By Adam Bernstein of The Virginian-Pilot

Printed in the Washington Post - July 17, 1997; Page B9

NORFOLK -- Beloved comic-strip character Calvin, discontinued in newspapers more than a year ago, lives on in another form -- whizzing by on the highways and byways of South Hampton Roads, Va., and the rest of the Southeast. "Whizzing" being the apt word for what Calvin is doing.

Legions of stock-car-racing fans have taken to decorating their vehicles with "Baby on Board"-size stickers that depict the Calvin and Hobbes character -- actually an unauthorized knockoff -- urinating on various numerals.

The numbers are those of NASCAR race drivers. Drivers with whom, obviously, the sticker owners find fault.

Rob Mattingly displays two of the decals on the rear windshield of his '83 Chevy Camaro. Both show Calvin peeing on a 3.

Mattingly wants people to appreciate his antipathy for Dale Earnhardt, one of the most enduring figures in stock car racing. Earnhardt, the winner of seven Winston Cup tournaments, the top competition in NASCAR racing, drives the No. 3 car.

"It's like any competition," said Mattingly, a 24-year-old Laredo, Tex., native stationed with the Navy in Norfolk. "I don't like Earnhardt."

Other stickers show Calvin peeing on 2 or 24, car numbers of drivers Rusty Wallace and Jeff Gordon, respectively.

As a variation, on other stickers Calvin relieves himself on the logos for Ford or Chevrolet, car makes with which certain racers are identified.

The stickers began to catch on with NASCAR enthusiasts about three years ago, sellers say. The origin, however, is unknown.

Today, for many shop owners specializing in NASCAR paraphernalia, the stickers are selling like mad.

Peggy Marshall, the manager of the Chesapeake, Va.-based store Racetrack Concepts, reports selling 20 a day for $4 a pop.

"I think it's disgusting, but who am I to say it?" she said.

Ken Zimmerman, a co-owner of Pit Row Racing in Virginia Beach, moves plenty of stickers as well. "The stickers are a very good seller for me," he said.

Calvin creator Bill Watterson retired from drawing Calvin and Hobbes in December 1995. He's never authorized any of the standard comic strip spinoff products -- coffee mugs, fast-food giveaway toys, etc. -- let alone the slightly nasty NASCAR stickers.

In 1993, Universal Press Syndicate, which distributed Calvin and Hobbes to newspapers, won a $737,000 lawsuit against a California man who made T-shirts with pictures of the duo.

However, NASCAR sticker makers and sellers are too small for the Kansas City, Mo.-based syndicate to prosecute effectively. With many of the stickers made using computers or in home basements, editorial director Lee Salem said, they're too hard to track.

Universal Press Syndicate sends cease-and-desist letters to sellers before taking any legal action. So far, there have been plenty of letters but no lawsuits over the stickers.

"There's very little we can do except appeal to the public not to buy them," Salem said.

Siding with the syndicate, for their own financial reasons, are the drivers and their business partners who have a stake in track-side sales.

Many of the drivers' names and car numbers are trademarked. So while the drivers are indirectly profiting from the rivalry spurred by the Calvins, they do not like competing with the unauthorized sellers.

"We spend a lot of money and time with attorney's fees to make sure everything's licensed," said Marta Leonard, the director of corporate accounts for Sports Image, a Charlotte-based souvenir apparel company. "We want to make sure everything's legal."

In at least one state, the Calvin stickers have caught the attention of law enforcement, but not for copyright infringement. South Carolina considers them obscene.

Officers are ticketing sticker owners up to $200 for obscenity violations, said Melissa Kneece, spokeswoman for the state Department of Public Safety.

Other police take less interest. In North Carolina, the stickers are "not a high priority" to the highway patrolmen and have led to no arrests, said Sara Kempin, a Highway Patrol spokeswoman.

In Virginia, a statute defines obscenity as including "excretory functions." However, police rarely enforce the obscenity law in relation to the bumper stickers, said Tim Rice, an officer with the Virginia State Police in Norfolk.

Private citizens can file criminal complaints about the bumper stickers, but Rice and other officers do not recall that happening.

The sticker issue, however, perturbs Rice, less as a policeman than as a NASCAR enthusiast. He competes at Southampton Speedway every Friday in his Monte Carlo.

Rice thinks the Calvin stickers further erode the reputation of a much-maligned sport.

"It makes me sick," he said. "I'm not so morally offended, but what's the purpose?

"No wonder people stereotype people in racing as bad-mouthed, beer-swilling, hillbilly, tobacco chewing. It just gives us all a bad name."

John Griffin, a spokesman for the Daytona Beach-based NASCAR, takes the Calvin stickers more in stride. He recommends viewing the decals merely as an expression of fans' enthusiasm for racing and loyalty to favorite figures.

"They're very possessive of our sport and possessive of our drivers," he said.

Race fan Rice has his own favorite, Terry Labonte, who drives the No. 5 car.

"He's very cool," Rice added. "You'll never see Calvin urinating on the No. 5."