NASCAR: Many starts and sputters

It has taken four decades for NASCAR to get its television setup just right.

NASCAR wasn't always the television behemoth that it is today, with networks spending tens of millions of dollars every year for the rights to carry it.

On Jan. 31, 1960, CBS Sports televised two hours of 25-mile pole-qualifying events for the Daytona 500, then as now the crown jewel of NASCAR. It went over about as well as an oil leak.

"It got dismal reviews, terrible reviews," recalls Chris Economaki, editor emeritus of National Speed Sport News and a former longtime race commentator for ABC and CBS who at the time was Daytona's track announcer. "You can't believe how bad the reviews were."

NASCAR's founding father, Bill France Sr., was outraged. He wasn't kidding when he said that the announcers didn't know which way the cars went around the track. So in 1961, when ABC cast about for programming for a new Saturday afternoon show called "Wide World of Sports," it received a less-than-enthusiastic welcome from NASCAR.

"They came to Daytona and wanted to televise the Fourth of July Firecracker 250," Economaki says. "They were told to go back to New York because of the terrible job that had been done (by CBS) the year previous."
It wasn't until ABC sweetened the offer -- and promised to provide more intelligent coverage -- that France relented.

Now NASCAR had a regular role on TV, though it was little more than filler. Usually, notes Economaki, a race would be shown as a 15- or 20-minute segment on "Wide World" that would be edited to provide a quicker pace.

"You knew that when someone did it live that you had arrived as a sport," says Humpy Wheeler, president of Lowe's Motor Speedway outside Charlotte, N.C. "I used to watch the Masters golf tournament and say, 'Why can't we be like that?' But it wasn't our time. Every sport goes through a growth cycle to become a major sport. Part of that growth cycle was being on tape."

Gasping for air

Wheeler recalls the lengths that NASCAR was willing to go to get on TV.

"In the '70s, we did everything from syndicate to barter with production companies like the old Mizlou network to ABC just to get on 'Wide World of Sports,' even if it meant waiting for a couple of weeks for (a race) to air," he says. "We knew all of these things would eventually add up."
When TV eventually did an entire race live, executives showed they still had much to learn about NASCAR.

For the first live, flag-to-flag telecast, "Wide World" trained four cameras on the Greenville 200 in South Carolina on April 10, 1971. ABC told the drivers that they shouldn't crash because the network didn't want the race to stretch beyond the two-hour window. But with no crashes and only one caution flag, the 200-lap, 100-mile race took an hour and 19 minutes, and ABC had to scramble to fill the rest of the airtime.

Things turned out a bit better in 1979, when CBS became the first to televise the Daytona 500 live in its entirety. The eastern third of the U.S. -- saving, of course, sunny Florida -- was hit by a severe storm on Feb. 18, leaving many in the viewer-rich Northeast homebound and craving for something to watch on TV.

"People couldn't get out, so the TV ratings were astronomical," Economaki says. (The race garnered a 10.5 rating, which would stand as the highest for the Daytona 500 until 2001.)

Viewers sat mesmerized when leader Donnie Allison and Cale Yarborough banged into each other as Yarborough tried to pass Allison on the final lap. When the cars settled in the infield and the drivers emerged to "discuss" the incident, Allison's brother, Bobby, drove over, got out of his car and began to brawl with Yarborough. Oh yes, Richard Petty won the race.

"It was all pretty outrageous stuff that you didn't usually see on TV," says David DeSpain, a pit reporter for CBS in the 1980s and later host of ESPN's "NASCAR RaceDay" who is now a host on the Speed cable network.

"A lot of people got exposed to NASCAR that day," adds Paul Brooks, senior vp of NASCAR and president of its broadcasting and digital entertainment divisions. The circuit's profile had ballooned in the three-network world.

Economaki remembers talking to Bill France Jr., the founder's son, who told the broadcaster that he would infuse new blood into NASCAR.

"He was going to bring some people into NASCAR, businesspeople.
Everything auto racing had done up to that point had been done by racing people new and old, many of whom did not understand business," Economaki says. "But Bill France brought these New York advertising and marketing people into NASCAR. That is when the tide turned."

Advances in satellite technology (which made it easier and less expensive to televise races) and the spread of cable channels like ESPN, the Nashville Network and Turner Broadcasting's TBS and TNT (all of which offered precious distribution) led to the TV proliferation of NASCAR in the 1980s.

But cable channels didn't always run races in full or even live. Fox Sports analyst Darrell Waltrip, then one of NASCAR's winningest drivers, recalls the frustration from ground level.

"You used to have to wait until Monday night for the tape-delayed telecast," he says. "You'd run a race on Sunday and then you wouldn't get to see it until Monday night on ESPN."

"It was still pretty bare bones," DeSpain adds. "There was no prerace show, no postrace show, and it was covered with pretty simple technology."

DeSpain credits ESPN for helping NASCAR grow, but he notes that NASCAR did the same for ESPN. As ESPN got rights to more races, it became required viewing for racing fans. But the fledgling network didn't have distribution everywhere, so folks lobbied local cable operators to carry ESPN.

And stock car racing seeded ESPN2, which started in the early 1990s. Fans had to lobby all over again for ESPN2. And there was more hours of NASCAR-related programming on ESPN2 because there was more time to tell a story.

"Not unlike the innovation of the original ESPN, it opened up a huge amount of airtime, so all of a sudden you had a prerace show, a postrace show, the nightly news show," DeSpain says. His "NASCAR Today" became the highest-rated show on ESPN2.

All over the map

Despite the advances, it still wasn't easy to follow NASCAR on television into the 1990s. The individual tracks made their own deals with the networks and NASCAR wasn't involved. Without a unifying theme -- and a rationale -- it was a chore for viewers to locate the race each week.

In 1995, for example, there were 14 Winston Cup points races (as the Nextel Cup series was known then) on ESPN, seven on TNN, five on TBS, three on CBS and two on ABC. In 2000, there were 13 races on ESPN, eight on TNN, five on ABC, four on CBS, three on TBS and one on NBC.

"You had to be a genius to figure out where NASCAR was going to be (on TV) even after the races went live," Wheeler says.

Enter David Hill, the Australian-born television producer who as chairman of Fox Sports wanted his network involved with NASCAR. Hill astutely noticed that even with the scattershot race schedule, NASCAR's audience was finding the races.

"The sport defied television logic in those days. It was on seven networks, (but) it did the same number wherever it was," he says. "It meant the audience was looking for it. You figured this audience was addicted to it. If you put it on every week at the same time, you'd do one or two whole numbers better. Anyone could have seen that, but I don't think they did."

Hill remembers encountering "a great deal of skepticism" from within Fox Sports for wanting to carry NASCAR.

"There was incredible naysaying, that it was a Southern sport, that it didn't travel. ... It was almost a snob thing, that you didn't want to be involved with NASCAR because it was a redneck sport, and that just patently wasn't true," Hill says.

He and Fox Sports president Ed Goren, though, had the support of Fox's Chase Carey and, more importantly, the backing of News Corp.'s Rupert Murdoch and Peter Chernin.

Thus, Fox became the linchpin in the effort that led NASCAR to consolidate its broadcast TV rights. In 1985, total NASCAR broadcast rights were worth about $3 million; in 1999, the number was $100 million. For the 2001-06 deal, Fox (and FX) paid $200 million for the first half of each season, with the second half going to NBC and TNT (allowing Turner to keep its decades-old association with NASCAR) for another $200 million.

"It really created the platform for NASCAR to be able to promote the sport, to promote the races, to follow the story lines, the collective momentum if you will," Brooks says. "We really didn't have that until 2001. We've been pleased. Since the deal, we've essentially grown the ratings 50% and, in doing that, created a bigger stage and a bigger opportunity for our teams and tracks."

It took Hill exactly one race -- the 2001 Daytona 500, Fox's first major NASCAR event -- to know that Fox had something big.

On the final lap, Dale Earnhardt tried to push his way out of third place and into the lead ahead of his son, Dale Earnhardt Jr., and Michael Waltrip. He hit the wall in the final turn and was killed instantly. NASCAR's brightest star was gone.

Fox quickly turned around a 30-minute show for primetime that night about Earnhardt's death. In the days that followed, Hill received calls from New York-based reporters who were marveling at this sudden influence NASCAR had on the nation.

"It's been here all the time," Hill told them. "You just didn't figure it out until now."