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Seeking a piece of the NASCAR pie

With interest and revenue at all-time highs, stock car circuit will face its first rivals.

By KEVIN KELLY

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 19, 2001


The more he listened, the more he liked the offer.

A new single-entity stock car series independent of NASCAR. A plum television package. Regionalized race teams. Playoffs and a championship.

You know, Cale Yarborough thought, this thing could really work.

The three-time Winston Cup champion and other Team Racing Auto Circuit partners say their new series, announced Tuesday, will not try to compete with NASCAR. But the formation of the circuit alone signifies the first attempt at feeding off NASCAR's success.

"We're not trying to butt heads with NASCAR, but we just think that there's room out there for something else," Yarborough said. "I really believe that."

With stock car racing hotter than ever, NASCAR appears ripe for a challenge after 50-plus years of dominating the sport.

Revenue grows each season. TV ratings are at all-time highs after a landmark $2.4-billion rights agreement with Fox and NBC. Attendance is strong.

Meanwhile, the sanctioning body has been criticized for how it handled four driver deaths in the past year.

The lure of money, lots of it, might motivate a rival stock car series, and the recent tragedies could create an opportunity to cast NASCAR in a bad light.

But long-term financial success would be a long shot.

"I think NASCAR has done an awesome job to get to where they are in the year 2001," said Frank Stoddard, crew chief for Winston Cup driver Jeff Burton. "It's been over 50 years of working to get to this level. I don't think somebody's going to come in tomorrow and just make it perfect. I think you saw that with the XFL versus the NFL."

Unlike the NBA, NFL or NHL, NASCAR has avoided any challenges since its creation in 1948.

No ABA. No XFL or USFL. No WHA.

The Automobile Racing Club Association, American Speed Association and Hooters Pro Cup have been around for years as essentially minor-league circuits, drawing moderate crowds while developing drivers for various NASCAR series.

As a privately owned company, NASCAR stands to make an estimated $1.9-billion in revenue this season, according to California-based Paul Kagan Associates. Sponsors are also in demand during lean economic times.

"Not only do individual motorsports series compete with sponsors, but I think individual sports are competing for sponsors now too," said Eric Wright of Joyce Julius & Associates, a company that studies exposure for several Winston Cup sponsors. "For (a new series) to be successful, it's going to have to be a good combination of the pricing of the sponsorship package and then what it can eventually deliver. Those are questions that nobody can certainly deliver right now."

Industry insiders say success for a new series lies not in imitation but innovation -- presenting a product similar but different to distance itself from NASCAR racing.

That's what TRAC, which wants to hold its first race in 2003, plans to do.

"The sky is the limit as far as I'm concerned," Yarborough said.

TRAC will use stock cars -- domestic and international -- and drivers from around the world. There will be 8 to 12 two-car teams representing major television markets, up to 24 races, a playoff and championship. Investors also will own part of the race teams as part of the revenue sharing plan.

"You know, stock car racing is such a popular sport and probably the most popular sport in the world right now," Yarborough said. "There's a lot of talent out there that needs to be given the chance."

A television contract, track locations and fan appeal are ingredients for the success of a startup series.

There's no television deal in place for TRAC yet, but partner Bob Wussler is a past president of CBS Television, CBS Sports and TBS. He helped bring NASCAR to CBS in 1978.

ESPN and Speedvision appear to be the most likely cable channels to carry TRAC.

"Obviously, there are major telecasters who have in the past carried stock car racing and who aren't carrying it today," said Brad Ruskin, whose law firm has served as legal counsel for TRAC. "We expect they'll have interest."

Though most tracks sit idle for the majority of a year, any startup series aiming to supplant NASCAR might find it difficult to get a date.

International Speedway Corporation, the sister company to NASCAR, owns and operates 12 tracks that play host to Winston Cup events this season. Speedway Motorsports, which is not affiliated with NASCAR, owns six tracks.

Would a track owner risk losing the multimillion dollar payout a Winston Cup race generates for the sake of a startup series? Don't bet on it.

But TRAC might not be perceived as a threat.

Of the 40 potential host tracks identified by TRAC, 20 play host to Winston Cup events.

USA International Speedway in Lakeland and Walt Disney World Speedway in Orlando, which do not, might get consideration.

"Sure, I think we'll be in Florida," Yarborough said.

So whether TRAC has the right formula to survive or not, it is breaking ground. It remains to be seen if anybody will follow.

"Until I see something," Stoddard said, "my speculation is that it will be something that will try to get started but not ever see its fruition."

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