NASCAR on TV’s fast track

Jun 25, 2001  •  Post A Comment

After a winter of sports discontent-the XFL dive-bombed and NBA viewership was off 12 percent for the season-NBC Sports is getting its hands on NASCAR, a TV sports vehicle that’s on a record tear.
Fox Sports started the NASCAR momentum 16 weeks ago, racking up dramatically improved ratings and male demos week after week.
“For the first time ever, our television partners are treating us as a national franchise, as other leagues have been treated for some time,” said Paul Brooks, vice president of broadcasting for NASCAR. The stock-car racing organization put all its Winston Cup and Busch Grand National eggs in one basket and then split the season between two week-in-week-out teams of partners, Fox Sports/FX and NBC Sports/TNT, which ante up $200 million apiece annually in the eight-year deal.
“This time last year, we would have been on seven networks,” Mr. Brooks said. “There was no incentive to promote the next race coming up.”
So collegial is the mood at this turning point that Benny Parsons, the former Winston Cup champion who will be NBC’s on-air analyst, was invited to appear at the end of Fox’s last telecast for this season, the June 24 stop at Sears Point Raceway in Sonoma, Calif., to direct viewers to the July 7 prime-time debut of NASCAR on NBC.
Pop princess Britney Spears will tell the racers at the Pepsi 400 at Daytona to start their engines that Saturday night, but the NBC theme is a “rejiggered” version of Metallica’s “Fuel for Fire,” which hits the appropriate rock ‘n’ roll note, said Sam Flood, the NBC Sports Emmy winner who is producing the NBC/TNT coverage.
Directing the NBC/TNT coverage is Emmy winner Mike Wells, who helped define motorsports on TV in his 19 years at ESPN.
Mr. Flood and Mr. Wells will put new spins on the same technology employed by Fox and developed by Fox, NBC and NASCAR during the preseason. The cameras at the corners of the tracks will pan more to take advantage of “nice big lenses” in an effort to translate the speed of the cars.
The satellite tracking of the cars will morph into a graphic chip that appears above the roof of a car to show in real time how the car’s progress around the track compares with the pole sitter’s qualifying time.
Among the most dramatic differences will be the pre-race show. Fox carted a set-dubbed “the Hollywood Hotel,”-from track to track.
NBC and TNT will use pre-race activity along pit row as the backdrop for their show, which will be hosted by Bill Weber, who also will be the lead pit reporter during the races.
The race-announcing teams will be led by play-by-play man Allen Bestwick, known as the voice of NASCAR, analyst Mr. Parsons and racer Wally Dallenbach. Reporting from the pit along with Mr. Weber will be Marty Snider, Dave Burns and Matt Yocum.
Turner Sports has commissioned some pieces on NASCAR legends from longtime CNN Sports journalist Jim Huber and also has tapped Liz Allison, widow of racer Davey Allison, to contribute features to TNT’s telecasts, which begin July 5 with qualifying for the Pepsi 400.
The NBC/TNT team, which has sold 85 percent of the sponsorships available in its part of the package, makes no bones about how it starts with the advantage of Fox’s success in the first half of this NASCAR season, when household ratings were up an average of 18 percent from the same period a year ago, with 29 percent growth in Top 10 markets that are not historically hotbeds of NASCAR fever. Key male demos were double those of the NBA on NBC.
“They made it mainstream,” Mr. Flood said. “They had the opportunity and they didn’t blow it. They put on a great show.”
Stacey Lynn Koerner, vice president of broadcast research for TN Media, said Fox did an amazing job of promoting NASCAR: “I think everybody has sat up and taken notice.”
An industry source said that by the end of its run, Fox Sports, which prides itself on holding the commercial-price line, had sold 85 percent to 90 percent of its NASCAR inventory.
A Fox Sports spokesman said, “We added a lot of sponsors late, once they saw the ratings, saw the demos, saw the production and saw what we could do for them.”
“The more people see it, the more people enjoy it and fall in love with it,” said Fox Sports Chairman David Hill, who is confident the phenomenon will continue under his NBC Sports counterpart, Dick Ebersol.
While NASCAR moves to NBC for the second half of the season, Mr. Hill won’t suffer total NASCAR withdrawal-he’s involved in the evolution of Speedvision, the cable motorsports network News Corp. purchased in May with intentions of making it more NASCAR-centric.
“We’re in the middle of business hell right now,” Mr. Hill said. He said the hope is to “have it switched on and changed out” by February.