Stock car racing is sweeping the nation. Can you tell? You can see it when kids don jackets duded up like the vehicles on the

Nascar

circuits. And you can hear it when people in their cars tune out the baseball game in favor of the weekend's big race.

That wouldn't be news if it were happening in Tuscaloosa or Gainesville. But when you see high school kids sporting coats that look like

Kyle Petty's

Mattel Hot Wheels Pontiac in New York or Los Angeles, it is. People in the Northeast just don't go for auto racing.

Or do they?

A study commissioned by

Goodyear Tire and Rubber

(GT) - Get Report

last year showed the

National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing

, or Nascar, growing faster than any of the so-called major sports. Attendance at Nascar races is up 91% since 1990, besting the

NHL

(up 45.8%), the

NBA

(up 20.7%),

Major League Baseball

(up 28.4%) and the

NFL

(up 7.1%).

The

Motor Racing Network

, which carries Nascar events over the radio, is now the nation's largest independent sports programming network with more than 600 affiliates nationwide. People are tuning in not only for its "major league"

Winston Cup Series

(sponsored by

RJR Nabisco's

(RN)

RJ Reynolds), but also its "triple-A"

Busch Series

(sponsored by

Anheuser-Busch

(BUD) - Get Report

).

Merchandising of licensed products has exploded, to revenue of $1.13 billion for 1998 from $80 million in 1990.

"I can't tell you the exact science behind why stock car racing is so hot, but there are parts of the country where its growth has been enormous," says Roger Curtis, director of marketing at

Watkins Glen

, the upstate New York track operated by

International Speedway

(ISCA) - Get Report

. "I'm in one right now. Our event has become very popular. It's in line with the trend of auto racing becoming big in the Northeast."

How popular? In drawing more than 180,000 during the weekend of Watkins Glen's big event -- the Bud at the Glen -- in August last year, the track became home to New York State's largest weekend sporting event. There's the

Pocono Raceway

in Pennsylvania, the

New Hampshire International Speedway

in Loudon and

Dover International Speedway

in Delaware (run by

Dover Downs

(DVD) - Get Report

). And in March, Nascar President William France inked a deal with

Donald Trump

to build a 300,000-seat race track somewhere around New York City.

Now there is even a mutual fund -- the

StockCar Stocks Index fund -- that trades exclusively in corporations associated with Nascar Winston Cup, including

Clorox

(CLX) - Get Report

,

Coca-Cola

(KO) - Get Report

,

Exide

(EX)

,

Kellogg

(K) - Get Report

,

Philip Morris

(MO) - Get Report

,

Quaker Oats

(OAT)

and

Texaco

(TX) - Get Report

.

It's spreading to the West, too:

Speedway Motorsports

(TRK) - Get Report

runs a new track in Las Vegas.

Where exactly did these Northerners and Westerners get a taste for racing? Much of the answer lies in Nascar's marketing campaign.

"Awareness is the major thing," Curtis says. "For the longest time, it seemed like stock car racing was a secret in the Southeast. In the past it was almost exclusively associated with the South. But once people experience it, they come to understand the appeal."

Selling what is essentially a Southern import to a Northern audience takes place at a lot of different levels.

"There have been times when we have just been short of selling racing door-to-door," says Scott Rovn, corporate communications director at Watkins Glen.

Advertising on broadcast and in print media is only the beginning. There also are events where the drivers and vehicles are accessible to the public.

Curtis says people "get a chance to see that the drivers don't fit that stereotyped Southern image from the '60s.

Jeff Gordon

and the

LaBonte

brothers

Terry and Bobby are clean-cut identifiable stars."

Making the appeal greater is that businesses based near Watkins Glen have become more involved with racing.

Kodak

(EK)

, based in Rochester, N.Y., sponsors a Chevrolet driven by Bobby Hamilton.

Paychex

(PAYX) - Get Report

, also in Rochester, sponsors a Ford driven by

Brett Bodine

. They know the exposure their brand gets during televised races is well worth the investment. A study by Chicago-based sponsorship consultant

IEG

showed that Nascar fans choose to buy products or services of its sponsors over their competitors 72% of the time.

And of course there is building an event around the event. Many Nascar events have an amusement park atmosphere, replete with carnival rides, which gives them family appeal. Rovn said 40% of the spectators at Watkins Glen are women. He said when Nascar asked in a survey of spectators a few years back why women weren't attending races, it discovered that facilities and bathrooms were the chief reasons. So many tracks upgraded those facilities. It isn't uncommon now to find family picnic areas at tracks.

Nascar officials say they plan to start selling TV broadcast rights within three years. Each event has been negotiating individual deals with the networks. The Frontier at the Glen -- the race has been renamed since it's now sponsored by

Frontier

(FRO) - Get Report

-- sees the rise in the sport's popularity reflected in what it fetches from

Disney's

(DIS) - Get Report

ESPN

. This year, the rights went for $1.7 million, which Curtis said represents a jump of more than 20% from the previous year. And the contract extends through 2001, with that figure growing by 15% to 20% a year.

If it seems like there's a race on TV just about every weekend, you're not delusional. And that's not likely to change. The Nascar audience is one that advertisers don't want to miss: According to

Nielsen

figures, some 220 million households tuned in to Nascar Winston Cup racing last year.

That's not to say Nascar doesn't have a ways to go to shake its identification as a Southern sport.

A headline in

AutoWeek

magazine last month read, "Daytona may be the home of Nascar, but the Carolinas are where the racers feel at home."

Roger Rubin has covered sports in the New York area for 10 years. He is a staff writer for the New York Daily News, covering high school and college sports. He appreciates your feedback at

Gotascoop@aol.com.