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For Sox, a NASCAR test drive

Ownership group eyes link to growing sport

Daytona International Speedway is a long way from Fenway Park, literally and figuratively. But a team of executives from the Red Sox ownership group, including owner John W. Henry, visited the track at the Daytona 500 festivities last month, and sharp-eyed spectators may have spotted a small green Fenway Sports Group logo on the second-place finisher of Daytona's Craftsman Truck Series race.

The logo is the most visible sign yet that the Sox ownership is serious about investing in one of the nation's most popular sports.

''It's no secret we've been kicking the tires in NASCAR -- this was a way to get our feet wet," said Mike Dee, president of the team's sports marketing subsidiary, Fenway Sports Group. ''We love the sport. We think the sport is certainly one that's growing exponentially, both nationally and within New England. If it makes sense to do more, we will."

Fenway Sports Group became involved in its first NASCAR sponsorship deal in a roundabout way. In 2004, Henry, a wealthy commodities trader, made a personal bet on the growth of racing: He co-founded a Bedford company called iRacing.com Motorsports Simulations, which is developing the next generation of a computer-simulated racing game that has attracted a fervent following among aficionados of the sport. Henry himself spends hours ''simracing" in his spare time, and he goes up against other executives weekly in a highly competitive league that they call ''Red Sox racing."

iRacing.com has no financial connection to the Red Sox. But when iRacing.com wanted to sponsor a truck at Daytona, the company turned to Fenway Sports Group to negotiate the deal. As part of the arrangement, Fenway Sports Group got its logo on the iRacing.com truck as well.

''iRacing.com is a company I very much believe in," Henry wrote in an e-mail interview. He also said he admires the way NASCAR is run and has developed relationships there.

NASCAR, which hosts a circuit of stock car races around the country that culminates in the 10-race Chase for the Nextel Cup, has exploded in popularity in recent years.

In February, more than 12.5 million households watched the Daytona 500, up 86 percent from 1990, according to the trade publication Sports Business Daily. Corporate sponsors are clamoring to get in, enticed by repeated surveys showing that NASCAR fans not only remember the sport's sponsors, but also are significantly more likely to buy their products.

In New England, the New Hampshire International Speedway now brings in 101,000 fans for each Nextel Cup series race it hosts on the NASCAR circuit -- and has sold out every one since the early 1990s.

''We have the biggest sports stadium in New England -- there's nothing as big as this until you get to Delaware," said Bob Bahre, the Speedway's chairman.

But there clearly is more room for growth in the region, where stock-car racing is not part of the culture the way it is in the South. Though national television ratings are up for the Daytona 500, ratings in the Boston area decreased both this year and last.

If the Red Sox's ownership group invests in NASCAR, it is not clear exactly what form a deal would take. Henry wrote in the e-mail exchange that the ownership, formally called New England Sports Ventures, has been looking at NASCAR teams and would invest if ''the right opportunity presented itself." Fenway Sports Group, which has diversified into other sports as evidenced by the deal it signed last year to promote Boston College athletics, also could represent companies negotiating NASCAR sponsorships, Dee said.

(The New York Times Co., owner of the Globe, holds a 17 percent interest in New England Sports Ventures, the parent company that controls the Red Sox, NESN, and Fenway Sports Group.)

Though Fenway Sports Group has been ''mixing it up and learning the ropes," Dee said, no big NASCAR deal is imminent.

''We're being very selective and cautious how we get involved," Dee said. ''We're still in very much of a learning curve. It wouldn't surprise me if we jump in at some point; it wouldn't surprise me if we don't jump in."

As the Sox's ownership eyes NASCAR deals, Henry's iRacing.com company is generating some buzz of its own. He co-founded iRacing.com with David Kaemmer, who is something of a legend in the field of racing games because of his work on a popular predecessor game, NASCAR Racing 2003 Season. NASCAR Racing 2003, and the other games produced by Kaemmer's former company, Papyrus Racing Games, aimed to replicate as closely as possible the experience of racing a car, with all its challenges but also all its thrills.

As Henry describes it, Kaemmer along the way sold Papyrus to Vivendi Universal Games. When Henry and Kaemmer decided to start iRacing.com, they essentially bought back the technology. iRacing.com is running a beta test of its racing game for personal computers. It has ambitious plans to let ''serious racing enthusiasts" compete with each other in 2007.

''iRacing has a developed a unique method to create exact simulations of actual race tracks around the world," Henry wrote. ''It has brought together the top people in the field of motorsport simulations and provides the most realistic driving experience off the track."

Simulated racing has a following among drivers as well. In Daytona, driver Carl Edwards visited with the iRacing crew to say that he personally is a fan, according to Dee, who was there. Other drivers at times have attributed wins to training with various simulations.

The sponsorship of the No. 30 iRacing.com Motorsport Simulations Racing Toyota Tundra Team came about after a meeting in Concord, N.C., between Henry and Bob Germain, co-owner of Germain Racing, which owns the truck.

''We were able to get a lot of exposure for the company," Germain spokesman Jayson Kaplan said. ''The NASCAR community was very interested in the product and what they were providing."

Sasha Talcott can be reached at stalcott@globe.com.

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