DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - Money was not the driving force behind NASCAR's move to Fox and NBC this year, although $2.8 billion was, quite honestly, a consideration.
NASCAR's decisionmakers, far removed from the mechanical nuances of the sport, have a grander business vision that could make the second-richest television contract in history seem like a mere down payment to untold wealth.
Network television means a bigger audience. A bigger audience means more attention. And more attention means more tickets, more sponsors and more than enough money to carry the sport to another generation of fans.
In short, network television is the sport's future.
While reaching only 65 percent of the country, cable television, primarily ESPN and TNN, took racing off the back pages of Monday morning newspapers and put it in America's living rooms every Sunday for nearly 20 years. If the plan goes well, network television will take it even further - to America's everyday sports consciousness.
"The NASCAR thing is not a hard sell," said driver Rusty Wallace. "I don't think I've ever sent a person to a race before that they never came back totally excited. Now, if they don't know anything about NASCAR because they've never seen it before, I'm positive when they see NASCAR (on television) they will be glued to their TV every Sunday. I guarantee they will be talking about it at their workplace from Monday to Friday."
Fox, along with its cable outlets Fox Sports Net and FX, will broadcast half the races, while NBC and TBS will do the other half. In all, about 70 percent of the 36 regular season races and two all-star events will be shown on the networks, while the rest will be shuffled back to cable. Last year, only six races were broadcast on network television, and the other 28 were on cable.
Fox will work the first half of the season before moving over to the National Football League in the fall, while NBC will go head-to-head with professional football - and Fox - during the second half.
"It's exciting to know that we're gathering these new fans," said driver Dale Jarrett. "There are people out there who have never been able to watch us because of the races being on cable or something. So now, they're getting that chance to watch it, and they're doing it in a big way. We're seeing the sport being put in a different light than ever before.
"Now we have to perform and make sure we do our job so the networks can reap the benefits."
The benefits are plenty.
NASCAR will get 10 percent of the money; the purse for each race will get 25 percent, and the race track itself will get 65 percent of the cut. International Speedway Corporation either owns or operates 18 raceways on the Winston Cup Series, so its cut of the giant pie over the next six years will be about $845 million.
What race fans get out of the deal is a new approach to an old game.
"We're a rookie team right now, so give us a little time," said Darrell Waltrip, who retired three months ago to become one of the color analysts for Fox. "We don't have all of our little gadgets yet. Give us time, and we'll be all right."
For the most part, the people responsible for telling the story will be the same. Mike Joy traded in his TNN microphone for Fox. Crew chiefs Larry McReynolds and Jeff Hammond also retired to be with Waltrip in the announcers' booth.
Over at NBC, former Motor Racing Network announcer Allen Bestwick will handle the play-by-play duties, while Benny Parsons will jump from ESPN to provide commentary. Pit road reporters for both networks will be comprised largely of reporters who were doing the same job at ESPN, CBS and TNN.
Fox Sports president Ed Goren said he doesn't plan to make big changes to the way his network will do business. While Fox is preparing such "gadgets" as computer imaging that will allow fans to track their favorite drivers, Goren said his group is committed to merely refining the broadcast to make it more entertaining.
Fox's first trip into auto racing - Sunday's Budweiser Shootout all-star race - received a lot of criticism. The network erased the names of some sponsors from the race cars during the driver introduction. Only cars whose sponsors do business with Fox had their labels displayed.
That apparently caught NASCAR off guard.
"I'm going to look at the race to see," said Mike Helton, NASCAR's president. "We're looking into it."
Many in the garage area would like to see the broadcast include more than an afternoon of focusing on the leader.
"They need to emphasize how important the pit crew is, how important the crew chief is making calls," said driver Jimmy Spencer. "That's what makes racing better. If they would put on the whole racing deal, I think they would get better coverage."
Fox apparently agrees. They plan to weave several features about the inner workings of the sport into their race coverage while concentrating more on the battles throughout traffic.
"We just hope the media does a real good job covering it, covering all the details," Wallace said. "I think you guys will have one hell of a time next year."
NASCAR is betting its future on it.
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