Storm Watch

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Some of the best discoveries of modern times have been made by accident. Post-It notes were discovered by 3M scientist Art Fry only after he was frustrated with bookmarks falling out of his church hymnal. NutraSweet was discovered in 1965 by a G.D. Searle scientist searching for an anti-ulcer drug. Most importantly, Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups were a result of some knucklehead getting peanut butter in somebody else’s chocolate. At least that’s what that old commercial proclaims.

So it should come as no surprise that some of the most enjoyable motor sports programming on TV this year came about serendipitously as a result of Hurricane Isabel. SPEED Channel’s “Trackside” crew decided early last week to stay far clear of Isabel’s potential path. So, instead of heading out to Dover with their usual traveling road show, they decided to stay home in SPEED’s Charlotte studios instead.

The timing was perfect for a salute to Mr. Bill France Jr. and his 31-year reign as NASCAR supremo, grand poobah, and benevolent dictator. Mike Joy, Larry McReynolds, Darrell Waltrip, and Jeff Hammond spun yarns about their experiences under Mr. France. NASCAR President Mike Helton joined in via satellite from Dover, as did VP of Communications Jim Hunter. Video retrospectives added to the depth of the tribute, and the short video history of NASCAR midway through the show was must-see for any NASCAR fan.

The extensive interview with Helton was clearly the highlight of the show, with the segment lasting almost 20 minutes. It’s hard to believe that Helton has ever sat down for an interview as long or as in-depth. He answered questions without hesitation or diversion, and Mike Joy and others threw him many of the same questions that even the most skeptical of race fans would love to ask the man who runs the big red trailer. Joy asked Helton if the promotion for Brian France was a surprise. DW quizzed Helton on if he was “disappointed” not to get the chairman’s role. Hammond wondered aloud to Helton, asking if Bill Jr. could really be “kept out of the cookie jar.” McReynolds also asked Helton if quicker action on rules changes and other issues would characterize Brian France’s reign.

Helton said that having only three chairmen in the history of the sport “from the same gene pool” was pretty “stout.” He characterized NASCAR as “big, strong, and healthy,” saying that the sport is a lot different from when Bill Jr. took over in 1972.

“I’m absolutely as happy as I can be being president of NASCAR,” said Helton. “I get up every day understanding that there are millions of fans who would love to have my job.”

“I was in awe the day I met Bill Sr.,” said Helton. “I count my lucky stars every day to have been as close to Bill France and his family as I have been, to learn what he knows, and particularly what he knows about this sport . . . Brian France had that benefit, plus he was his son. So you’ve got the fathership and the mentorship for the business side. Brian’s ready to do this. The France family’s ready to do this. NASCAR’s ready to do this. It’s happened, and when the dust all settles, it’ll make sense . . . Brian’s been a good leader I’m looking forward to working with him. I’ve enjoyed working with him; he’s a smart guy. He’s got all the right intentions. He’s got a good group of people working for him. I enjoy doing what I do and I’ll be as committed to him as I was his dad.”

The studio panel of four didn’t just tow the NASCAR party line in their discussions either. McReynolds said that Brian France would need to spend more time in the garage, to regularly find out what the “competitors are squealing about.” Darrell Waltrip said that the promotion of Brian France is a good sign that the new job is “an action, not a reaction,” whereas some of DW’s past criticisms of NASCAR have centered on them reacting to something instead of being proactive.

The studio discussions and interview with Jim Hunter reminded me a lot of the “Stock Car Legends Reunion” that airs periodically on SPEED Channel. It’s simple footage of a bunch of salty old-timers sitting in a studio telling tall tales of life on the NASCAR circuit before the invasion of the young guns and big TV money. In this day and age of flashy music videos and techno pop wizardry with GPS systems, it’s good every once in awhile to just kick back, relax, laugh, and learn.

Jim Hunter joked by asking the SPEED crew, “Is Stevie Waltrip’s husband here tonight?” Immediately, Darrell retorted, “Yeah, what do you want to know, Mr. Hunter?”

Hunter responded to a question from McReynolds centered on thoughts from some corners that Brian France might not quite be ready for the job.

“It’s a repeat of a lot of the things they said about his father,” said Hunter. “But it’s really people who don’t know him, and it was people back then who didn’t really know Bill Jr. Everyone today, Bill’s record speaks for itself, and I think, in the future, Brian’s record will speak for itself.”

The show closed with thoughts from the Fab Four in the studio. DW reminisced about the time that a package arrived at his house with only a shark’s jaw and a business card from Bill France Jr. inside. DW said, “I always had a way of rubbing him (Bill Jr.) the wrong way. I could always get him ticked off about something. It was always something I said, hardly ever something I did.”

“Imagine that,” said Hammond. “That’s a talent,” replied Joy.

All in all, NASCAR fans got to a rare treat last Friday night. We can only hope for more diversions that occasionally call for the TV people to think a little out of the box. Sometimes the results are terrific.


While the SPEED Channel “Trackside” effort was a good example of making the most of an opportunity, the upcoming U.S. Grand Prix is an example in the other direction: Failing to capitalize on a unique opportunity.

For all the talk from Tony George, Bernie Ecclestone, and others about wanting to build up the popularity of Formula One in the U.S., it’s perplexing that Michael Schumacher has no big-time hyped media appearances this week when he comes to Indy. Brian France, Jeff Gordon, and all the other NASCAR big shots have no problem appearing on “Wind Tunnel,” but the F1 powers that be can’t get the sport’s biggest name to be on the show?

Besides, shows like “Wind Tunnel” should be just the start. Morning shows like “Today,” “Fox & Friends,” and “Good Morning America,” plus many other staples on the letter networks, would be natural places to showcase a superstar like Schumacher. There’s finally some on-track action worthy of media attention this year, yet Ecclestone and George seem content with 125,000 people showing up at the Brickyard and about 300,000 households tuning in on TV. Eccelstone has put in more work into growing the sport in Bahrain than he has in the U.S.

THIS WEEK’S NOTES: Kiefer Sutherland has been inked to narrate the NASCAR IMAX film, which is scheduled to be released next March . . . The Winston Cup race from Dover on NBC turned in solid overnights of a 3.9 rating and 8 share . . . I really like the close racing of the IRL, but the series is really struggling with the TV ratings this season. This past Sunday’s race from California could only muster a 0.7 overnight rating, putting it in a distant last place among all sports programming for the weekend . . . CBS will show Sunday’s CART race from Miami live at 1 p.m. ET in some markets. Other markets will see a 90-minute version at 4:30 p.m. All schedule changes are a result of the NFL games on CBS . . . Despite losing almost 20 million households in the switch from the ESPN networks to SPEED Channel, the Craftsman Truck Series is seeing increased household viewership for many of its races this year. 523,000 viewers tuned in to the race from New Hampshire, compared to 245,000 who watched the Truck race on that same weekend last year . . . The folks at IMS are running a commercial in some Midwest media markets, including Chicago, hyping the upcoming U.S. Grand Prix. Guess which driver appears in the ad talking about how fun it is to drive an F1 car? That’s right, none other than NASCAR driver Jeff Gordon.


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Monster Energy NASCAR Cup, 2003

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