NASCAR blowing up in major way, and it may have television to thank

ON MEDIA

February 18, 2005|By RAY FRAGER

MY MOTHER had this friend -- let's call her Betty (because that really is her name) -- who had a strong aversion to left turns. She would drive around the block to avoid making one.

I don't recall, but maybe Betty didn't like seeing other people make left turns, either. Which would mean she's not a NASCAR fan. The way things are going, she could soon be the only one.

In the era of the shrinking television audience, NASCAR is expanding. Ratings for NASCAR's major league circuit, the Nextel Cup, were up 10 percent last year. And for NASCAR's signature race, the Daytona 500, the rating was 11 percent higher than the year before.

Daytona rolls around -- sorry, Betty, but still counterclockwise -- again Sunday on Fox (WBFF/Channel 45, WTTG/Channel 5) at 1 p.m.

One could make the point that NASCAR, more than any other sport, has benefited from TV's technological advances. Cameras go along for the ride inside the race cars. Graphics clearly delineate the running order and show the gap between cars. This year, Fox has a Cablecam overhead -- familiar from NFL telecasts -- that will cover the front stretch (including the start-finish line) and pit road.

The Fox folks say one of their racing analysts, Darrell Waltrip, is particularly fond of the Cablecam shot that shows the driver's hands on the steering wheel.

And for those of you who remember hockey, here's a tidbit: Fox said it wouldn't have developed the graphic capabilities of marking cars on the track if not for the late, lamented glowing puck.

Waltrip also reports: "The high def has made this sport even more exciting."

Thanks, Darrell. Maybe you didn't hear, but I don't have a high-definition TV.

What's behind NASCAR's rising popularity?

"We're accessible," Waltrip said in a conference call Tuesday. "We're fan-friendly."

"These kids [drivers] work their way to the top," race announcer Mike Joy said. "They don't get college scholarships. They don't get million-dollar bonuses."

They are also walking billboards, something that suddenly doesn't seem so funny anymore.

"The other sports used to laugh at us," said Waltrip, who is joined by Larry McReynolds as an analyst. "`Look at those hats and those patches.' ... Now, they're trying to figure out how they can do it."

The Washington Nationals finally have a radio home -- WFED (1050 AM) and WWZZ/WWVZ (known as Z104, 103.9 FM and 104.1 FM). According to the Associated Press, all Nationals regular-season games will air on the AM station and all night games will air on the FM stations, meaning the Nationals could be heard in the Baltimore area. Announcers haven't been chosen yet. ... Comcast SportsNet will air a series of spring training reports from the Orioles and Washington Nationals camps next week -- Monday at 7 p.m., Tuesday at 8:30 p.m. and Friday at 8 p.m. Brent Harris is with the Orioles, Scott Hanson with the Nationals.

HBO's excellent Real Sports returns Tuesday at 10 p.m. with segments on American sprinter Kelli White, who talks about using performance-enhancing drugs that led to her ban from competition; Disabled Sports U.S.A., a nonprofit organization headed by a Vietnam veteran who gets soldiers who have lost limbs in Iraq and Afghanistan out of their beds and onto the ski slope; and a profile of golfer Vijay Singh. ...

Cal Ripken has joined XM Satellite Radio as host of a weekly show that begins next month. He will be joined by his brother Bill.

Starting Monday, ESPN presents a five-part report on steroids on the 6 p.m. SportsCenter. ... On Thursday, on the 25th anniversary of the game, ESPN Classic airs the first complete replay of the American hockey gold-medal victory over Finland in the 1980 Olympics. ...

In Wednesday's episode of Law & Order, which used a brawl like the Detroit Pistons-Indiana Pacers fracas as a jumping-off point, two characters from the district attorney's office were discussing the difficulty of prosecuting a pro athlete. One cited the murder conviction of former NFL wide receiver Rae Carruth as proof it could be done. And what was the response? The other character brought up the Ravens' Ray Lewis.

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