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Fox wins over NASCAR fans with offbeat coverage


© St. Petersburg Times,
published June 22, 2001

As many years as it has been around, Fox retains, and relishes, its reputation as an upstart that likes to do its own thing.

Diehard NASCAR fans, then, were deeply suspicious -- even resentful -- when the network entered the racing fray in February. As fans filed into Daytona International Speedway for the Daytona 500, Fox's first Winston Cup broadcast, more than a few of them shouted obscenities at the Fox trailer as they passed by.

Even veteran race announcer Mike Joy had to be convinced. When his new bosses, Fox Sports chairman David Hill and president Ed Goren, told him about "Crank It Up," a segment where announcers stop talking so fans can listen to the engines roar, "I've got to be honest," Joy said in a conference call Wednesday, "I said, "What the hell is this? You have got to be kidding me.'

"I thought this was the equivalent of (Fox's much-lampooned) glowing puck at first," he added, prompting mock cries of outrage from his bosses and colleagues. "Then we tried it. And for a lot of reasons it worked and has become a big hit with the fans. We like it too."

It wasn't just "Crank It Up" that won fans over. They overlooked the network's slow response to Dale Earnhardt's death at Daytona and embraced the race coverage itself, coming back week after week. Overall ratings for the first half of the Winston Cup season are up 17 percent, leveling off only somewhat since the tumultuous early weeks of the season.

"To see everything come together this year as well as it has was terribly gratifying," Hill said. "And it's really nice when you put your heart and effort into a project and then the entire country responds the way that they have with the ratings. ... I am positive, and I've said this before, that in the year 2020, when you look back to 2001's Fox/FX, NBC, Turner contract, it will be the start of when the (popularity) graphs take off."

While Fox Sports Net will continue with its weekday show, Totally NASCAR, Fox will end its NASCAR season with Sunday's Dodge-Save Mart 350, yielding to NBC and Turner to finish up 2001.

NEW ROLE FOR VETTEL: Familiar University of Florida broadcaster Larry Vettel is Sunshine's new play-by-play announcer for its productions of Gators football games. He will join analyst Nat Moore in the booth, replacing David Steele, who often has had to miss games because of his commitment to the Orlando Magic. The games air statewide Sunday mornings at 8 during the "Breakfast with the Gators" segment.

BOXING GETS PERSONAL: Beginning Aug. 3, boxing legend Sugar Ray Leonard will join with ESPN to promote ESPN2's Friday Night Fights. His goal? To not just produce compelling matchups, but "start promoting the fighter, not just the fight," he said, something rarely seen these days.

"When I was fighting on Wide World of Sports, they actually told stories and answered three questions for the fans: Who they are, where are they from, why are they competing," Leonard said. "They created caring fans, and caring fans are the best fans."

FINE TUNING: The Cal Ripken farewell tour begins Sunday at 7 p.m., when ESPN Classic will air the 1995 Angels-at-Orioles game when Ripken broke Lou Gehrig's streak by playing his 2,131st straight game. ... CBS airs Road to Paris, a documentary on Lance Armstrong's U.S. Postal Service-sponsored cycling team, at 3 p.m. Saturday.

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