ATLANTA -- Dick Ebersol took a long look at the NASCAR Winston Cup Series and how stock car racing relates to the American public before he decided to commit billions of dollars to it.
He walked through the garage area last week at the Homestead-Miami Speedway and saw more than race cars with billboards painted on the hood.
He studied the lines at the souvenir stands, the miles and miles of cars in the parking lot and the people that thought nothing of spending an afternoon watching something as mundane as cars riding in a circle.
By the time the afternoon was done, the president of NBC Sports felt even better about his network's commitment to televising the Winston Cup Series for six years, starting in 2001.
Everything Ebersol saw last week told him the sport has made its way out of the dusty Saturday night bullrings and into the public's mindset with a simple marketing scheme - sell the drivers' personalities first, then competition. With that, Ebersol promised he'd do what any great crew chief would do - don't fix it if it ain't broke.
"We were interested in NASCAR because it is such a success," he said. "I don't see us having any desire to tamper with that. Look to what we have done with every other sport we have become involved with. We adapt ourselves to that sport. We do not go in and big-foot it. That has always been my way of things."
Some loyal NASCAR fans feel the sport has sold its soul. ESPN and CBS, the new networks that took a chance with stock car racing 20 years ago when it still was a considered a hick sport and tickets were plentiful, were muscled out of the new television contract, which starts as soon as next year's racing season ends.
NBC, which televised its first NASCAR race last week, will join with Fox and its regional affiliates and TBS in broadcasting every Winston Cup race through the 2006 season. The combined cost for the six-year deal is a staggering $2.8 billion.
Bray Cary, NASCAR's vice president for broadcasting, didn't help by saying the decision to go with NBC, Fox and TBS was never about money.
Until this year, each raceway was allowed to negotiate its own television deal. The total package this year was worth about $100 million. The new deal is for more than four times as much - an average of $466.7 million a year.
If that's what stock car racing's really worth, then ESPN and CBS have been getting a free ride long enough.
Bill France Jr., president of NASCAR and the president of International Speedway Corp., made it clear when the new contract was announced - it's totally about money.
"If you're just a few bucks apart, you stay with who brought you," France said of his company's decision to trade in its loyalty with ESPN and CBS for money. "That wasn't the case. This is America. The market rules, pure and simple."
The raceway still will retain the biggest slice of the television pie. NASCAR and the drivers will get the rest.
France can't lose in the deal because NASCAR will get its chunk of the money, and then, as the owner of nine of the circuit's 20 raceways, it's going to get even more of the loot.
Under the terms of the new contract, the first half of the racing season will be televised by Fox. The second half will be televised by TBS and NBC. The sport's crown jewel - the season-opening Daytona 500 - will alternate between Fox and NBC.
Ebersol, whose network lost the National Football League in a bidding war with CBS, knows he's got the next-best thing. NASCAR now trails only the NFL in on-air television ratings.
"This is not the first time in my life I have been involved with NASCAR," Ebersol said. "As a 21- or 22-year-old kid, I was a production assistant on (ABC's) Wide World of Sports. I think I have some roots in NASCAR, but they definitely need a lot of fertilizer. I will need a lot of people to help me grow up again in the business."
To make it work, TBS, Fox and NBC can't forget the Golden Rule - don't insult the intelligence of the audience. Race fans, in general, are very loyal and knowledgeable. They know when the announcer doesn't know the difference between a rear spoiler and a spark plug.
All three networks have a year to assemble a magical combination in the booth that will deliver everything - and more - than race fans expect.
Darrell Waltrip, easily the best talker in the garage area, will retire at the end of the 2000 season. Most expect him to be the focal point of another bidding war between the three networks for his colorful insight.
"The good news is it's going to bring a lot of money into the sport and that's good news for everybody," Waltrip said. "But one of the things we're going to have to get accustomed to is when someone has that much interest in what we're doing, they're probably going to have a whole lot of say in what we're doing and how we do it."
"At no point in time did anybody talk to us about having control over the actual production," he said. "Whether it's the NBA or Major League Baseball, we consult with all of those people. But we make the final editorial decisions and we make all the final decisions on who the announcers are. That hasn't changed."
Apparently, everything else about racing is open for change.
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