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NASCAR Keeps Its Edge

November 29, 2002|SHAV GLICK

Motor racing is on vacation, with nothing on the schedule until January except season-ending awards banquets, so let's take a look at how 2002 shaped up.

NASCAR, growing as fast as its glitzy promotional and public relations can move it, had another gigantic year in terms of fan attendance, TV ratings and controversy surrounding its champion, Tony Stewart.

According to NASCAR, the 36-race Winston Cup series has 75 million adult fans, up 19% from 2001, and NASCAR fans represent 37% of the U.S. population. It attracts the second largest crowd in motor racing, 225,000 for the Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis, second only to the open-wheel 500.

Ratings indicate that the big logo-covered stock cars are watched by more viewers than any other sport except pro football. NFL football attracts 15.2 million on average for its Sunday games. Fox averaged 9.4 million for Winston Cup races. This compares to 4.8 million for PGA golf tournaments and 3.4 million for a regular season baseball game.

"Television is the engine that drives the sport," says Paul Brooks, the Los Angeles-based NASCAR vice president for broadcasting. "Television is critical to our sponsors and to the whole exposure of our sport. Last year, our sponsors got nearly $5 billion in total TV exposure."

That was more than a 125% increase over last year.

Stewart's championship drive was one of the strangest in the sport's history. He started off last after being the first car out of the Daytona 500 and finished the season under probation for punching a photographer. Stewart's win was made possible when one after another leader stumbled badly after getting the No. 1 position.

Open-wheel racing, meaning CART and the IRL, can't really be separated these days even though one is an international multi-dimensional series and the other is a national oval-track series.

CART, despite efforts to keep it alive, seems to be in quicksand. It has lost much more than it has gained and one of these days it may disappear completely.

The latest loss is its last European race, the Rockingham 500 in England. Scrubbed for lack of interest, joining the German 500 that folded a year ago.

Leaving CART are its champion, driver of the year Cristiano da Matta, and its most popular American driver, Michael Andretti; its title sponsor, FedEx, as well as big bucks team sponsors Target, Kool and Motorola; and major team owners Chip Ganassi and Barry Green.

The car count slid to an embarrassing 18 last year and it may be difficult to reach even that number by the opening race in February.

Add to that the admitted loss of more than $12 million from production of six races on CBS and the future isn't pretty.

On the other hand, there is the IRL, looking more like the CART of a few years ago than anything else. The shift of teams such as Penske, Ganassi and Green/Andretti along with their drivers will beef up the starting grid, but also is likely to squeeze out the "little guys" who saved the day for Tony George in the scary start-up days of the IRL a few years ago.

One of George's talking points was making a place for young American drivers. Last year, Brazilians Gil de Ferran and Helio Castroneves moved in, and next year Andretti is bringing a Scotsman, Dario Franchitti, a Brazilian, Tony Kanaan, and an Englishman, Dan Wheeldon. Kenny Brack, a Swede who was once in the IRL, is reportedly moving back.

Sam Hornish Jr. successfully defended his IRL championship after a tense battle with de Ferran and Castroneves, winning by a narrow margin in the last race at Texas. Already, NASCAR teams are said to be wooing the young Ohio driver.

Don't worry about George's seven-year-old project, however. As long as it has the Indianapolis 500, it will always be the top banana in open-wheel racing.

Drag racing had another successful season, even though three of its four major titles were determined before the season finale at Pomona, and even the fourth was somewhat uneventful as it matched teammates John Force and Tony Pedregon. Force's win solidified his stature as the sport's most dominating figure -- 10 consecutive funny car championships and 11 out of the last 12 years.

Kenny Bernstein's retirement year added interest in the run of second-generation top fuel driver Larry Dixon to the title in one of Don Prudhomme's dragsters.

Only five weeks to the first supercross of the season Jan. 4 at Edison Field.

Ventura Raceway

Racing fans throughout the West are applauding the fact that Ventura Raceway was granted a year's extension in its contract with the Ventura County Fair Board. It will be the 25th year for promoter Jim Naylor at the picturesque Seaside Park facility.

"I hope it's not 25 and out," Naylor said. "We have some new ideas for next year that we think will help us stick around for a few more seasons."

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