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by Larry Roberts

December 19, 1998

Television and the TV industry have several annual banquets where the best documentaries, soap operas, made-for-TV movies plus a number of other categories are touted and awards presented, usually by tuxedoed male stars and their scantily-attired female counterparts.

But the category that is passed over by the television world is the field of auto racing. Its viewers are counted in the millions world- wide, but the industry ignores this form of entertainment. Auto racing has excitement, conflict, agony and joy, all the attributes of good TV. The only thing missing is sex, but its viewers don't seem to mind.

The other side of the racing-as-entertainment coin is that its sponsors are usually heavy-hitters and public recognition is the reason they attach their names (and money) to "their" cars and drivers.

In order to rectify this oversight, we've come up with a list of our candidates for "Best Auto Racing TV Series of 1998."

FORMULA ONE - Regarded by most as the pinnacle of auto racing and the standard by which other single-seater racing is measured, Grand Prix events had millions of viewers 16 different times in '98. The races themselves are noted for their lack of passing (they're all held on road circuits) and the races are very often won or lost during the pit stops for fuel and tire changes. The first driver out on the last pit stop is almost a sure winner since passing is relatively rare. The fact that the only two drivers in the running were Mika Hakkinen (McLaren) and Michael Schumacher (Ferrari) with a win each by Damon Hill and David Coulthard made the viewing exciting only to Formula One fanatics.

CART CHAMP CARS - The Championship Auto Racing Teams (CART) events have an advantage over Formula One entertainment-wise, since a great number of its events are on medium-sized and large oval tracks. On TV, CART puts on a good show, although the races are usually between two or three teams and those are the ones with the deepest corporate pockets. The high spots were provided by hard chargers like Greg Moore and newcomer Dario Franchetti, who were hungry enough to take chances. Unfortunately, CART has become a stepping stone for young lions to go on to higher-paying jobs in Formula One (like Jacques Villeneuve and Alex Zanardi) and the series starts from square one each season. CART races rarely have spectators on their feet, save for the last few laps.

NASCAR WINSTON CUP - All-American good old boys in good old American stock cars. The National Association for Stock Car Racing puts together a grand package for television with a star system that's equal parts showmanship and schmaltz. The races on the big tracks like Daytona Beach and the 2.5 mile oval at Indianapolis are interesting because there's lots of passing, lots of leaders and lots of team strategy - almost too perfect. The plethora of in-car coverage puts viewers in a driver's seat a great deal of the time. Even the announcing is great: just folksy enough to make viewers feel like they're part of the program.

NASCAR CRAFTSMAN TRUCK RACES - These bulldog-ugly racers put on enormously entertaining shows on tracks that range from shorties like Bakersfield, California, to big ovals like the one in Indianapolis to road circuits like New York's Watkins Glen. The drivers are hungry for Winston Cup seats, so the competition is fierce and always very close. The announcing is typical NASCAR and the system seems committed to making stars-of-the-future out of its truckers. The NASCAR truck series also has the advantage of having three distinct brands (Chevrolet, Ford, Dodge) fighting it out and it's always up in the air until the last laps, in which any of the half-dozen front runners could win.

And our winner in TV category of "Best Auto Racing TV Series of the Year" is the NASCAR Craftsman Truck program. It's making heroes of fresh-faced "regular guys" like Stacy Compton, sad-eyed struggling road racers like Boris Said and grizzled veterans like Joe Ruttman. When Formula One can produce 13 different winners in 26 races like the Craftsman truck series, we'll give it our three thumbs-up too.