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Racing 2004

Weber finds Tampa Bay is crazy about NASCAR

By JOHN C. COTEY
Published February 13, 2004

photo
[Photo:AP ]
Dale Jarrett and Elliott Sadler talk on pit road as an old-style racecar is prepared. NASCAR fuses legends such as Richard Petty with current stars in its latest advertising campaign as it tries to appeal to old and new fans.

Bill Weber, NBC and TNT prerace host and lead pit reporter for NASCAR coverage, doesn't find much difference among fans who recognize him at the grocery store in Tarpon Springs, where he has lived since October, and those he used to bump into in Charlotte, N.C., his previous residence.

The questions are the same, the interest as keen and the passion as deep.

"There's a tremendous amount of NASCAR fans in the Tampa Bay area," Weber said. "I was impressed by it, impressed by the knowledge and interest."

And to think, Weber thought he'd escape some of the fanaticism by moving to Florida. But in the Tampa Bay area, always near the top of the NASCAR ratings, he's just as recognizable.

Weber, who joined NBC in 2001, thinks local interest will grow this season, and not just because he's betting the new points system will draw new fans. It appears media and fans are consumed with the controversial scoring overhaul, and Weber thinks some wonderful angles to the new season are slipping through.

"I think people are missing a lot of good stories," Weber said, citing changes in DEI management, among others.

In years past, this would be the week to discuss them. But this year it's points, points and points.

But that's not a bad thing, he said.

"The best thing about that is it gives you more (fresh) stories to cover," Weber said. "It's going to be more fun for the guys at Fox to uncover the stories."

Like layers of an onion, NBC gets the first chance to peel away some of the story lines when it broadcasts the Daytona 500, with Fox taking over for the rest of the season's first half.

One of the more interesting stories, Weber said, is the development of younger drivers, such as Ryan Newman, Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr., and the effects less-publicized changes - namely softer tires and reduced downforce - will have on their seasons.

Both changes are expected to place a premium on driving skills rather than faster cars benefiting from better aerodynamics.

"A lot of these young guys haven't been in a car that doesn't fit on a racetrack really well," Weber said. "There will be a greater emphasis on the way the car handles."

For that reason, Weber thinks some of the veterans, who excelled before the aerodynamic revolution, could be rejuvenated.

Weber, who gained notoriety for his work as an auto racing commentator on ESPN and ESPN2 from 1994 to 2000, also has noticed talk about 2003 champion Matt Kenseth is unusually scarce, which he chalks up to Kenseth's quiet demeanor.

But that should change beginning at Daytona. Weber not only looks forward to the unfolding but also can't wait to do some peeling himself.

NEW AND OLD: NASCAR's new image advertising campaign is reaching out to old school fans by fusing its current stars, such as Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Gordon, in fantasy races with legends such as Edward Glenn "Fireball" Roberts and Richard Petty in a fantasy race.

The Associated Press says the commercials will begin airing Sunday and are designed to "strike a delicate balance" between pleasing older fans and keeping newer fans turning out.

The campaign is separate from Nextel's marketing campaign to make fans aware it is now NASCAR's primary sponsor.

No word on who wins the fantasy race.

CROSS PROMOTION: TNT sponsored Jeff Burton and the No. 99 Roush Racing team for the Twin 125s on Thursday and will do so during the Daytona 500.

During the 500, the hood will carry images of 2004 NBA All-Stars, the NBA All-Star logo and TNT branding.

For the Twin 125s, the car was wrapped in the "NBA All-Star on TNT" message.

In addition, Burton will wear a firesuit with NBA All-Star on TNT logos.

GROWING UP: Fox Sports Net is hyping a "completely different perspective" in its NASCAR coverage this season, catering to more experienced fans.

FSN says the past three seasons, Totally NASCAR and NASCAR This Morning have taken a "beginners standpoint on racing, aiming to teach the viewers." This year they will "kick it up a notch, allowing the viewers to take what they've learned and move it onto the track."

Get your No. 2 pencils out.

[Last modified February 11, 2004, 13:00:10]


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