The axiom concerning geography and stock car racing's appeal goes something like this: The more traffic you had to endure during the week, the less likely you were to watch it on weekends. Now, whether you credit Fox's much lauded state-of-the-art coverage or the death of Dale Earnhardt at Daytona, that rule may be changing.
Two races into its television partnership with Fox (and at a time when ratings for most major sports are down), NASCAR's Nielsens were up an astounding 86% from last year's average rating, from 5.1 to 9.5. Behind the boost is the sport's newfound popularity in major markets, many of which recently have been more infatuated with NASDAQ than NASCAR. In Los Angeles and New York City, says Fox, ratings had increased 62% each from a year ago after the same number of races.
"The landscape has changed dramatically for two reasons," says Neal Pilson, a sports-television consultant ( NASCAR is one of his clients) and the former president of CBS Sports who for years oversaw that network's coverage of the Daytona 500. "First, NASCAR has moved half its races from cable, and now all are on network television. Second, the races this year are all on Fox, so Fox uses each race to promote the next. The first three races last year were on CBS, TNN and ABC. It would never occur to CBS while it was airing the Daytona 500 to promote the next week's race in Rockingham on TNN, as it wouldn't occur to TNN to promote the next Sunday's race in Las Vegas on ABC."
Beyond that, the death of Earnhardt, stock car racing's most charismatic figure, allowed other networks covering the sport to draft off Fox's lead. The Feb. 18 edition of ESPN2's RPM 2Night, for example, was telecast only a few hours after Earnhardt died. It was seen in 1,611,000 households, a number that made it the most-watched regularly scheduled program in the network's history.
Pilson also notes that Earnhardt posthumously graced the covers of SI, TIME and (in the Southeast) PEOPLE. "Because of that we are seeing people tune in to NASCAR who had never watched," he says. For now, racing's newfound audience is rubbernecking. The question is, with stiff competition looming this month from the Sunday-afternoon coverage of the NCAA men's basketball tournament on CBS, will Fox and NASCAR continue to race ahead?