NASCAR still setting standards for innovation in TV sports

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. February 15, 2003; Eddie Pells writing for the AP reported that NASCAR, more than any other sport, that might not be all bad.

The Daytona 500 on Sunday will mark the 25th time NASCAR's biggest race has been televised live, and in the last quarter century, no sport has put its fans closer to the action via TV.

In-car cameras. Eavesdropping on conversations between crew chiefs and drivers. Continuously scrolling race statistics. Pit road reporters.

It's the football equivalent of having microphones and cameras in the locker room, on the sideline and inside the players' helmets.

"Fans want more and more," said Fox director Artie Kempner. "We've come up with a format to be able to present that."

Fox Sports, which enters the third year of a $2.8 billion contract it signed along with NBC, will introduce the Fly-Cam for Sunday's race, a camera that dangles on a cable above pit road and travels up to 65 mph to check out the action during pit stops.

It's the next step in a trendsetting process that began in 1979, when Ken Squier persuaded executives at CBS that stock-car racing could prosper in the Sunday-afternoon time slot during a normally low season for sports.

This year, more than 30 million Americans will watch the Daytona 500, which surpassed the Indianapolis 500 as the most-watched race in 1996.

"It was a tough sell," Squier said. "There was a general feeling that this was more of a novelty thing and that it wouldn't work on a national level."

It has worked, mainly because of the access granted to the networks.

In 1982, TV introduced the first stationary in-car camera at the Daytona 500.

A year later, the first remote-control in-car camera was used in Cale Yarborough's car.

From there, there has been a steady increase in microphones, information, reporters and camera angles, and NASCAR has welcomed it all.

It's quite a contrast to the NFL, which has become America's most popular sport despite a relative lack of inside access during games. For instance, this year at the Super Bowl, ABC made a huge deal over the miking of Jerry Rice and John Lynch, and the few tidbits - hardly any of them insightful - it played for viewers during the game.

NASCAR has been doing stuff like that for 20 years.

"When you put people who love to watch racing with the technological people we've got, you put it all together and come up with a great product," said former driver Darrell Waltrip, a Fox analyst who made a splash when he began shouting "Boogity, boogity, boogity!" at the start of races.

Another innovation this year is a feature on digital cable that allows viewers to choose between seven different angles from cameras inside the car. Fans also get to vote online on which cars to place the cameras in.

Maybe the most inventive concept came in 2001, in the first year of the new contract, when Fox brought scrolling race updates - with speeds, placement, position changes and other data, on the top of the screen.

At the time, critics wondered if the scrolls produced too much clutter. These days, those kind of scrolls and bars are practically taken for granted, not only on race broadcasts, but during football games and on news channels.

"It's all in response to the needs of the viewers," Kempner said. "You've got a small TV screen, limited time. Experts need to focus on the race, and we needed to find a way to present information with the least obstruction."

Of course, with progress comes problems.

Fox made a huge PR blunder in 2001 when it decided not present logos of the cars whose sponsors hadn't paid to advertise with the network. It was, Fox explained, a way to reward paying advertisers for their loyalty.

Fox got burned by that decision, and within days, it relented - realizing that removing a brand name was akin to referring to John Elway's team simply as Denver instead of the Broncos or Derek Jeter's team as New York instead of the Yankees.

Later that year, NBC got criticized when news spread that it had met with drivers and urged them to spice up their post-race victory celebrations, despite the fact that many drivers had trouble merely crawling out of the car after an exhausting three-hour ride.

A few months after that, Robby Gordon's chances at victory ended when a telemetry box that provides on-screen data such as rpm, speed and track position burst into flames on the floorboard.

"We've lost races under freak circumstances in the past that seemed to be in the bag, but this one takes the cake," crew chief Royce McGee said at the time.

But NASCAR never apologized, and Gordon never really expected it.

Innovations such as the telemetry box are what make fans feel that they're in the car during the telecasts. In turn, TV has helped make the series and its drivers rich.

"We're great at rejiggering it and making it better," Waltrip said. "That's what we do."

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