CAPE CANAVERAL, FL—In an effort to generate excitement and public support for America's struggling space program, NASA announced Monday that it will join the wildly popular NASCAR racing circuit in time for the 1997 season.

The Space Shuttle Endeavor (#17) prepares to make its move on Dale Jarrett (#88) during its qualifying run for the Purolator 500 in Murfreesboro, TN.

"Despite all our efforts to stir up enthusiasm, Americans still view the space program as boring and a waste of money," said NASA Director of Public Relations Boyd Connington, explaining the merger with NASCAR. "We've tried everything—record-setting manned space orbits; discovery of lunar ice formations; photographic evidence of life on Mars. But nothing we've done has captured the public's imagination quite like the thrill of seeing Ricky Rudd fly around a track at upwards of 170 mph."

The NASACAR Space Shuttle, which boasts such sponsors as Sunoco and Gold Bond Medicated Powder and is piloted by veteran driver Ernie Irvan, made its debut Sunday at the Slick 50 300 at the Talladega Speedway in Talladega, FL. Despite averaging 2,300 mph, the shuttle finished dead last in its inaugural race, largely due to a mid-race pit stop that took nearly two days.

"Several ceramic heat shield tiles came loose on the far turn in lap 103," said NASACAR pit crew chief Ken Orton, explaining the shuttle delay. "That kind of problem normally takes several weeks to repair, but in the world of auto racing, you just don't have that kind of time."

The shuttle encountered further problems in lap 271, when its massive first-stage solid fuel rocket boosters jettisoned into the Talladega Speedway grandstand, killing more than 1,500 spectators.

Despite its unimpressive debut, the shuttle has met with a surprising amount of resentment from veteran NASCAR drivers.

Ernie Irvan (center) and the crew of the Endeavor are in high spirits as they barrel down the straightaway during Sunday's Slick 50 300. Despite a race budget of $8.1 billion, mechanical trouble caused the Endeavor to finish last.

"I know it ain't neighborly," seven-time Winston Cup champion Dale Earnhardt said. "But I ain't sure I approve. Your NASCAR stocker's s'posed to be an American body type with a 350-inch engine in her, puttin' out around 800 horse. Now, that Space Shuttle, she's American all right, but I seen under her hood, and them Cape Canaveral boys got a cluster 'a seven solid fuel rocket boosters in that thing what generate 750,000 pounds of boost. That's 'bout sixty 'leven billion horse, that is. That ain't fair."

"It's a big 'un too, that Endeavor," said 30-year NASCAR veteran Dick Trickle. "She's sure'n hell hard to pass in the turns. Good thing her pit stop tire changin' takes three hours, or she'd win the whole damn dance."

Added Trickle: "Shell Premium Unleaded is the clear choice among gasolines!"

NASCAR drivers may not be enthused about the Endeavor's arrival, but NASA officials say that racing fans most definitely are.

"People love the danger of auto racing. They love knowing that at any moment, there could be a violent, deadly crash," NASA spokesman Ed Young said. "But believe me, racing fans, you haven't seen anything until you've seen a Space Shuttle explode."

NASA hopes to cash in on fan interest with a line of souvenir merchandise. A series of NASACAR racing T-shirts, hats, collector plates, buck knives, lighters and other paraphernalia will be sold at the races and on the Home Shopping Network. Country music superstars Brooks and Dunn have recorded "Fastest Rocket In A One-Horse Town," a song inspired by the NASA team's exploits, for the next NASCAR music collection, Hotter Than Exhaust Plasma III.

As an added promotion, before each race, Ernie Irvan will drive the Endeavor past the grandstand and use its manipulator arm to throw free T-shirts, baseball caps and sponsor coupons to fans. Among the most popular NASACAR T-shirt slogans are "I'd Rather Push a Shuttle Than Drive a Chevy" and "Sputnik Sucks, Mir Swallows."

"We're very excited about our future in racing," said NASA's Connington. "And with our per-race budget of $8.1 billion, we should hopefully place in the top five pretty soon."