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NASCAR joins exhaustive coverage trend

With a new service similar to other sports, iN Demand offers seven channels to watch one race.

By JOHN C. COTEY, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published July 21, 2002

With a new service similar to other sports, iN Demand offers seven channels to watch one race.

During any NASCAR broadcast, the best television shots often come from the in-car camera.

The best shot of Dale Earnhardt Jr. whizzing by Dale Jarrett? In-car camera.

The best shot of Jeff Gordon avoiding a pileup? In-car camera.

The best shot of Sterling Marlin flying through his pit stop? In-car camera.

After years of seeking ideas to bring fans closer to the action, NASCAR has tapped into the the subscription-based services that delight so many NFL Sunday Ticket fans.

And in-car cameras are the stars.

In June, NASCAR launched a television package featuring seven channels that offer in-car camera views, from preselected cars, or race statistics. Want to follow a race from Earnhardt Jr.'s vantage point? This is the package for you.

NASCAR In Car on iN Demand is available to the estimated 15-million digital cable subscribers in the United States (nearly 300,000 in the Tampa Bay area), and costs $99 for 22 races (the season packages for 2003 and 2004 will offer 36 races).

"In-car cameras have been a part of NASCAR for some time and we know fans love watching them," said Jeffrey Pollack, managing director of new media for NASCAR and executive producer of the digital package. "Now we're giving fans the opportunity to watch in-car cameras on demand. ... The in-car camera is the star of this show."

Each race still is televised on Fox, FX, NBC or TNT, but those willing to pay for enhanced coverage get six dedicated channels of in-car cameras that feature a real-time animated dashboard with needles, gauges and information, the driver's name, car position, speed and rpm, and at the discretion of the team, the live radio feed between driver and pit crew.

The on-screen graphics are produced by interactive television services provider ACTV Inc. and provided by a company called Sportsvision, best-known for developing the on-screen yellow lines used in football games to show the first-down stripe.

A seventh channel offers additional race statistics.

"Any time we can bring our fans closer to the sport, they become more excited about it," said NASCAR vice president of broadcasting Paul Brooks. "We're putting fans in the director's chair at 185 miles per hour."

Rob Jacobson, iN Demand executive producer, is pleased with the early returns.

"So far it's been extremely positive," he said. "NASCAR fans seem really impressed."

Jacobson intends to woo those that aren't by tweaking the package, which he says is a "work in progress."

Heather Tygrett, 25, is a paralegal in Charleston, W.Va., and writes an online column. She watched a free preview offered last month, and decided against making the purchase for one reason -- commercials. The commercials from the main television package controlled by Fox, NBC and TNT also have run on the pay-per-view package.

"If it didn't have commercials," Tygrett said, "I'd buy it."

Tygrett was not alone, Jacobson said. So this weekend will be the first without commercials, an experiment to appease fans.

St. Petersburg's Chuck Sullivan, 55, says he has been a racing fan since the 1970s, and when he heard about the package he bought it even before the free trial.

But disappointment followed. The major drawback for Sullivan was another one echoed by fans -- when watching the in-car camera, it's impossible to follow the actual race.

"You need picture in picture so you can see the racetrack," Sullivan said. "You're left totally out of the loop. Sunday I watched the in-car for the first 20-30 laps, and then when I switched over (to the NBC broadcast) there was a guy spinning out in the grass because he missed the pits. Turns out there were two guys that missed the pits coming in too fast, but you wouldn't know it watching the in-car."

Though many televisions offer picture-in-picture, Jacobson said Sullivan's complaint could eventually be addressed, though the preference would be to keep the screen less cluttered.

"The line we're walking is between supplementing what the networks do and competing with the networks," Jacobson said. "All we do is try to supplement. If you want the full race story, want the full depth of analysis and perspective, then you have to be tuning into the network. We encourage viewers to keep checking back into the network. (In-car) is not designed to stand on its own. We compel the viewers of NASCAR In Car to give the remote a bit of a workout."

Some fans want more of a workout, considering the most common complaint: a request for more in-car cameras available. Already, Jacobson and NASCAR have addressed this complaint. Originally, only five in-car cameras were offered, with one station being the standard network feed. But the network feed has been eliminated from the package and replaced with another in-car camera.

That makes six cars, but the director can change one of the channels to carry another car's feed.

For fans, who would prefer a menu that allows them to choose the driver they pay for, that still might not be enough. Eventually, more channels could be added, but for now Jacobson continues to meet each week with the network broadcasters and NASCAR to pick what they believe are the six most compelling cars.

"I would like to be able to switch so if Junior is having a great day and is out front, let me go look at someone else's car, maybe someone who is struggling," said Paula Carter, a 46-year-old office manager from St. Petersburg who attends a handful of races each year and listens on a scanner.

Pollack says NASCAR's iN Demand business has done well, but he won't have any actual numbers for another week or so. As for the abundance of coverage for each race, he is convinced there is no such thing as too much for racing fans.

"Our hardcore fans, and we have 40-million of them, spend up to nine hours a week consuming NASCAR related media," he said. "The more we create, the more they consume."

-- Information from other news organizations was used in this report.

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