The axiom concerning geography and stock car racing's appeal
goes something like this: The more traffic you had to endure
during the week, the less likely you were to watch it on
weekends. Now, whether you credit Fox's much lauded
state-of-the-art coverage or the death of Dale Earnhardt at
Daytona, that rule may be changing.
Two races into its television partnership with Fox (and at a time
when ratings for most major sports are down), NASCAR's Nielsens
were up an astounding 86% from last year's average rating, from
5.1 to 9.5. Behind the boost is the sport's newfound popularity
in major markets, many of which recently have been more
infatuated with NASDAQ than NASCAR. In Los Angeles and New York
City, says Fox, ratings had increased 62% each from a year ago
after the same number of races.
"The landscape has changed dramatically for two reasons," says
Neal Pilson, a sports-television consultant (NASCAR is one of his
clients) and the former president of CBS Sports who for years
oversaw that network's coverage of the Daytona 500. "First,
NASCAR has moved half its races from cable, and now all are on
network television. Second, the races this year are all on Fox,
so Fox uses each race to promote the next. The first three races
last year were on CBS, TNN and ABC. It would never occur to CBS
while it was airing the Daytona 500 to promote the next week's
race in Rockingham on TNN, as it wouldn't occur to TNN to promote
the next Sunday's race in Las Vegas on ABC."
Beyond that, the death of Earnhardt, stock car racing's most
charismatic figure, allowed other networks covering the sport to
draft off Fox's lead. The Feb. 18 edition of ESPN2's RPM 2Night,
for example, was telecast only a few hours after Earnhardt died.
It was seen in 1,611,000 households, a number that made it the
most-watched regularly scheduled program in the network's
Pilson also notes that Earnhardt posthumously graced the covers
of SI, TIME and (in the Southeast) PEOPLE. "Because of that we
are seeing people tune in to NASCAR who had never watched," he
says. For now, racing's newfound audience is rubbernecking. The
question is, with stiff competition looming this month from the
Sunday-afternoon coverage of the NCAA men's basketball tournament
on CBS, will Fox and NASCAR continue to race ahead?
In Los Angeles and New York City, NASCAR ratings had increased
62% each from a year ago.