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It's Not Your Sport Anymore - It's Theirs

With stock-car racing's mushrooming popularity comes some painful scrutiny.

What really sells NASCAR are its fans, whose brand loyalty is legendary. That may go back to the days when no one cared about stock-car racing and any company that helped out received fervent and grateful patronage. Hardcore NASCAR fans haven't changed, and nowhere is this better known than on Madison Avenue. But NASCAR HAS changed, for the slicker. It always got a chunk of your change. Today, with its aftermarket programs, cafes, and retail outlets, it is finding ways to take more of your money more efficiently. It's not your sport anymore. It's theirs.

For more than a decade, the moguls at NASCAR were warned to be careful what they wished for. What they wished for was full-fledged national attention, and now they have it. But with it has come national scrutiny, and under the microscope, NASCAR squirms. "This is a tough period in NASCAR's history," chairman Bill France said early this season as television ratings soared toward surprisingly new highs, but with this new attention, the national media closed in with hard questions about the fatal crashes of Dale Earnhardt and three other drivers, all in similar accidents, all in less than a year. "I can't think of any time that has been more tough," France said.

That certifies these as the best of times, and the worst of times--at least as bad as the mass driver boycott of the inaugural Talladega race in 1969 and even as bad as the tumult of the Teamsters' attempts to organize the drivers in the early '60s, when France's founding father, Big Bill, forbade it and warned, "I'll use a pistol to enforce it." After TV ratings fell off in 2000--this in the wake of slipping public interest in the late '90s--2001 was anticipated by some as a make-or-break year for NASCAR.

With expanded television exposure via broadcast networks Fox and NBC (as opposed to mostly cable coverage in the past), NASCAR would either drop back into fringe-sport status vis-à-vis the traditional Big Four of sports--baseball, football, basketball, and hockey--or force expansion of national media thinking to a Big Five. The chance for resurgence, or even new heights, was based almost entirely on Fox. Significantly more aggressive with innovation and promotion than NBC, Fox would take the first half of the season, NBC the second.

Privately, Fox executives prepared themselves for just keeping pace with last year's average Winston Cup live telecast rating of 5.0--down from a season average of 5.4 in 1999 and a peak average of 5.7 in '97. (Each rating point represents 1.02 million viewing homes.) But this season's first four Cup races not only shot to an average 7.5 rating with an 18 share, but each race was the top-rated sports event on all television for each weekend. Why?

Partly it was Fox's aggressive promotion of NASCAR telecasts, even during its prime-time programming on weeknights, and partly Fox's newly aggressive and savvy broadcast team that kept the audience in place race-long. The glib, articulate Darrell Waltrip, newly retired from Cup racing, was paid a reported $1.4 million to be the top analyst--a niche where he was projected to become the John Madden of NASCAR. Savvy crew chiefs Larry McReynolds and Jeff Hammond were wooed from their lucrative jobs in the pits into broadcasting. Mike Joy, the most objective, least beholden (to NASCAR) of any veteran racing anchor, was contracted for play-by-play (or slam-by-bang).

But there may be another reason neither Fox nor NASCAR wants to talk about. "Death sells," as Orlando Sentinel columnist Mike Bianchi put it ever so concisely. Close in the wake of Earnhardt's death, in a crash on the last lap of the Daytona 500 on February 18, Time magazine projected that the violent passing of the icon--together with the deaths of NASCAR drivers Adam Petty, Kenny Irwin, and Tony Roper over the previous 12 months--would seize and hold the most sought-after demographic group in the television industry: young males in search of truly extreme sports, stuff like X Game skateboarding, WWF kingpin Vince McMahon's new XFL (tacitly touted as hooliganism unchained, but as it turned out, just more makeshift pro football fraught with NFL washouts), rock climbing, sky diving, etc.

Nothing, at the outset of 2001, could compare with NASCAR to the extreme addicts. In the vernacular of the target audience, Man, these dudes were dying at a pace unheard of in television. And the most awesome dude of them all, the hard-bitten, hypermacho seven-time Winston Cup champion, Dale Earnhardt, was the latest. Savvy racing observers cringed at the awful anachronism. Not since the bad old days of Indy cars and Formula 1 had the chronological rate of driver fatality been so high.

But among the male populace of America, seeking its kicks from the tube, Winston Cup ratings soared through the spring of this year, up 60 percent among men age 18 through 34, up 52 percent among men 18 through 49, and up 44 percent among men 25 through 54 (even the midlife-crisis crowd was buying in big to the vicarious rush of adrenaline). Here is a microcosm of the tidal wave of sea change in U.S. sports.

On March 11, the Atlanta Winston Cup race on Fox blew away the featured NBA game on NBC by a mind-boggling 312 percent. And the surviving Cup drivers delivered. Kevin Harvick, Earnhardt's 25-year-old replacement in Richard Childress's GM Goodwrench Chevrolet, kept the throttle floored on what is now NASCAR's fastest track--carburetor restrictor plates aren't required at Atlanta Motor Speedway, as they are at bigger Daytona and Talladega--and nipped Jeff Gordon by a bumper at the finish line.

But the awful paradox put NASCAR on a rocket ride toward God knows where. This missile isn't guided. The situation is, for once, beyond the control of the France family dynasty, which had ruled absolutely for NASCAR's first 52 years. For one thing, NASCAR has a wolf by the ears in Fox--which only a year earlier had been referred to so warm and fuzzily as "our new broadcast partners" by third-generation Brian France, who closed the deal. Partners, hell. Fox and NASCAR have been behaving more like two escaped convicts who are manacled together but bent on going in different directions.

To open the February 25 telecast from Rockingham, North Carolina, the next race after Earnhardt's death at Daytona, Fox aired a sit-down interview between Waltrip and the latest France functionary, NASCAR president Mike Helton. Waltrip, acting a lot more like the next Mike Wallace than the next John Madden, turned Helton every which way but loose on issues of what, exactly, NASCAR was doing to improve its safety standards. As Waltrip fired away, Helton sputtered and stammered with his usual head-in-the-sand, murky, circumlocutive themes of safety as "an ongoing work in progress." Waltrip fired more volleys. Helton circled some more.

Then they cut back live to Waltrip, McReynolds, Hammond, and Joy for a round-table discussion that was relentless in opinionated expertise, all deeply questioning of NASCAR. All in all, Fox took NASCAR to task more, and harder, in 30 minutes before the Rockingham race than had happened in all 40 previous years of NASCAR telecasting combined--all the way back to the snippets on ABC's Wide World of Sports, through CBS, all the way through the decades of mealy-mouthed company line spewed by the NASCAR apparatchiks of ESPN.

To top it off, Waltrip called clearly for NASCAR to mandate, not just recommend, the life-saving HANS ("head and neck support") device for drivers--a radically harder line than even the majority of the NASCAR press corps had been taking in the wake of the four deaths. In the past, such ghastly departure from euphemistic broadcasting might have been quashed by a phone call from Bill France to, say, the sports moguls at CBS.

This time, as Joy explained this new-found aggressiveness, "David Hill [chairman of Fox Sports] told us, ÔIt's journalism--do it that way.' That's the way we're going to do it." This happened after Rockingham, and it amounts to a radical departure from the de facto treatment of NASCAR telecasting by all previous networks as entertainment programming--strictly show biz.

What's more--much more--NASCAR is contractually bound to Fox for eight years, at an average of $212 million a year, or $1.7 billion. How could NASCAR possibly divorce such a marriage? Claim mental cruelty? Hardly--not while Fox remains relentless with fair journalism, whether it makes NASCAR look bad or not. Although the nation's top print-media organizations are loath to admit it, their volume of coverage of a given topic is often predicated somewhat on television exposure.

As Fox propels NASCAR into the national limelight, the ripple effects are already being felt in the newsrooms and executive offices of national publications. The New York Times has assigned its top sports columnist, Robert Lypsite, to write an occasional series about NASCAR throughout this season. And Times sources speak privately of a near obsession with Earnhardt's death in the sports department.

Earnhardt in death became the first NASCAR driver to appear on the cover of Sports Illustrated since Bill Elliott in 1985. The following week, Earnhardt was not only on the cover of SI's big sister, Time, but was also the subject of 10 pages of coverage inside. The Washington Post apparently has been interviewing the widows of long-dead NASCAR drivers. And the Tribune Company Newspaper Group--which includes the Chicago Tribune, the Los Angeles Times, Newsday, the Baltimore Sun, and most prominently and controversially lately, the Orlando Sentinel (with its court request to examine the Earnhardt autopsy pictures to help determine precisely how he died)--remains relentless in its chain-wide examination of NASCAR's safety record and practices.

All this at a time when the very core of NASCAR is the weakest ever. Bill France Jr., 68, has been battling cancer. And although he says he's in remission, France has radically curtailed his activity at the helm of NASCAR, where, since 1972, he had ruled absolutely, wielding the iron hand inherited from his father, the late Bill France Sr. There has been a palpable uncertainty deep inside NASCAR ever since France first told his staff he had cancer, in December 1999.

Absent the czar, who had never flaunted his power, arrogance and avarice began to spread among his underlings, up and down the halls of NASCAR's sprawling new building in Daytona Beach. Especially bold and aggressive were the lieutenants of Brian France, NASCAR's senior vice-president for marketing and communications, who has displayed far more interest in marketing a product--be it racing, toys, or apparel--than in sport.

In January 2000, NASCAR's communications department blundered into egregiously offending its long-docile media corps. With the now-notorious "Article 4" of a written agreement, whereby reporters gained season-long "hard card" press credentials, NASCAR essentially lunged for sweeping control of information and images flowing out of NASCAR tracks. NASCAR sought to own, and sell for profit, every imaginable electronic mode of mass communication of anything that moved or spoke at the tracks--to fix it so that no minicam could be aimed, no microphone activated, no information posted on a Web site, without NASCAR approval. That approval, in many cases, meant fat "licensing fees" paid to NASCAR.

The power grab went beyond electronics to print photography--ownership and control of images. "Article 4" aroused suspicions among writers that the slick wording could be interpreted as NASCAR ownership and control of words spoken by the drivers to reporters for dissemination to the public. The revolt was resounding. Major newspapers pondered pulling out of NASCAR coverage. Then came the monumental "oops" out of Daytona Beach; NASCAR officials claimed they hadn't meant what the written agreement said.

They changed the wording, but the shenanigans awakened, and put on full alert, a media corps whose majority had consisted mainly of gravy-train passengers reluctant to rock the boat of stock-car racing. Those reporting the unvarnished truth suddenly became the rule rather than the exception--just in time for the most troubled NASCAR season in memory. The 2000 season-opening Daytona 500 was the dullest in 35 years, and the media corps told the public so--loud and clear.

The fans had joined in another revolt that had been going on for three years. A class-action lawsuit alleging price fixing against vendors of merchandise at NASCAR races was finally resolved last summer in Atlanta federal court. The case was settled out of court for $11 million, and the vendors got off cheap, if you believe the plausible argument of the plaintiffs' lawyers that their clients hadn't kept enough receipts.

Then in July, stock in International Speedway Corporation lost a third of its value. ISC operates 13 major tracks, including Daytona International Speedway, and is controlled by the France family, which also owns NASCAR outright. Wall Street investors' summer bailout was based on ISC's lowered earnings projections due to disappointing attendance at the July Pepsi 400 at Daytona--and that race turned out to be almost as big a dog as the Daytona 500 had been.

NASCAR technical officials struggled to equalize competition, especially at what has been called the "restrictor plate tracks," Daytona and Talladega. But their fondest wish--for uniform body styles for all makes, to equalize aerodynamics--walked right into the teeth of another tempest of revolt, this time from Detroit manufacturers, mainly Ford and General Motors.

The carmakers wanted their brands to be easily identifiable on TV, which would be more difficult with a uniform body shape. But Detroit sources also expressed fears that NASCAR, in its licensing feeding frenzy, might proclaim any uniform body style a NASCAR-developed product and charge huge licensing fees for Ford to place its blue oval or Chevrolet its bow tie on these supposed NASCAR "properties."

Still feeling the relentless breath of the media corps, desperate to juice up the lagging competition at showcase Daytona, NASCAR officials looked elsewhere in aerodynamics. They artificially "dirtied" the cars by mandating heightened rear-spoiler angles from 45 to 75 degrees. They mandated strips of sheetmetal, called "blades" or "wickers," across the fronts of the roofs. All this was meant to make the cars far boxier than the Detroit aerodynamicists had intended so they would knock bigger holes in the air as they hurtled along. That, it was hoped, would bring back the effects of the draft, and perhaps even the long-absent "slingshot" passing maneuver.

From the fans' standpoint, it worked. The first shakedown cruise of the new "aero package," at Talladega last October, produced a whopping 49 lead changes. Then, the next time out for the aero package, the season-opening Daytona 500 of 2001, NASCAR really got what it wished for. The race produced 49 lead changes, far off the record of 60 but far better than the 2000 Daytona total of nine.

NASCAR also got a 19-car wreck, 24 laps before Earnhardt's fatal crash. "Every driver in that garage area knew what was going to happen," says Jeff Burton, who has emerged as the leader of the safety movement among NASCAR drivers. "We knew. Before going to the Daytona 500, I can't tell you how many times I told my wife, 'There will be a big wreck.'" Although the rules that created the artificially close racing "didn't kill Dale Earnhardt," says Burton, "the fact that Dale Earnhardt got into that wreck was based on those rules. No question about it."

So now NASCAR literally has it all--juiced up competition, soaring TV ratings, the full attention of the most prestigious media organizations in the country. If 2001 is a make-or-break year for NASCAR, then NASCAR is making it--albeit as a passenger on a rocket ride out of control, and at a price in blood and turmoil unimagined back in the late '80s, when Bill France's savviest media advisers were warning him to be careful what he wished for.

Ed Hinton. NASCAR 2001, Shaken but Not Shattered. Car and Driver. Jun 2001.

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