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Caution period

After years of tremendous growth, NASCAR's popularity appeared to plateau in 2006. Although officials and drivers believe it's only temporary, another flat year could indicate more serious long-term problems.

February 22, 2007|Jim Peltz | Times Staff Writer

Amid evidence that NASCAR peaked in popularity after a decade of tremendous growth, a recent incident at Las Vegas Motor Speedway suggests that the lull might be temporary.

During a break from testing, Juan Pablo Montoya -- the former Formula One driver who migrated to NASCAR's premier Nextel Cup Series this year -- sat for a news conference.

One question came by telephone from a reporter in London for the British Broadcasting Corp., but he wanted the Colombian-born Montoya to answer in Spanish.

NASCAR was born in the southeastern U.S. and bills its top event, the Daytona 500, as "the Great American Race." But Montoya, and his potential for attracting a legion of new Spanish-speaking fans around the world, is one of several developments in stock car racing that NASCAR believes could spark another growth spurt.

That would be welcome news for NASCAR after the sport appeared to level off in 2006.

* Television ratings rose for only three of the Cup series' 36 races.

* At least a dozen races failed to sell out, including the two run at 92,000-seat California Speedway in Fontana.

* Even NASCAR's most popular driver, Dale Earnhardt Jr., groused in November that many races might be too long, perhaps fueling the problem.

It was an abrupt reversal for NASCAR, which had been riding a wave of rising attendance, TV viewers and sponsorship spending for a decade in becoming one of the nation's most popular sports.

"The sport hit a point where it needed something new," said Michael Pitts, who co-teaches a course on NASCAR as an associate professor of management at Virginia Commonwealth University.

"The intensity was starting to flatten."

NASCAR officials, led by Chairman Brian France and President Mike Helton, acknowledge the lower TV ratings, which they blame on NBC's tepid promotion of the sport during the final year of its NASCAR contract.

But France maintains that NASCAR has not slipped in popularity.

"I don't think we've plateaued at all," he said in his "state of the sport" address last week at Daytona Beach, Fla.

"Don't take my word for it, look at the investments from the TV partners" -- ESPN, ABC, Fox and TNT -- "who put billions of dollars on the line, looking out eight years" in their latest contract with NASCAR, France said.

"My expectation is, we'll be up in TV ratings in '07. We're selling more tickets, [but that] doesn't mean we're selling them all. I got a lot of confidence that '07 is going to be a very, very special year" because of Montoya and several other developments, France added. Among them: the arrival of ESPN as one of the networks televising its races. ESPN took over for NBC, and has been aggressively promoting its new NASCAR programming -- some Cup races will be shown on sister network ABC -- including its plans to carry every Busch Series race.

NASCAR also expects to draw more fans because Toyota has entered the Cup series, the first Japanese automaker to do so.

"Most people are going to want to watch and see how Toyota does," said Cup driver and team owner Robby Gordon of Orange. Toyota's arrival also means "more marketing dollars for advertising and exposure in other avenues beyond pure racing publications or other outlets," he said.

And later this year, NASCAR is introducing its new Car of Tomorrow, a one-size-fits-all car that's supposed to be safer, foster closer racing and, if nothing else, draw the curious.

"That's another opportunity to raise more awareness for our sport and get more people involved," said Jimmie Johnson, the El Cajon, Calif., native who won the Cup championship last year for Hendrick Motorsports.

"In order to grow you need to make changes," he said. "I think it's just normal growth and evolution that we are going through. We see nothing but blue sky ahead of us."

Finally, NASCAR tweaked its "Chase for the Cup," its late-season playoff format that determines the Nextel Cup champion, starting this year.

There now will be 12 drivers in the Chase, up from 10, and they'll earn more points for winning races than under the old system. The dozen drivers with the most points after 26 races compete for the title in the final 10 races of the year.

"These changes are good, and one thing about Brian [France] I admire is that he's not afraid to pull the trigger with change," said Felix Sabates, who co-owns Montoya's NASCAR team with Chip Ganassi.

Although it's taking time to sell out both races at California Speedway, the fall race there -- which replaced a race at the smaller NASCAR track in Rockingham, N.C. -- "still did 90,000-something, double what they did in Rockingham," France said.

Of course, California Speedway sits in a market whose population greatly exceeds that surrounding Rockingham.

Regardless, financial results at International Speedway Corp. -- which owns California Speedway and several other tracks, and also is controlled by the France family -- have been rising.

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