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NASCAR channel on track for cable

By KEVIN KELLY

© St. Petersburg Times, published July 22, 2000


It's 2 a.m. on a sleepless Saturday night.

Remote in hand, you're changing channels but can't find anything worth settling on.

A Golden Girls rerun on Lifetime or Rugrats on Nickelodeon? Hollywood Dream Jobs on E! or Xena: Warrior Princess on USA?

NASCAR fans rejoice.

Soon you might have another option.

After years of planning, a 24-hour cable channel dedicated to everything NASCAR and aimed at a growing fan base inches closer to reality.

"I think the theory that has evolved over the last couple of years is that a lot of NASCAR fans don't have a reliable place to go and get all of the NASCAR news, information and other programming they would like," said Bray Cary, NASCAR vice president for broadcasting.

"There's a fair amount of it on, but it's spread out on several different channels. With our loyal fans and growing fan base ... there's a lot of people in TV and the advertising industry that feel like this would be one of the new channels that does well."

But worried spouses needn't hide the remote or disconnect the cable. A NASCAR channel is at least a year away.

The idea is drawing praise from the television industry.

"I think it's a bold, terrific way to expand the franchise," said Neal Pilson, a consultant and former president of CBS Sports. "If that opportunity presents itself, I think (NASCAR) should take advantage of it."

The majority of the proposed channel's coverage could comprise races, driver and track profiles, race replays, qualifying and practice sessions, news and general interest stories.

"The possibilities are endless," Cary said.

This season, 90 races are in NASCAR's top three series -- Winston Cup, Busch Grand National and Craftsman Trucks -- and several regional racing series sanctioned by NASCAR have races.

"Think of the programs that are on the air today, like RPM 2Night and NASCAR Garage; you just can never get enough," said Jim Hunter, president of Darlington Raceway.

"Divide it down into categories. There's the drivers, there's the driver's wives and families. There's the owner and his other business, the crew, crew chiefs and then the sponsors and the associate sponsor. I mean, with the technology in TV, they can do so many things."

Increased availability of digital television, which allows viewers more channels and better picture quality, could allow a channel to be interactive.

Fox is helping NASCAR develop the idea.

The network was one of three -- NBC and Turner are the others -- involved in the $2.4-million NASCAR television rights package announced late last year.

Fox will cover the first half of the season, from February to June, airing some races on the FX network.

"We're confident we'll be NASCAR's partner in that (24-hour channel)," Fox Cable Networks chief operating officer Jeff Shell said Friday. "The deal is still being negotiated. We sold NASCAR on an idea on a more limited distribution outlet. That's what we've been working on."

A NASCAR channel would follow a trend toward niche channels.

In 1991, the Golf Channel became the first sport-specific cable network, providing more live golf programming than all other networks combined.

The Golf Channel, composed of six investing cable companies, has 30-million subscribers.

Speedvision, founded by former ESPN executive Roger Werner, was the first cable network dedicated entirely to motor sports. It debuted in 1996.

Media One, Comcast, AT&T and Cox are partners in the network, now seen in 26-million to 27-million homes.

"That's several million homes above where I thought we'd be at this time," Werner said.

In the Tampa Bay area, the channel is offered on Time Warner's digital cable service.

"There's been 20 years of history in terms of TV ratings that would support the notion that motor sports is popular in the U.S., and a vast number of people have a strong interest in it," Werner said.

Pilson said a possible alignment between NASCAR and Speedvision might be the smartest move for both.

"If that plan goes forward, you're almost halfway to being a national channel," he said.

Whatever the outcome, Cary knows cable television, fans and advertisers are ready for all NASCAR all the time.

"Either somebody latches on to it or they don't," he said. "Fortunately, it appears they're latching on to the idea."

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