- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 8, 2007

For NASCAR, this is a year of transition. It remains to be seen whether it also will be a year of growth.

From new broadcasters and adjustments to the year-end Chase for the Cup system to new innovations from Toyota’s “Car of Tomorrow,” the nation’s top racing league is cautiously embracing a series of changes that could presage the future health of the sport.

NASCAR remains the second-most popular spectator sport in America, but those involved in the sport are watching to see whether a few minor tweaks can reverse a rare drop in attendance and ratings last year.

“Our sport just continues to grow and go through many changes,” said Kurt Busch, the Nextel Cup winner in 2004. “No matter what direction [NASCAR officials] take us, all those guys have built this sport to what it is today, and we continue to grow. I’ve been around for seven years now, and it’s incredible just the time I’ve been around, the change.”

NASCAR trails only the NFL in popularity, and its Sunday Nextel Cup events are must viewing for millions of fans. But while television ratings for last year’s season-opening Daytona 500 set a record, viewership for nearly all other races dropped off from 2005. Attendance at many tracks also fell, with only a handful reporting sellouts.

“There are varying opinions on why that is,” said Jon Ackley, an assistant professor of management at Virginia Commonwealth University, who teaches a class on NASCAR’s economics. “From an optimistic standpoint, it’s because NASCAR has seen major growth and every sport that has seen growth hits a plateau before going up or down.”

This offseason NASCAR agreed to modify the Nextel Cup points system to emphasize winning rather than mere consistency. Under the new system, drivers who qualify for the Chase get an automatic 10-point bonus for every race they won during the first 26 events.

“I’ll guarantee you we’ll go harder for those wins because now all you’re racing for is 10-point bonuses to start the playoffs with,” driver Carl Edwards said. “You’ll be hard-pressed to find anybody in the garage who isn’t going for wins.”

While the goal of the sport — winning — is unlikely to change anytime soon, the equipment used by drivers might. At least four drivers at the upcoming Daytona 500 will be driving cars built by Toyota, which is entering the NASCAR scene for the first time. The arrival of the Japanese automaker already has irritated some fans loyal to Ford, Chevrolet or Dodge.

Meanwhile, NASCAR this year will introduce the so-called “Car of Tomorrow” at 16 Nextel Cup events this year. The car, developed after more than five years of design work, has been hailed by NASCAR as safer and less expensive for drivers and teams. Its universal design will work with any car manufacturer, and is expected to reduce the chances of teams tweaking the car to gain an edge before a race.

“The car will be ultimately safer, and it should have no long-term ill-effect on the racing as we’ve known it with the car of today,” NASCAR team owner Jack Roush said. “I believe the car will be easier for NASCAR to police. The impact of the manufacturers and their contrivance and the team’s contrivance to exact an advantage for themselves — those prospects will be limited based on what they’ve done.”

The impact of any of these changes won’t immediately be known. But for the sport to grow, observers said the league must continue recent efforts to lure fans from outside its traditional base.

The sport has millions of loyal fans in the South, and is now eyeing more northern, urban areas. NASCAR’s Busch Series moved a race from Martinsville, Va., to Montreal this year. Seattle, Portland and New York also have been mentioned as potential new homes for NASCAR races.

NASCAR also expects to see a big boost in Hispanic interest as Juan Pablo Montoya, a former top Formula 1 driver, joins the Nextel Cup circuit as a member of the Chip Ganassi team.

“Montoya’s obviously a great way to move the meter on the Hispanic market,” said John Skipper, executive vice president for content with ESPN.

ESPN’s return to NASCAR coverage (it last held the rights in 2001) may be the change most noticeable to viewers. While Fox will continue to show the Daytona 500 and the first 12 races of the Nextel Cup, ESPN and sister network ABC will broadcast the final races on the circuit, including all of those in the Chase for the Cup. ESPN also will show every Busch Series race. Network executives said ESPN’s multiple platforms can immerse fans into NASCAR more easily than other networks.

“A lot has changed at ESPN since we did our last race,” Skipper said. “At this point we no longer think of the races as a three-hour event; we think of the races as an opportunity for us to establish ESPN as the 24/7 home of the NASCAR fan.”

As to whether NASCAR has peaked in popularity, Skipper said, “We continue to think there’s a lot of growth in NASCAR. We think it’s a growth property.”

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