By Natalie Finn
Special to TelevisionWeek
NASCAR drivers aren’t the only adrenaline junkies filling the track on race days. The team responsible for televising a daylong event that relies on dozens of sponsorships, requires 300 technicians and draws tens of thousands of people also feels the need for speed.
“The great thing about NASCAR and auto racing is that it’s so real-time and so fast,” said Rick Miner, senior VP of programming and production for Speed, the Charlotte, N.C.-based cable network devoted 24/7 to motorsports and the automotive lifestyle experience. “I love live television. If you’re an adrenaline junkie, it doesn’t get any better than that. The only excuse for being late to a live show is death, and it best be your own.”
Mr. Miner oversees the logistics involved in bringing all of the channel’s event programming, including live NASCAR events, to Speed’s audience. For the sport that relies on balance, horsepower and well-timed pit stops, he provides the balance that keeps the operation running smoothly. In any given day, Mr. Miner explained, there can be a NASCAR qualifying session in Talladega, Ala., a Formula One race in Europe and a motorcycle race in California, all within 14 hours of each other and all going live from Speed at some point. It’s his responsibility to ensure that each production team has what it needs to make Speed-quality television.
The setup for any weekend NASCAR event rivals that of a Super Bowl (or the Daytona 500 of football, as NASCAR execs refer to it). Thirty 50-foot tractor-trailers, four stages, each team’s equipment, the broadcasting compound, the radio compound and hundreds of technicians from both NASCAR and the networks make for quite an operation.
“We try to share talent where we can, where it makes sense,” Mr. Miner said. “The level of cooperation at the production level and operational level-for all of the networks-it’s outstanding. Without it, none of us could do our jobs.”
NASCAR is in the last year of a $2.4 billion television contract. In February NASCAR signed a new eight-year, $4.8 billion deal that turns broadcasting rights to its 36-race schedule over to News Corp.-owned Fox Sports and Speed, TNT and Disney-owned ESPN and ABC. (NBC’s contract with NASCAR expires at the end of 2006.) The new contract, which takes effect in 2007, will net $555 million in television income for NASCAR, ranking behind only the NFL’s $4.735 billion in TV income, the NBA’s $767 million and Major League Baseball’s $713 million.
Star Drivers Boost NASCAR
NASCAR household ratings have increased more than 20 percent in the past five years, buoyed by superstar drivers such as Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr., and the Great American Race-the Daytona 500-scored an 11.3 household rating for NBC in February.
While Fox won the rights to televise the Daytona 500, Speed will add the Gatorade Duel at Daytona, which determines the main event’s starting lineup, and the Nextel All-Star Challenge to its schedule for the first time. Speed, which is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year, also becomes the first in line for any Nextel Cup or Busch Series race that is forced off of Fox due to weather or scheduling conflicts.
NASCAR occupies a channel within a channel on Speed, which is available in 71 million households. Original programming centering on the veritable sporting religion that is NASCAR-such as “7 Days,” “NASCAR Past Champions,” “NASCAR Beyond the Wheel” and “Inside Nextel Cup,” all analyze issues in the sport and provide sneak peeks at the drivers’ lives-is on throughout the week.
When Speed first started broadcasting in 2002 from Daytona Speedweeks, the fortnight that opens the NASCAR season, it provided about eight hours of coverage, half of it from a studio. This year Speed covered 75-plus hours, most of it up close and personal to the track.
To date Speed’s NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series is its highest-rated event programming, doubling in viewership every year that it’s been on. In February 2005 it scored a 2.1 household rating, making it the network’s most-watched program ever.
Weekends, however, are when the adrenaline junkies really get their fix. Starting with Friday evening’s “Trackside,” moving to “NASCAR Live” and “NASCAR RaceDay” and ending up at Sunday night’s “Victory Lane,” Speed aims to carry its core 25 to 54 demographic from the first tune-up to the last lap.
“Every weekend, all weekend, we’ll get you inside,” Speed Executive VP and General Manager Hunter Nickell said. “If you’re a fan, you want to see the cars on the track but you also want to know what’s going on-what the drivers, the owners, are like, what the crew chiefs are doing out there.”
Speed carries Nextel Cup and Busch Series qualifiers and practice sessions as well as recasts of various marquee races, making the Speed crew NASCAR’s constant companion throughout the 40- plus-week season. Even if the channel isn’t televising the actual live race, the Speed RoadTour Stage is always onsite for pre- and post-race coverage.
“You’ve got to give everybody a little taste of something,” said Chris Long, Speed’s VP of studio production. “Then they’ll sit there and say, ‘These guys gave me something I really wanted to know. These guys care about me.’ Without them, we’re nothing. So you’ve got to give everybody a little something and not too much of everything,” for example, too much automotive talk or details that don’t factor into the overall enjoyment of the sport.
Since arriving at Speed about a year ago, Mr. Long has revamped the network’s nonevent programming. All of his adjustments, which have ranged from building new stages right in the thick of the action to adding rock music to the shows’ soundtracks, have focused on one thing-improving the network’s connection with NASCAR’s avid fans.
But though the sport has an intensely loyal fan base, not every attempt at bringing fans closer to their heroes is going to work. A lifestyle show called “NASCAR Nation” folded in November after it became clear that most racing fans wouldn’t tune in every week to watch Jeff Gordon drive a go-kart or Kasey Khane go boating. Fans want to know more-but they want a direct link to the racing action in the process.
Mr. Long said he turns to the documentaries on the Discovery Channel and A&E for inspiration. He’s looking forward to the Aug. 1 launch of a new “Speed News” format, which he said will not stop at highlights but also explain why viewers should care about the process the racers took to get where they are.
“People are going to be surprised by the angle we’re taking with this,” he said. “We tell you the back stories. We have a footprint on NASCAR that I don’t think anybody else has, and I think that each week we try to cement that footprint by making our programming better and better.”
While Mr. Long credits Speed for giving him the logistical support and monetary resources that allow him to push the envelope with Speed’s programming, he also credits the NASCAR organization for making that kind of content available in the first place.
The access that NASCAR allows to the drivers and crew chiefs is part of what makes it such a beloved sport, and the open environment has allowed Speed to become a leader in behind-the-scenes racing programming.
“When Speed makes the kind of commitment they make and do the kind of programming they do, they really do earn a certain kind of loyalty and respect from the fans,” said Dick Glover, VP of broadcasting and new media for NASCAR. He noted that there are sometimes up to 10,000 fans just in the garage watching the crews tune up, and shows such as “NASCAR Live” and “NASCAR RaceDay” work on translating that environment to the at-home audience.
Auto racing may be the only sport in which a two-hour rain delay can provide ratings on par with the actual race or even win its time slot. On March 18 a rain delay at the Nicorette 300 in Atlanta, televised on FX, beat a Lakers-Cavaliers NBA game on ABC b
y 39 percent.
“During a rain delay, that’s when [the drivers] are out working with the media,” Mr. Glover said. [The fans] are watching because it’s a chance to further interact with the drivers. Speed’s ideas help NASCAR become even more accessible.”
Mr. Long pointed to a snow delay March 25 in Bristol, Tenn., during which he had one of his hosts slide down a hill on a Slip ‘N Slide and encourage the crowd to throw snowballs. Speed averaged a .72 rating, which for it is a solid number.
“Should we go to contingency? No!” Mr. Long said. “The viewer will stay there because they want to know: What are these guys going to do next? Are they going to be in [driver] Tony Stewart’s motor home eating ice cream? Who knows? And we have a relationship with every driver … because of the consistency that we have with them.
“We can go anywhere. I can send two cameras into the motor court lodge and watch three big-name drivers playing poker. Now, if you had ever seen [tennis stars] Bjorn Borg, John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors playing Texas Hold ‘Em, you’d say, ‘That’s the coolest thing ever!’ And that’s our goal, to show that stuff-this is a sport where these guys are with each other so much.”
Mr. Miner added: “In NASCAR we follow them right into their trailers, and they encourage that.”
Jimmy Spencer, a veteran NASCAR racer and also a co-host of “NASCAR RaceDay,” tried to explain the uniquely open relationship that his sport has with the media and its fans.
“I think the biggest thing that NASCAR’s done the best is educating every driver as he came along, from Saturday night racing right up until the Nextel Cup,” he said. “They’ve tried to teach you respect, and not just to respect NASCAR, but to respect all of your fellow competitors, the fans, the officials. They show you that that’s how you can be successful.”
Another tradition built into the fabric of NASCAR that Speed has been able to effectively use is sponsorships. Drivers are decked out in logo-covered gear and race in cars pasted hood to trunk with sponsors’ names. Just a glance at the official names of all the races-the Pepsi 300, the Samsung/Radio Shack 500, the DirecTV 500-provides a clue of how integral sponsorships are to the sport. Since Speed’s ties with NASCAR have grown over the years, advertisers have taken the opportunity to double their visibility.
Home Depot, for instance, sponsors driver Tony Stewart and has run several successful marketing campaigns tied to his popularity. The company has also become one of the premiere sponsors of “NASCAR RaceDay,” providing the stage from which the anchors host the show every week. And when Mr. Stewart wins a race, Home Depot President and CEO Robert Nardelli gets an extra dose of publicity for his company by making appearances on pre- and post-race shows to discuss the team’s success.
“Our network and the programming that we create weekend after weekend give us a sensational opportunity with sponsors, advertisers and marketers,” Mr. Nickell said, reflecting on the ways that companies have stepped up as loyal sponsors to both NASCAR and Speed.
“I think we challenge each other,” Mr. Nickell said. “We have fun, but the underlying fact is that our team is working as hard as it can to figure out what are the most successful ways to program NASCAR. Interesting, entertaining, insightful; that’s what we do.
“You’re going to have successes and failures, but as we develop we’re at a point where this team has come together, and it feels more comfortable than it’s ever been delivering the product to our viewers. We’re not going to be satisfied with just having good race coverage and good automotive programming. As Speed-as the network-we should have the signature race programming and the signature automotive programming. We’re not satisfied until we’re recognized as that.”
Perhaps Mr. Nickell and the rest of the team at Speed won’t have long to wait.
“It’s the home for the hardcore NASCAR fan on television,” Mr. Glover said. “Seven days a week there will be compelling programming centered on NASCAR. The fan knows, ‘Here’s a place I can go. I’ll get inside access, good information, news and things I won’t get anywhere else.'”