CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) – The promotions started weeks ago and special programming soon followed. Just in case there were any regular viewers who weren’t aware ESPN is going NASCAR racing, the network made it impossible to ignore.
ESPN kicks off its return to Nextel Cup coverage this weekend with Sunday’s race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and is leading into it with its usual hyped-up blitz. In addition to reminders, scrolls and commercials, ESPN is airing 66 hours of NASCAR-related programs this week to market its upcoming coverage of the final 17 races of the season.
“So excited about ESPN,” NASCAR chairman Brian France recently gushed.
And he should be.
As ratings continue to slump – the most recent race, the July 15 event at Chicago aired on TNT was down 8 percent from last season – France is hoping ESPN and its hype-machine can end the slide.
The network was launched in 1979 and began covering NASCAR two years later, but after airing 262 Cup races, ESPN was locked out of a 2001 television contract that split the season between Fox, NBC and TNT. An ensuing spat with NASCAR over which ESPN programs could use footage gathered inside the track then led the network to scale back its coverage entirely.
The popular nightly magazine-style show “RPM Tonight” folded, and brief racing highlights were often buried on “SportsCenter.” Lead reporter Mike Massaro, barred from filming interviews inside the track, spent almost six seasons chasing drivers to helipads and airports for access.
It dropped NASCAR low on the priority list at ESPN, which focused on the NFL, NBA and Major League Baseball, and potentially hampered the sport’s ability to attract new viewers.
Now that the network is back in the fold – it signed an eight-year contract that splits the 36-race season on ABC/ESPN, Fox and TNT – ESPN is reaching out to viewers to give NASCAR a chance.
“If you are a fan of ESPN and have watched any of our networks in the past eight to 10 days, you’ve seen a tremendous amount of advertising,” said Rich Feinberg, senior coordinating producer for ESPN and ABC. “We’ve wallpapered the networks to let people know Cup is coming and worked hard to get the word out as much as we can.”
Of the 17 races that ABC/ESPN has, the first six will be on ESPN. The final 11 will be on ABC as one network will air the entire Chase for the championship for the first time since its 2004 debut.
All race telecasts will include a pre-race show, be shown in high definition and include the first use of HD in-car cameras. In addition, ESPN will utilize 17 different platforms to cover NASCAR.
One of them is ESPN2, which is home to the Busch Series this season. Although the network takes over Cup racing this weekend, it’s been broadcasting Busch races since February.
“The Busch races are fantastic, but people keep coming up to me and asking ‘When are you going to start calling NASCAR?”‘ said retired driver Rusty Wallace, who will be an analyst in the three-man booth.
“I say ‘We have been calling NASCAR’ but they mean Cup. So now we are going Cup racing, and this is the moment I have been waiting for.”
Wallace will be joined in the booth by play-by-play announcer Jerry Punch and analyst Andy Petree. Punch and Petree, a former crew chief and team owner, grew up together in Hickory, and like Wallace, have long-standing relationships in the garage that ESPN hopes to utilize in its broadcasts.
“The guys in the garage have a sense of fairness,” Petree said. “The relationships are different now that I am in the booth, and actually even better, because now I can go down there and they aren’t threatened. I probably can get a little more information from these guys because they aren’t worried about competing anymore.”
Petree and Wallace insist they’ll be fair in covering their old friends, and Wallace argues he’s already proven he can do it this season by critiquing his son, Stephen. Wallace owns a Busch Series car that Stephen Wallace has driven this season to mixed results.
“I am kind of a talkative guy and I am going to call it like I see it,” said Wallace, who spent last season calling IndyCar events for ESPN and ABC as practice.
” Let me roll, let me flow. If you hold my reins back, I don’t think it’s going to be as good. I definitely have my own personality.”
Feinberg said the network has worked extensively with Wallace to train him as a broadcaster, but has been careful not to wash out the color that comes with Wallace’s huge personality.
“Our goal as managers and producers is to allow people to be themselves because that’s how a Charles Barkley, a John Madden, a Troy Aikman have found their place,” Feinberg said. “It would be insanity for me to try to change Rusty.”
The personalities will be joined by gadgets, including a “Draft Track” that will show air flowing behind cars and drivers drafting in it. The device was designed with Sportvision Inc., the company that helped create the glowing puck in Fox’s NHL coverage.
And ESPN will also use a Tech Center, which Feinberg describes as a traveling TV studio that will showcase the technology of NASCAR.
Feinberg expects to package it all into a quality program, but said ESPN will be careful not to dilute the product.
“Good racing coverage is good racing coverage, it’s the window dressing that changes,” he said. “First and foremost, we are here to document the race. It’s going to be entertaining for our audience, but we’re also going to be smart and not let all the toys get in the way.”