felt as if it were gliding on air.

From all appearances, the Metroplex has a severe case of racing fever. And that’s precisely what track owner O. Bruton Smith was counting on when he announced its construction in 1995. The sport has all the elements Texans love: speed, power, and well-mannered athletes. It’s an enormous money-maker too. As the chairman of Speedway Motorsports, Incorporated—which also owns tracks in North Carolina, Tennessee, Georgia, California, and Illinois—Smith knows a potential NASCAR market when he sees one. And racing in Texas looks like a can’t-miss proposition.

IF YOU’RE BEFUDDLED BY THE PHENOMENON of NASCAR-style auto racing, relax. The basics are simple: Several dozen drivers in American-made cars resembling the ones you and I drive—only built for real speed—whiz around a track for several hundred miles. (The number in a race’s name refers to the distance, so the Coca-Cola 300 covers three hundred miles.) Every so often, a driver pulls off the track and into the pit, where a crack team of mechanics works on his car in a matter of seconds. The first car to finish the race gets the checkered flag. But NASCAR racing can also be incredibly complex, depending how deeply you delve into the workings of the combustion engine, the various other parts of the automobile, and the pit crews, whose synchronized teamwork is as graceful as that of the best ballet company. Each driver has his own personality, abilities, and peculiarities. And of course, at average speeds approaching 200 miles per hour, there’s also the specter of death.

A stock car has no doors; the driver climbs in and out of an opening where there would normally be a window. Stock cars are different animals from the racers known as Indy cars; for instance, they ride high on banked turns, while the more-rigid Indy cars turn on much lower banks (at the TMS, Indy cars will run on the inside of the track, which is sloped only 5 degrees). Stock cars race side by side, inches apart, frequently rubbing one another, while the open-wheeled chassis of Indy cars make rubbing a riskier proposition.

Think of NASCAR as country music on wheels. Both the Nashville sound and stock car racing have deep roots in the region that gave us Goo-Goo Clusters, Hee Haw, and Shoney’s. And just as Nashville has effectively shed its corn pone stereotype to become the most popular mainstream music in America, so too has NASCAR shucked off the dirt-track image built upon the tradition of Dixie moonshiners outrunning the revenue man.

The catalyst of this makeover is the 26-year-old Winston Cup Racing Series, formerly the Grand National Series. It consists of 32 races between February and November, moving to a different track each time. (The season’s first race, the Daytona 500, is also its best-known.) Drivers win points according to where they finish in each race of the series as well as for leading a race at any given time, and at the end of the year, the one with the most points wins the championship. Beneath the Winston Cup point series are eleven other NASCAR divisions; the two highest-level minor leagues—which have smaller albeit still-substantial purses and often have races scheduled the day before a Winston Cup race—are the Busch Grand National Series and the Craftsman Truck Series. Drivers in the Busch series are largely up-and-comers, though a few Winston Cup drivers are sprinkled in, and the Craftsman Truck Series features several older drivers and the only woman competing at the top level, Tammy Jo Kirk, racing modified pickup trucks. The lower divisions are dedicated to specific categories, such as late-model cars, or to geographic regions.

Being a great driver means more than just knowing how to put the gas pedal to the floor. It’s about passing, maneuvering in tight situations, knowing how to save fuel by riding in someone’s back draft, and deciding when to take a risk and when to stay back. More often than not, coolheaded racing based on experience triumphs over aggressive gambling. Most drivers peak in their thirties and forties, before their reflexes begin to diminish, although some compete into their fifties and even their sixties. When a driver hangs it up, he might become a pit-crew chief.

He could also start his own team. Though the drivers get the glory, competing is very much a group effort. It begins with the owner, the person willing to bankroll the whole enterprise by underwriting the costs of one or more vehicles—an expense that can easily run into the millions for each car. The owner makes the deals with the car manufacturers, negotiates for sponsors, hires the driver, and puts together the rest of the team, including the chief engine builder, the crew chief, the mechanics, the tire changers, the gas man, and the spotter, who directs radio communications between the pit and the driver. Drivers are regarded as freelancers constantly in search of the ideal machine. Fifteen switched racing teams during this year’s off-season.

Following a race is actually pretty simple. Refer to the scoreboard to see who is in the lead. Keep an eye on the pit area to see who is spending too much time getting fixed up. Pay special attention to who gets banged up in a wreckand who doesn’t; it’s the wild card factor of any race. As with any sport, it’s smart to bring your radio (Fort Worth’s KTCK-AM will air the Interstate Batteries 500). And never count out great drivers like Dale “The Intimidator” Earnhardt or Dale Jarrett, no matter how far back they are in a race.

FOR ALL THE THRILLS OF STOCK CAR RACING, though, NASCAR would be just another minor sport without the aggressive marketing and ancillary activities that have accompanied its growth. Truly addicted fans can get their fix on the Internet (http://www.nascar.com) and at NASCAR Thunder stores across the land. They can even dine at NASCAR Cafes in Nashville and Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. But such hard-core selling isn’t limited to the sport itself. Corporate sponsorship was cool in NASCAR long before anyone dreamed of the IBM Tape Measure Home Run or the Poulan/Weed Eater Independence Bowl. The presence of not one but two sponsors in the official title of the Texas Motor Speedway’s first big race—the NASCAR Winston Cup Racing Series Interstate Batteries 500—is both intentional and telling. “Money buys speed, and sponsors provide the money,” said Eddie Gossage, explaining the equation that created the walking-billboard look favored by NASCAR drivers, who may wear the logos of dozens of companies on their racing uniforms.

The sport goes back to a mechanic and part-time racer named Bill France, Sr. In 1948 France persuaded some of his buddies hanging around the Union gas station in Norman Beach, Florida, to race on a course in the sand, thus creating the humble beginnings of the Daytona 500 and NASCAR. The races proved so popular that France started organizing races like it at tracks in Florida, Georgia, and the Carolinas.

In 1971 Congress moved to ban the advertising of tobacco on television—and inadvertently helped turn France’s concept into the corporate-sponsored spectacle it is today. Recognizing that money once earmarked for TV ads was now available for other media, an R. J. Reynolds Tobacco Company salesman named Ralph Seagraves approached popular driver and car owner Junior Johnson about putting RJR’s Winston brand logo on his car and the uniform of its driver. In exchange, Seagraves offered, RJR would help pay for the car’s upkeep.

Pshaw, said Johnson. Why not sponsor an entire series of races? So RJR launched Sports Marketing Enterprises in 1971 and put up a $100,000 purse for the NASCAR Winston Cup Series. By sponsoring the series, RJR tapped into a loyal group of consumers receptive to the company’s tobacco products. It also took stock car racing to a new level, helping pave parking lots, improve speed walls, and spruce up track facilities.

While RJR sponsors the Winston Cup Series itself, every other aspect of the sport is up for sale too, which explains the parade of familiar brands that have followed in Winston’s footsteps. Among the sponsors of star cars in the Winston Cup and Busch Grand National circuits are McDonald’s, Mattel Hot Wheels, the QVC television channel, Spam canned meat, Skoal Bandit snuff, Budweiser, Lowe’s home improvement stores, Remington firearms, the Cartoon Network, and Circuit City. Even Walt Disney World is getting in on the act with its new Richard Petty Driv-ing Experience, where for $99.99 you can take a three-lap ride in a race car.

THOUGH SPONSORSHIP HAS ENDOWED NASCAR with the biggest pot of prize money in motor sports—$6 million alone dedicated to the Winston Cup point series in 1996—it also has created a breed of sports celebrity who is the antidote to Michael Irvin, Dennis Rodman, and Albert Belle. “The problem with other pro sports is that people can’t identify with the stars,” said Eddie Gossage. “I think we’re tired of hearing substance abusers saying how great they are. Our guys get paid well. They have their airplanes and their homes, but they’re smart enough to wear their jeans and be normal people with normal values.”

The drivers’ wholesomeness is part of an image honed by legends like Earnhardt and Richard Petty, who went out of their way to thank fans and sponsors at every opportunity. Drivers play it straight for two reasons. For one thing, at this level of competition you can’t be crazy or strung out and survive for long: Mess up and you die. For another, the team owners and drivers answer directly to their sponsors. Whether making personal appearances or endorsing products, drivers have to be on their best behavior—otherwise, they lose their sponsors. Without sponsors there is no money, and without money there is no speed.

I witnessed the drivers’ graciousness at the 1997 Winston Cup Preview in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, on a Saturday in mid-January. Twenty-five thousand people ignored miserable icy weather to participate in racing’s equivalent of Fan Fair in Nashville, where country music enthusiasts are allowed to touch the stars. Nearly a thousand fans patiently waited up to four hours for an autograph from Corpus Christi native and NASCAR star Terry Labonte. He obliged them all, free of charge, with a smile thrown in.

A handsome, square-shouldered 40-year-old guy’s guy with a distinctive mustache, Labonte is a perennial fan favorite and the winner of the 1996 Winston Cup point series. He clinched the title last November at the NAPA 500 in Atlanta, the final Winston Cup race of the season, by finishing fifth; even though his 32-year-old brother, Bobby, won the race, Terry earned just enough points to take the series championship and a prize of almost $2 million. (At this year’s Daytona 500, he finished second behind 25-year-old teammate Jeff Gordon.)

Every one of Labonte’s fans showered praise on the beloved Iron Man, as Labonte is known in NASCAR circles, a tribute to his reputation as the Cal Ripken, Jr., of motor sports (he has started 537 consecutive races despite the inevitable injuries and equipment troubles). “He’s consistent, he stays out of trouble, and he’s always there at the end of the race,” said Joseph Goetz, a slight man in his late twenties who drove down from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Goetz was wearing a yellow racing jacket just like Labonte’s, down to the logos for Hendrick Motorsports, Kellogg’s Corn Flakes, Frosted Mini-Wheats, Raisin Bran, and Quaker State oil. The jacket cost Goetz $180, but it was a good deal, all things considered. “Other sports, you have to pay for the autographs,” he noted.

Randy Zimmerman, a forty-year-old former Marine from nearby Greensboro, brought along his ten-year-old son, Joshua. Zimmerman told me about how they got hooked on Labonte last summer at a Winston Cup race in North Wilkesboro: “After the race, we were waiting near the press tent when a sheriff’s deputy near Terry saw my boy and said, ‘Take care of that little guy,’ and Terry said, ‘I sure will.’ He took my son’s shirt, signed it, and said, ‘There you go, little man.’ Terry made a NASCAR fan for life. Now Joshua has his room filled with Terry Labonte stuff.”

IF TERRY AND BOBBY LABONTE WEREN’T born to be race car drivers, they come pretty close. Their father, Bob, raced stock cars in Maine before joining the Navy. Living in Corpus Christi after his discharge, he made a habit of taking his sons to see his friend Al Yoemans, who had a stock car Bob liked to tinker with. When Terry was five, Bob took him to the local racetrack. “You want to do this?” he asked his son.

“Yeah, but not around all these people,” Terry quietly told him. He quickly got over his shyness and began racing quarter-midgets, scaled-down cars built for kids, at a track his father and some friends had built. “I started in the slowest class and worked my way up,” Terry said later. “We’d go all over, to Refugio, San Antonio, and Houston at first, then to the West Coast and up north.” It was a pastime the whole family enjoyed. “My brother, my father, my mother—we still go together.”

In 1966 ten-year-old Terry won the quarter-midget nationals in Tulsa. By the time he turned sixteen, legal driving age, the Carroll High School student was ready to move up to stock cars. Terry realized he was good. But he had no idea how good until five years later, when the owner of the old Meyer Speedway in Houston, where Terry was racing, summoned a Winston Cup team owner named Billy Hagan to see him drive. Hagan liked what he saw and signed Labonte to race his cars, first on short tracks in San Antonio and Louisiana and later in the Winston Cup series. Eventually the whole family packed up and moved to North Carolina, the hub of NASCAR racing. Terry finished fourth in his first Winston Cup race, the 1978 Southern 500 at Darlington, South Carolina. Six years later he won the Winston Cup point series, at age 27 the youngest champ ever. But that triumph was followed by an extended dry spell. In 1995 he was 39 and seemed destined to fade as a Winston Cup driver when he signed on with Rick Hendrick’s prestigious team; his comeback to win the Winston Cup point series the next year is considered one of the greatest ever in his sport.

For all the humble qualities a racing champion exudes, he must also patiently fulfill his obligations to NASCAR and Winston, as Terry ably demonstrated at the preview earlier this year. His entrance into the arena for an afternoon autograph session was pure show-biz theatrics. Labonte materialized at one end of the coliseum, emerging from a cloud of fog and flashing lights to the accompaniment of “Thus Spake Zarathustra” and blasting rock music. He was escorted by a young lady in a red Winston Cup pantsuit and a guy in a Tony the Tiger outfit.

After the expected explosion of flashbulbs, the trio walked to the stage, where Labonte held his 1996 championship trophy aloft and waved to the crowd. He fielded a few questions from the announcer, thanked the fans, and promised, “We’re going to give it our best shot this year.” A bit red-faced over all the attention, Labonte was led off the stage to a table where he sat down (flanked by his entourage, including his thirteen-year-old daughter, Kristy), picked up a black marking pen, and for the next two hours scribbled his name and posed for pictures with a steady line of fans.

He kept signing autographs as he participated in a charity auction in the arena and even as he was escorted into a dressing area, where he sat for photographs that would be used on NASCAR trading cards. Next up was an interview with ESPN’s Dave Despain, who talked with him about his remarkable career and about capturing the Winston Cup a second time. Winning hasn’t changed things that much, Labonte said, except that now he sees more cameras and microphones pointed at him—a reflection of both Labonte’s popularity and his sport’s. “When I won in ’84, I think I did three personal appearances all year,” he told Despain. “I’ll do three appearances in a weekend now.”

Then Labonte moved over to the media room for the obligatory press conference with the racing media. After that it was on to an interview with the Nashville Network, and then one final sit-down. Labonte impressed me as one of the most grounded sports stars I’ve ever been around, particularly when he finished his last answer to the last question in the last interview of the day. “Here’s my number,” he volunteered, telling me he could be reached at the Labonte family garage up the road.

He gathered his belongings and escorted Kristy down the empty hallway under the coliseum. The publicists and Tony the Tiger were nowhere to be seen. The 1997 Winston Cup Preview was over. But before father and daughter could reach the door leading to the parking lot, a voice shouting from one of the dressing rooms stopped them in their tracks. “Hey, Terry! Can I have your autograph?”

MEANWHILE, BACK IN FORT WORTH, there was evidence that for all the image spinning, there were still plenty of stereotypes to overcome. In early February city councilman Jim Lane, who is also the chairman of the Fort Worth Sports Authority, broke the news that world-famous classical pianist and hometown hero Van Cliburn would play “The Star-Spangled Banner” before the running of the Interstate Batteries 500 on April 6. “Van Cliburn is going to play for Bubba,” Lane crowed to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

The offhand comment got Eddie Gossage so riled up that he fired off a seething letter to Lane. “Please do not refer to race fans as ‘bubbas’ or ‘rednecks,’” Gossage wrote. “Race fans are supposedly tourists valued by the city of Fort Worth. The use of the term ‘bubba’ or ‘redneck’ can be considered a racial epithet.”

Gossage’s reaction is understandable: He and his cohorts have spent most of their careers dispelling the old Bubba label. He would rather point out that the average NASCAR fan makes $50,000 to $75,000 a year, that half of them are professionals or managers, that 77 percent attended college, that 69 percent own their own homes, or that 38 percent of them are women. Then again, I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see Cliburn clutching a can of Busch and wearing a gimme cap and a racing jacket plastered with logos. After all, 150,000 NASCAR fans can’t be wrong.