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Race Viewing Is in High Gear

April 26, 2002|LARRY STEWART

If there's one thing that made professional football this country's No. 1 sport, it was television. Football is ideally suited for television, and technological advances such as instant replay and slow-motion helped propel it past baseball and everything else.

The same thing is now happening with stock car racing. The sport is in high gear, and television, with its in-car cameras, two-way radio contact with drivers and such audio features as "Crank It Up," is helping push it into the No. 2 position.

The NASCAR race on Fox from Talladega, Ala., Sunday drew a 7.0 national rating and blew away the NBA playoffs on NBC. The NBA games going head-to-head against the race averaged a 4.0 rating, and the national rating for Portland and the Lakers was a 5.9.

The 7.0 for the Talladega race made it the third highest-rated program of any kind for the week among male viewers.

Even the NASCAR Busch Grand National races on Saturdays are drawing big numbers. Fox's 2.5 average rating has made that series the second most popular in motor sports behind the Winston Cup series.

Fox is primed for another big NASCAR weekend from California Speedway in Fontana, highlighted by Sunday's Winston Cup NAPA Auto Parts 500.

On April 7, Fox's NASCAR coverage from the Texas Motor Speedway drew a 3.3 national rating, the second highest of the weekend, behind only a 3.5 for BellSouth golf. That may not appear to be that impressive, but the race that day was postponed by rain. NASCAR fans tuned in for the fill programming.

"If there was a version of 'Survivor' for sports fans, NASCAR fans would win for being the most loyal," said Chris Myers, the host of Fox's pre-race shows.

Myers was like most typical sports fans when he drew his NASCAR assignment after Fox got involved two years ago.

"NASCAR was pretty far down on my list," he said. "I followed the more traditional sports--football, baseball and basketball. But after being exposed to it and the people in it, I'm a big NASCAR fan. There is no spoiled bratty athlete syndrome in NASCAR."

The Right Move

David Hill, the chairman of Fox Sports, pushed hard for his network to get involved with NASCAR, prompting Fox and FX to make an eight-year, $1.6-billion deal with NASCAR before the 2001 season. NBC and TNT chipped in with $1.2 billion over six years.

"There were a lot of doubting Thomases within our organization," Hill said. "It's always nice when your bet pays off in spades."

Last year, the first of the Fox-FX/NBC-TNT era, ratings zoomed up 36%, and they've held steady this year.

Before the new television deal, NASCAR was all over the place, with CBS, TNN, ESPN, ABC and TBS all involved. And most races were on cable.

Now the television coverage has been consolidated and for the most part is on network television. Another plus for viewers is that News Corp., Fox's parent company, acquired Speedvision in a $750-million deal and relaunched it in February as Speed Channel, with a heavy emphasis on NASCAR.

Speed Channel supplements the NASCAR coverage on network television.

The new television deal as a whole has NASCAR officials doing cartwheels--or maybe in this case spinning doughnuts.

"One of the many benefits of consolidating our television coverage is the continuity it provides," said Paul Brooks, NASCAR's vice president of broadcasting who works out of the organization's Los Angeles office.

"There have been a lot of things along the way that really changed the sport for the better and helped make it grow, and certainly that's one of them."

Fox this week won 11 Emmy Awards, topping all other networks. ESPN finished second with six. Three of Fox's Emmys, including the one for best live sports series, were for its NASCAR coverage. Fox's remote NASCAR technical team won an Emmy, and the network also won for its NASCAR graphics.

A Star Is Born

One of Fox's first moves when it got the NFL in 1993 was to hire John Madden. One of Fox's first moves with NASCAR was to hire Darrell Waltrip as its lead commentator.

Waltrip does not fit the mold of a slick, smooth-talking broadcaster. But in the world of NASCAR, "DW," as Waltrip is known, is king. He's sort of to NASCAR what Terry Bradshaw is to the NFL--a former champion with a winning personality. His down-home style fits like a valve in a well-tuned engine.

Fox is so high on Waltrip it has rewarded him with a new four-year, $4-million contract, which puts him in a league with the top-paid commentators in sports.

Asked about NASCAR's popularity this week, Waltrip said, "They have a lot to sell and have done a great job of selling it."

As for television's role, he said, "We go places no one else goes in sports."

Controversy Brewing

The condensed baseball Web casts on apparently are going over big with fans, getting about 650,000 hits a day. But they're not going over big with executives at Fox and ESPN. The Web casts, they claim, are infringing on their deals with Major League Baseball.

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