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Racing 2004

NASCAR's new day dawns

The top sponsor and points system have changed under a new boss. This isn't your dad's stock car series.

By BRANT JAMES
Published February 13, 2004

photo
[Photo: AP]
Jason Foster, of Conder Flag Company, replaces the Winston Cup Series flags with the new series sponsor, Nextel, at Lowe’s Motor Speedway in Concord, N.C., last month.

photo
[Photo: AP(2000)]
Darlington Raceway’s traditional Labor Day date was lost to one of the circuit’s newest tracks, the California Speedway.

Brian France, left, has taken over the reins of NASCAR from his father, Bill.

ABOVE: Richard Petty has seen a lot in his five decades in the sport, but he says, “As far as major changes, you’ve never seen this many major deals. (The changes are) probably twice as many big things as we’ve ever had.’’

RIGHT: Jimmie Johnson would have been champ in ‘03 under new system.



Boxy old race cars rumbled over the smooth ruts of Daytona Beach, fat tires kicking up sprays of sand. As nostalgic, throat-lump music swelled, a narrator conjured the audience back into this simpler, more perfect black-and-white time.

Exactly seven months earlier, Nextel Communications had signed on as title sponsor of NASCAR's signature stock-car racing series, replacing R.J. Reynolds, a company whose hands-on involvement had dragged the sport into the surround-sound, high-definition reality of sporting relevance.

The moment is jolted away with a quick-hit edit, a sensory overload of a modern stock car thundering down a speedway before hundreds of thousands of fans.

Fast forward.

Nextel's slick attempt to marry these bygone eras was working as well as this television commercial for NASCAR. The company was knitting itself to a sport it had only become interested in half a year earlier. As Nextel president and CEO Tim Donahue put it, both were "scrappy entrepreneurs who at any given time were about out of money."

It looked like Nextel got it.

As the lights came on before a large gathering of media and Nextel representatives at a press conference at Lowe's Motor Speedway, company vice president Mark Schweitzer smiled.

This was working.

But then a hand shot up. A Connecticut Yankee in NASCAR's court, Schweitzer turned pale as an old-guard journalist pointed out a major, glaring mistake in the commercial that would be sure to invalidate its nostalgic appeal to long-time fans.

Change, it appeared, was not going to come so easily after all.

But it surely was coming. As NASCAR prepares to begin its new season on Sunday at the 46th Daytona 500, it is inundated by change, and on many levels, uncertainty.

There's a new title sponsor for the first time in 33 years. A new CEO, Brian France, who succeeded his father; Bill France Jr. left last fall after a 31-year term. A new system to determine the driver champion for the first time in 30 years. A new official fuel, Sunoco, which replaced the 76 brand after half a century.

NASCAR has emphasized its history of successful risk-taking under the founding France family to assuage fears of fans and drivers alike.

"From the time Bill France Sr. promoted stock car races on the sands of Daytona Beach until the time the sport moved to the asphalt ovals in the '50s and '60s, change has sometimes been met with skepticism," NASCAR president Mike Helton said.

But this era of newness is unlike the slow crawl of NASCAR evolution the past several decades.

"As far as major changes, you've never seen this many major deals," seven-time series champion Richard Petty said. "We lost Winston, we lost 76, and you're turning the whole thing back upside down with rule changes that are minor, but maybe not minor. Add all those things together (and) this is probably twice as many big things as we've ever had. Winston leaving was a big thing by itself, but you add all this other stuff together and it's a lot."

Even Brian France admits that this is a lot to ingest at once.

"Like drivers and like fans, when you see something that is a big change, people have a tendency to say, "Whoa,"' he said. "You do a lot of soul-searching, you run a lot of models, we got everybody in rooms to think things through. Pretty quickly, top people including my father thought there were things I could do. We're going to lead in an intelligent way and try to make progress."

In fairness, Nextel can be forgiven for a few stumbles. RJR has been lauded for its legacy in developing NASCAR when it announced it would be leaving the sport, but it worried racing officials early in the relationship far more than Nextel has so far.

When Winston began promoting itself within the sport, the company took a show car NASCAR vice president of corporate communications Jim Hunter described as "a dune buggy or beach buggy" to races instead of a stock car and launched some advertising campaigns that worried the France family.

"They were pretty aggressive," Hunter said. "In some of their advertising back then, they were a little edgy.

"I don't remember exactly the (rock) group, but some of the people they would set up in their pavilion at the tracks were kind of far out. They were projecting this image of heck-raising, beer-guzzling, cigarette-smoking - which part of it was - but we were trying to attract a younger group of people. So we were at odds with them from time to time, but whatever issues we had we would sit down with them and work through them."

Perhaps NASCAR will be able to do that better now, to deal with its state of flux because drivers and teams are used to truths being written in pencil. Last season alone, NASCAR changed its rule that allowed cars to race back to the yellow, formalizing what had previously been governed by a "gentleman's agreement" among drivers. In 2002, a late-season change that benefitted General Motors helped Tony Stewart pass Mark Martin and win his first driver championship.

"Change," Kyle Petty said. "Everyone gets caught up with change. We're the only sport that changes the rules in the middle of the season."

Most drivers were vocal in their opposition to the new system for determining the champion when it was proposed. Whether they were suddenly convinced of its merit, coerced or resigned to their inability to change it, virtually all have since voiced support, or at least quit complaining.

"I'm going to reserve my final answer, I guess, until the end of the season," said Jimmie Johnson, who would have won his first title had the 10-race shootout system been in place last year. "I think you will see two individual points races taking place. You'll see one to 26 races that will be real conservative because you have less time to rebound from something you might get caught up in.

"Then again, you go into the 10-race stretch when you have a smaller window yet. Are you going to have someone take a chance to pass someone and try to go from fourth to third when you're risking 150 points to try and gain five? I think it will be more about nailing top-fives than winning, and that's not what they wanted. Now, from 11 on back, you'll see some great races and some strategy, and that will be fun to watch."

That's what NASCAR is counting on, as France has asserted that "we are in the entertainment business. We hope our events entertain people."

The possible blurring of that line is perhaps the most troubling issue to drivers, the underlying concern about where subtle changes could take the sport.

"When Bill (Jr.) and Big Bill (Sr.) came in, it was a racing business," Richard Petty said. "Strictly racing. They went out to put on a racing show. Now it's show business, and that's the way I think (Brian France) will be looking at it. I don't think he's interested in the race part, per se."

All drivers accept that change is inevitable. Even the kind of change that will see Darlington's traditional Labor Day race date move to November and Rockingham's fall race relocated to the fertile market of Fontana, Calif., near Los Angeles.

"Everything grows, everything gets better," 1980 Daytona 500 winner Buddy Baker said. "Major markets will always be major markets. They will never go out of style. Chicago, Los Angeles, how can you not go to those type of places?"

No doubt, NASCAR is about to go to places few ever could have imagined.

[Last modified February 12, 2004, 11:58:00]


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