Postponement of the Pepsi 400 put NASCAR's prime-time bid on hold
The fallout from the postponement of last Saturday's Pepsi 400
at Daytona because of the devastating wildfires in Florida will
be felt throughout the remainder of the 1998 season. The new
date, Oct. 17, delays NASCAR's bid to become a force in
prime-time network sports television and also jams the Winston
Cup schedule, promising to make the stretch run the most
grueling ever for the championship.
"It would have been a milestone for NASCAR," Mike Helton, the
sanctioning body's vice president for competition, said of its
first live prime-time network telecast (CBS) and first night
race at its showcase track. Many in the racing community
expected the telecast to attract more than just hard-core fans.
Live prime-time Winston Cup racing is common on cable networks,
so racing officials were excited about the potential impact on
the sport that a 190-mph, fender-rubbing, sparks-flying show
from Daytona would have.
In fact, the drama surrounding the race should be higher on Oct.
17 than it would have been on July 4. The Pepsi 400 is still
expected to be telecast live in prime time, but it's uncertain
which network will carry the race. If CBS carries it--at week's
end the network had not made a decision--the delay could be
serendipitous for NASCAR. Saturday-night TV audiences in the
fall are far larger than on summer holiday weekends, which could
bring the sport its first double-digit ratings. It would also be
NASCAR's chance to challenge the World Series (Fox) head-to-head
for viewers, a worthy barometer for measuring racing's
popularity. But if CBS decides against showing the Pepsi 400,
the race would be relegated to cable, and NASCAR's next giant
step toward the mainstream would be delayed until next July 4.
The makeup race also filled the only open date on the
second-half schedule, meaning there will be 16 straight weeks of
competition, from the Pennsylvania 500 at Pocono on July 26
through the season-ending NAPA 500 at Atlanta on Nov. 8. That's
a lot to ask of race teams already stretched by trying to keep
their stables race-ready.
Compounding the revised schedule's drain on teams and equipment
will be the unprecedented placement of two races that require
carburetor restrictor plates six days apart. The Winston 500 at
Talladega is scheduled for Oct. 11. The restrictor plates, used
only at the 2.5-mile Daytona and the 2.66-mile Talladega to hold
speeds below 200 mph, make for radically different racing.
Daytona-Talladega cars are custom-built more for aerodynamics
than for traction, their engines deliver only 450 horsepower
(down from the usual 750 hp), and drivers find that the cars are
extremely difficult to accelerate out of trouble, often leading
to massive wrecks.
Teams usually keep only one or two Daytona-Talladega cars in
their stables. In anticipation of those back-to-back races,
however, already-overworked teams may have to build spares.
GORDON, WALLACE UNDER SIEGE
Boatloads of nosy and sometimes taunting fans are on the verge
of forcing Jeff Gordon and Rusty Wallace out of their dream
houses on Lake Norman, north of Charlotte. "I'm thinking about
selling," Wallace says of the waterfront mansion he built 18
months ago, about a half mile down the shore from Gordon's
four-bedroom place. "It's terrible when you've got to sit in
your house with the blinds drawn. People with binoculars will
sit in boats at my seawall, and they'll stare and stare.
Boatloads of them will yell, 'Hey, Rusty! H-e-e-y
Rusty!'--rooting for you," he says. "Then another boatload will
yell, 'Hey, Rusty! F--- you!' Then they go down to Gordon's
house. They're driving Jeff ape. That's the reason he's moving
to Boca Raton [Fla.].
"I love fans, and I never hide from them at racetracks," adds
Wallace, who is fifth in points on the Winston Cup circuit.
"I'll go right into the middle of a crowd and b.s. with them.
But when I'm at my house, I want some time with my family.
[Wallace and his wife, Patti, have three children: Greg, 18,
Katie, 13, and Stephen, 10.] I don't like people on the lake
bugging me and shouting profanity. On Memorial Day, I counted 70
boats in front of my house. One guy jumped onto my seawall, ran
up to the front of my house, put his hands and face up to my
windows and walked all around my house, looking in."
When fans run up to Gordon's window, they're usually armed with
video cameras. "Once I heard a noise," says Jeff's wife, Brooke,
"and looked and saw someone videotaping our cat through the
window." The Gordons are seeking refuge in Highland Beach, Fla.,
just north of Boca Raton, because the populace is used to having
Over the years NASCAR drivers have gravitated to the Charlotte
area--home to most Winston Cup teams--as a matter of
convenience. "But a lot more drivers have airplanes now," says
Gordon. He and Wallace own Learjets, which make commuting from
Florida to North Carolina for meetings with crew chiefs and
Both Gordon and Wallace concede that they were warned about
living on the open water by another longtime Lake Norman
resident, fellow driver Dale Earnhardt. Indeed, Earnhardt--who
has since moved to a secluded estate with a hidden cove--joked
that he might as well make money off Gordon's and Wallace's
folly by buying a boat and ferrying fans on tours of their houses.
AMERICANS SLOW TO FILL VACANCY
The most common charge Indy Racing League partisans make against
rival Championship Auto Racing Teams is that the richer, more
prestigious circuit ignores hungry U.S. drivers in favor of
Europeans and South Americans who buy rides by bringing in
lucrative sponsors. That notion is being debunked by retiring
CART veteran Bobby Rahal, who is seeking a replacement for
himself for 1999.
At week's end only one American IRL driver, Greg Ray, had
inquired about the impending vacancy at Team Rahal, and that
interest came just last week, after cable-TV racing shows
reported that Rahal had received no applications from Americans.
Rahal, 45, has been looking for a successor since last November,
and the job he's offering is more financially rewarding than any
in the IRL.
"For all the talk about people not getting opportunities," says
Rahal, "I'll bet 99 percent of my calls and letters [about the
opening] have come from guys in Europe, South America and other
international racing--and not one has mentioned bringing
sponsorship with him." Rahal's team is already well financed by
Miller Brewing, and teammate Bryan Herta is backed by Shell.
"Americans are as good as anyone else," says Rahal, a Dublin,
Ohio, native, "but it comes down to desire--whether a guy really
wants it. You hear all the criticism of Brazilians and other
international drivers [dominating the CART circuit], but they
work hard, and they live away from home in a strange country.
They're here because they want to race. For our team, it doesn't
have to be an American. We want someone who is capable of
running up front."
For more motor sports news from Ed Hinton, go to www.cnnsi.com.
COLOR PHOTO: BILL FRAKES DARK DAY The only thing pouring into Daytona was smoke and soot from nearby wildfires. [Empty stadium]
COLOR PHOTO: JAMIE SQUIRE/ALLSPORT FINISHED The retiring Rahal is looking for a replacement driver. [Race cars driving past checkered flag]
The number of top-five finishes by Ford Tauruses this Winston
Cup season, out of a possible 80 at week's end. Chevrolets have
placed in the top five 23 times, and Pontiacs seven.