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How Did Nascar Get So Popular?

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Applaud NASCAR for Evolving from Dirt Tracks and Saturday Nights

By VITO FORLENZA, Comcast.net Sports Editor

February 17, 2005

How is it that a bunch of good ol' boys, a supposed blue-collar crew of "rednecks" from the South, makes up the most liberal leaders in sports today?

That's right. The best puppeteers don't hail from the NFL, even though it's the most popular game in American culture. They definitely aren't from progressively challenged Major League Baseball, the identity-starved NBA, or the thick-headed NHL.

After taking over as NASCAR chairman and CEO, Brian France made radical changes that have helped the sport reach new levels.

Instead, sports' most freehanded directors govern NASCAR, and have taken a niche competition from the Southeast and transformed it into the fastest-growing sport in the nation. Coming off its most successful year in history, NASCAR embarks on the 2005 season with Sunday's Daytona 500 riding unprecedented momentum -- and unparalleled aspirations.

"You think about all the initiatives that we launched, and could we pull those off correctly?" NASCAR chairman and CEO Brian France said at a media tour last month. "The answer is yes. I think it reads (well) for the whole industry to be able to absorb that many changes and pull off a fantastic season.

"That's the key for us to keep growing in the future."

NASCAR has already enjoyed exponential growth. It's the second-most popular sport in America to football, television ratings continue to rise, and ticket sales are also climbing.

However, NASCAR is continually condemned for some of the far-reaching changes intended to improve its Nextel Cup series. Some of it's warranted, even though an all-powerful governing body like NASCAR is an easy target. But isn't it also time to give NASCAR officials the credit they deserve?

Heading into last year's Daytona 500, France, a rookie CEO at the time, was deflecting ferocious criticism for replacing a decades-old points system with a radical playoff-type format NASCAR termed the "Chase for the Cup." The first 26 races acted as a regular season of sorts, and the final 10 races behaved like a shootout among the top 10 drivers for the championship.

The result yielded the closest finish in the circuit's history when Kurt Busch edged Jimmie Johnson for the crown on the last lap of the season's last race. Some of the sports megastars--Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr., and Tony Stewart--weren't far behind.

France's brainchild generated a bump in television ratings from 5.3 in 2003 to 5.6 last season at a time when most sports' marks are stagnant or declining.

More importantly, NASCAR kept fans interested in the autumn months, a time when the World Series, college football, and the NFL can steal them away. While Busch was celebrating his first career championship after that final race, officials were rejoicing in a 40 percent ratings increase from the previous year's final race, in which Matt Kenseth capped an easy run to the title.

The chase was so successful that already some are calling for NASCAR to stretch the playoff field even further.

"I think we might want to think about expanding it," three-time Cup champion and NASCAR television analyst Darrell Waltrip said. "Take out the 400 points (that potentially adds drivers outside the top 10 to the playoff) and take the top 15 maybe. I don't think you can have too many people battling for the championship."

It worked because France is a risk-taker, just as the entire organization has been since it began finding its way into the mainstream.

After inking a six-year, $2.4 billion broadcasting deal with FOX, NBC, and Turner Sports in 2000, NASCAR did everything it could to attract more fans and sponsors. It moved races from traditional venues like Rockingham, N.C., and Darlington, S.C., to bigger markets. NASCAR is now running races in Los Angeles, Chicago, Dallas, and Phoenix.

This season, for the first time in its history, NASCAR will stage a race south of the border, when its Busch Series visits Mexico City early next month.

It also has its sights set on the Pacific Northwest, and the big prize--New York City. International Speedway Corporation, headed by France' sister, Lesa France Kennedy, has already purchased land in Staten Island and hopes to begin building a track in the borough.

Another change NASCAR will implement this year is moving qualifying from Friday to Saturday for some races--a switch designed to cut costs. After the field is set, NASCAR will impound the cars until the start of the next day's race, meaning teams can't spend extra time working on the machines and can't spend the extra cash it takes to build one setup for qualifying and then re-adjust it for the actual race.

In addition to keeping costs down for current teams, France said a reduction might help minority drivers break into the sport, adding much-needed diversity into the predominantly white racing league. This could help enhance initiatives aimed at injecting new blood into NASCAR, such as the "Drive for Diversity" program, which is aimed at giving minorities an opportunity to compete in all three of NASCAR's series.

Of course, not everything is run like the well-oiled machine NASCAR pretends to be. With such growth comes consequences and shortcomings.

Expansion may be the best way to expose more fans to the sport, but NASCAR is running the risk of pulling too far away from tradition and abandoning its Southern roots. Thus, it could alienate its staunchest supporters in favor of attracting in new ones.

For example, after the 2003 season, NASCAR stripped away the prestigious Southern 500 race on Labor Day weekend from Darlington and awarded that date to the California Speedway. Darlington was left with a new race, now called the Dodge Charger 500, on a new date--the night before Mother's Day, which had customarily been an idle weekend for the top circuit.

Veteran driver Mark Martin has said that if he didn't make the Chase for the Cup last year, he might not have his current sponsor this season.

The organization is also criticized for making too many rules changes on the fly, incessant marketing (especially in Victory Lane), and becoming more spectacle than sport.

All in the name of progress.

Maybe NASCAR's fast lane is too fast. But many of these problems, in fact, are good problems to have. These issues prove fans care deeply about NASCAR in a day and age when fewer and fewer people are watching sports.

Attacking the NASCAR brass is the easy way to react to change. Although they aren't always perfect, they should also be commended for taking risks and constantly trying to improve their product--face it, they are selling men driving around in circles.

"I think when the fans win, everybody wins," said veteran driver Mark Martin, who is embarking on his final full season. "From a competitor's standpoint, my belief is that one man's gain is another man's loss.

"But when the fans win, everybody wins."

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