LAGUNA BEACH, February 22, 2005 - NASCAR sure put on an excellent season-starting race meeting at Daytona International Speedway last weekend and garnered some extremely high overnight television ratings for its seminal Daytona 500 on Fox.
Not only was the racing exciting from first to final laps, the whole world appeared to be watching, as Fox rolled up near-record viewers both in the USA and in the two North American countries most likely to hold NASCAR NEXTEL Cup races in the foreseeable future.
Mexico, which already has a NASCAR Busch race on tap next month has a good reason to watch this most American racing series. Two of Mexico's most revered athletes will be part of the Busch race at Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez: Adrian Fernandez and Michel Jourdain Jr.
The Indy Racing League and Champ Car World Series' loss is NASCAR's gain, and not just for this solitary Mexican visit. Jourdain, of course is in his first full season of Busch Series racing and managed to stay out of trouble in his first competition at Daytona, finishing the race with a Ford-managed entry.
Jourdain is one of Ford Racing's favorite sons and Dan Davis wants to see him succeed, no matter where he competes. It's just a shame the man who could have been a contender for Champ Car titleholder in 2004 and this season has left to join NASCAR.
As for Fernandez, this is an opportunity to showcase talents in a closed wheel car. After winning three of the final five IndyCar Series events in 2004, Fernandez was floored when sponsors Tecate and Telmex decided to forego further partnership; he handed his well-sorted Panoz/Honda/Firestone entry to veteran Scott Sharp, who brought sponsor Delphi to the Fernandez Racing stables.
NASCAR has Canadian offices to facilitate visits in the near future and, while there is nowhere near the number of oval tracks inherent in the United States, there's always the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve in Montreal, which plenty of run-off areas to its road circuit.
Canadians have enjoyed their NASCAR series of stock car racing and, even as they've lost a baseball team (and now hockey contests in '05) the fervor for racing hasn't dwindled, although commercial participation by Canadian companies sure has disappeared. Cable provider TSN's broadcast in Canada had a high of 645,000 viewers, a 100,000+ person leap from its previous best.
One of the reasons Sunday's Fox telecast - which had a record-equaling 10.9 overnight rating - of the Daytona 500 was so popular here in the United States, in Canada and Mexico is the obvious superiority of production and the malleable marketing inherent in the stock car landscape.
The action was furious for most of the race, there were precious few problems on the track, no real "big one" and while fans either love or hate winner Jeff Gordon, they knew he earned the win by beating the rest of the best at the biggest game in town. One thing is for sure, as Gordon's #24 crossed the stripe, everyone knew who won.
Just as when Budweiser airs an ad, 99 percent of viewers know it benefits Dale Earnhardt Jr. When UPS talks about "racing the truck", it's all about Dale Jarrett racing against the big brown vans, right?
Who among us didn't relish the battle of the home improvement warehouses, when Tony Stewart (Home Depot) and Lowe's rep Jimmie Johnson got into one another? Was there a 2X4 left standing anywhere in either store after their altercations? The excitement was palpable and it was clearly shown.
Even if a viewer can't stand former Cup champion Darrell Waltrip's "boogity boogity boogity let's go racing" refrain, at least DW comes through with insight once the race is on, and even if a viewer can't stomach retired mechanic Larry McReynolds' ego, the former team manager has insight into what teams are doing to prepare their racers for the final 50 miles that really count in this - or any race.
These guys, along with veteran broadcaster Mike Joy make it lively for the casual and knowledgeable viewer alike and, aside from McReynolds they rarely talk down to their audience and consider them knowledgeable fans.
There's precious little of that in either IRL or Champ Car broadcasts. The Indy Racing League this week made official its changes in the broadcast booth and on pit road for the coming 17-race season that begins next weekend on the 1.5-mile Homestead-Miami Speedway banked oval, site of NASCAR's heart-stopping 2004 season finale.
Instead of Paul Page as anchor and play-by-play announcer, ABC/ESPN have anointed Todd Harris as heir apparent. Harris got his feet wet as an IRL pit road correspondent in 2004; he started with ABC as a college sideline reporter.
He's going to have his hands full trying to gain the interest of casual fans, but at least Harris will have two former drivers who can help him make the race more interesting: Gil de Ferran joins Scott Goodyear in the booth fulltime as co-analyst/commentator.
De Ferran, the erudite Brazilian two-time CART champ and 2003 Indy 500 winner born in France seems to enjoy the challenge of manning a microphone; Canadian Goodyear has done an excellent job in a commentator role over the past couple of years with Page after ending his own stellar driving career.
On the pit road, IRL continues with the good work of Jamie Little and Dr. Jerry Punch, the racing-addicted physician who let his practice lapse to feed his need for speed. On ABC broadcasts, the duo are augmented by slap-happy Jack Arute; when ESPN presents an IndyCar Series race, we get informative Vince Welch.
Whether there will be good camaraderie amongst this IRL group remains to be seen, of course, but we'll give them benefit of doubt until they actually see the red light shining. Will they succeed? Only if they can manage to convey the breadth of personality on the grid, in the paddock and in their own broadcast booth.
While it is the partial responsibility of the broadcast group to assist in marketing the program they are telecasting, the majority of that work should be done prior to the start of the show and, as usual it rarely is.
Even now the League's green flag used to start this year's season is on a trip around the country to heighten interest prior to the first race, but without identification with teams, their sponsors and drivers, no amount of "Green Flag" tours are viable.
The marketing of NASCAR should be taught within the hallways of the Indy Racing League's offices and those of Champ Car World Series, which has announced its broadcast partners but not its front men (or women).
Continuation of the Open Wheel Civil War and the ascension of NASCAR to deity status in the sports world combine to make it tough for either series to succeed in television.
No viable cross-marketing, no excitement surrounding participants and the fact that anybody can identify with a NASCAR Chevy, a Dodge or Ford - but not a Panoz, a Dallara or Lola (even with Chevy, Ford, Honda and Toyota taking part) can easily serve to place open wheel racing in the toilet.
Flush gently, please.