NEW YORK — The symbolism wasn't even subtle as already holiday-choked midtown Manhattan traffic ground to a halt for blocks so that NASCAR race cars could parade up Madison Avenue, the real and mythical road that leads to American advertising dollars.
Logo-covered cars were everywhere in the city last week, and their drivers were spotted out and about in the city, in contrast to the sport's normal racing season, when local fans have to travel hours to Dover, Del., or Pennsylvania's Poconos to see their idols.
Although the song lyrics promise you can "make it anywhere" by conquering New York, NASCAR has the opposite problem. In recent years, sport officials have succeeded in distancing NASCAR from its moonshine-running roots in the rural southeast, transforming it into a fast-growing marketing vehicle with plenty of big-city presence nationwide, but there is one glittering prize that still eludes them: New York.
Even having uber-New Yorker Donald Trump kick off the Thursday "Victory Lap," as NASCAR dubbed it, and an advertising blitz on hot dog umbrella stands, coffee cups and street signs couldn't compensate for what those involved with the sport really want: A local racetrack.
Officials of International Speedway Corp., a Daytona Beach, Fla., company that owns and operates many of the sports' tracks, dream of an 80,000-seat home in one of the city's five boroughs with a view of the Manhattan skyline as a backdrop -- a criteria for sites they considered.
They settled on a 675-acre site on Staten Island, and took the first official step last week by filing paperwork "to begin the process for land use approvals," said John Graham, vice president of business affairs for the International Speedway. It would be at least 2009 before the track would open, he said.
Some of New York's more traditional sports have similar grand plans.
Sharply worded ads for and against a new 75,000-seat West Side Manhattan stadium for the New York Jets, who now play in New Jersey, air on local TV stations. The New Jersey Nets basketball team is eyeing a 19,000-seat Brooklyn home. And Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg jetted off to Croatia on Friday to make a personal sales pitch for New York's bid to host the 2012 Summer Olympic games.
Many elected officials, including Bloomberg, have been lukewarm to International Speedway's track idea, questioning whether the traffic congestion it would cause on race days is a good trade-off for the thousands of jobs company officials say would be created.
Bloomberg said at a community meeting in September that he was skeptical that auto racing would be a good fit for Staten Island. His spokesman didn't return calls for comment.
"There's going to be opposition, as there is to any large development," said Brian France, chairman of NASCAR and whose family founded the sport. "You just have to work through the issues."
Friday night in front of the posh Waldorf-Astoria hotel, where NASCAR's annual awards banquet was about to start, fans with autograph books ogled 2004 NASCAR Nextel Cup winner Kurt Busch's blue Ford Taurus as other New Yorkers barely broke stride.
"That's a racing car, yeah," a man said to a woman as they brushed past, holding hands. A family of tourists ignored the car to pose for a picture with the hotel awning.
But NASCAR does have a New York fan base; about 3.4 million homes in the New York-New Jersey-Connecticut area tuned in to February's Daytona 500 race broadcast on Fox, Graham noted, and NBC's new "Nightly News" anchor Brian Williams is a fan.
Still, although TV ratings for NASCAR have soared overall in recent years, "the ratings in New York are quite a bit lower than the national average," said Mark Schweitzer, senior vice president of marketing at Nextel Communications Inc., the wireless phone company that paid a reported $750 million over 10 years to take over title sponsorship of the sport this year from Winston, the cigarette brand.
"Our experience has been that people are much more likely to become fans who will tune in if they have actually experienced a race," Schweitzer said.
NASCAR officials also want a physical presence in the city for the access it would mean to one very coveted subset of area residents: big company executives who control the marketing dollars that make the cars go round.
"We're heavily dependent on Fortune 500 companies to invest in the sport, and more are located in the New York area than anywhere," France said. "It's the largest area for density of population, it's the No. 1 media market, it's the No. 1 business market and the No. 1 consumer market."
A push into New York and other urban areas risks alienating longtime fans. Although admiring the France family's business instincts and its opinion that the sport would do well in New York, NBC's Williams noted the dangers in the recent closing of some longtime southern tracks, saying "that old expression comes to mind: 'Go with who brung you to the dance.' "
And even New York fans have felt a change as the sport's popularity has grown.
Dan Brown, 37, a residential tree cutter, and his 13-year-old son Daniel traveled from Toms River, N.J., on Friday night to catch sight of the drivers at the Waldorf-Astoria. Longtime fans, they had come to the city three other days during the week for NASCAR events. He said that a decade ago, when the sport was less well known, he could chat with his favorite drivers.
"Now they're rushing them right in" to the black tie event, Brown said of the drivers' growing celebrity standing.
Daniel had his own complaint. He waited in line a couple of hours Thursday for autographs from drivers Kasey Kahne, Ryan Newman and Jamie McMurray only to see them pack up and leave just as he got to the front of the line. "I was flippin' out on the guy" organizing the autographs, Daniel said of his disappointment.
As a consolation, organizers hooked Daniel up with another driver, Martin Truex, who autograph his jacket.