By Matt Weaver — In many ways, the Brickyard 400 on Sunday afternoon represents a changing of the guard for NASCAR television. When NASCAR’s latest television contract came up during the summer of 2013, ESPN announced that it would not seek out a continuation of the relationship that has ran for over 30 years, opting instead to focus on a variety of other sporting properties.
When NASCAR makes its annual pilgrimage to Daytona for Speedweeks in February to kick off another season, they will do so without the Worldwide Leader of Sports and Entertainment in tow, the network having been replaced essentially by NBC and the NBC Sports Network as part of the sport’s new $8.2 billion 10-year television package that also retained FOX and Fox Sports.
While NASCAR and its fanbase is looking forward to the fresh perspective of a new television partner and a fresh play-by-play booth that includes Rick Allen, Jeff Burton and Steve Letarte, it is also worth noting how much of its growth and success that the sport owes to ESPN over the past three decades.
In fact, the reverse also holds true.
While ESPN has risen to meteoric heights during the 21st century, the network was not an immediate success with American households. Way back in 1980, a fledgling ESPN had not yet aired Major League Baseball or the National Football League and was struggling to find a foothold in Americana.
The network, seeking out a professional sport to broadcast live, developed an interest in an entity very similar to itself in the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing.
NASCAR was still in its infancy as a national sport, the Modern Era having just begun in the 1972 with the introduction of RJ Reynolds and Winston as the title sponsors and the schedule reduction from 48 to 31 events. With races already airing on ABC’s Wide World of Sports and CBS, ESPN and NASCAR was a match destined for success.
NASCAR and its tracks needed a commercial presence and ESPN required content. Thus at some point prior to the 1981 Carolina 500, ESPN approached the North Carolina Motor Speedway (Rockingham) and the two reached an agreement to air that race.
Darrell Waltrip won the event as Bob Jenkins and Eli Gold delivered the play-by-play over the network. After several other tape-delayed events that year, ESPN aired its first live race — the season finale in Atlanta.
NASCAR had arrived and ESPN was its eager catalyst.
Dr. Jerry Punch has worked for ESPN since 1984 and has served in a variety of roles at the Worldwide Leader. He’s witnessed first-hand what the relationship meant for both parties during those infant years.
“There was no question that the NASCAR product was amazing,” Punch told Popular Speed. “But it was a regional sport, played out in front of thousands across the Southeast. It had visions of expanding but it needed a platform.
“ESPN had just picked up NCAA athletics and wanted to expand to professional sports. NASCAR and ESPN came together out of necessity and it helped them both grow tremendously.”
The union kicked off a golden era of the sport, the complete Sprint Cup Series schedule airing across numerous networks including TNN and TBS. With the added exposure, seating capacities doubled and tripled across the tour, new tracks were erected outside of the traditional Southeast market and the venues grew from half-mile bullrings to mile-and-a-half intermediate facilities.
NASCAR even grew its international cache, hosting a series of events across the Pacific Ocean in Japan from 1996-1998. ESPN grew too, picking up the NFL and MLB contracts that have established their legacies in recent years, the network evolving into the worldwide brand that it has become today.
But as NASCAR grew, it also grew apart from ESPN, separating from the network in 2001 as the sport signed mega-deals with FOX and NBC.
It was during this span that NASCAR really exploded as a national powerhouse. The infrastructure that ESPN provided NASCAR allowed the league to really flourish during the early stages of the last decade, signing a title sponsorship with Sprint Nextel that ushered in an era of expanded communication and technology.
The sport introduced a playoff format that was in many ways influenced by ESPN while NASCAR’s stars grew from blue-collar everymen to multimillionaires that grace the front page of Forbes and Sports Illustrated interchangeably.
Thus when ESPN returned to NASCAR in 2007, they found it to be a completely different entity than the one they left seven years prior. The tracks were bigger, the lights brighter and the cars faster. ESPN had grown too and possessed the resources to tell the story of the modern NASCAR in all the ways they were unable in the 80s and 90s.
But to do so, the network required voices that carried the enthusiasm and energy to match the excitement of major league stock car racing.
Through a variety of roles, that team has concluded Punch, play-by-play announcer Allen Bestwick and analysts Andy Petree, Dale Jarrett and Rusty Wallace. The last two have been integral in bringing instant credibility to the next-generation ESPN broadcasts, both drivers recently retired from championship winning career.
Both drivers were also beloved during their 20-year tenures in the sport, adding trust and credibility and sources of information.
Specifically, Wallace was at a crossroads of his career, having retired in 2004 and dabbling in car ownership and broadcasting. Both TNT and ESPN approached the 1989 Sprint Cup champion to join their team when they won bids to broadcast NASCAR. After conversations with sports agent Lou Oppenheim and NASCAR CEO Brian France, Wallace chose the Worldwide Leader.
Now in the last year of ESPN’s latest deal and on the eve of the next television contract that will this time include FOX and NBC, Wallace is proud of his work and relieved to have chosen ESPN.
“I feel like we’ve accomplished a lot,” Wallace told Popular Speed. “On the road, fans tell me all the time how appreciative that we not dumb it down, if you will, but make it accessible to everyday people. I’m a car guy but I’ve strived to make this simple and I’m really proud of what I’ve done and hope it translates to my credibility.”
At the time of ESPN’s return, Petree, a former championship winning crew chief (with Dale Earnhardt) and car owner had stepped away from the sport when Jill Frederickson, an executive with the network called, wanting to make him a cornerstone of the television broadcasts, despite Petree lacking the experience to make him an obvious fit.
“So we did this interview in Charlotte and then another in Bristol,” Petree recalled. “I almost wrote it off because while it was a good opportunity, I didn’t know if I would enjoy it.”
He ultimately took the job and seven years later feels fortunate to have told some of the most important stories in the sport’s history, specifically mentioning Jimmie Johnson’s historic run of six championships in eight seasons.
“I’ve enjoyed it,” Petree said. “It was a good way to get back without the pressure of being on top of the pit box. I had really missed the sport and if I hadn’t felt like I achieved all my goals as a crew chief and car owner, I would have never left. I feel really fortunate that I was able to take on this new challenge and I feel like we were to achieve all our goals at ESPN too.”
But just as it did in 1999, NASCAR and ESPN reached a crossroads. The two long-time partners are at two different stages of their growth. ESPN has a multitude of transcendent sporting properties that still includes football, baseball and college sports.
NASCAR has increasingly become less and less of a priority and NBC was willing to pay a premium to have the sport anchor a growing cable sports entity that also includes other motorsport brands like Formula 1 and the Verizon IndyCar Series.
As a result, questions have arisen over the lame duck status of ESPN and if the on-air broadcast team will still carry the same energy and passion as they have since 2007. Bestwick has been through this before, having anchored the last iteration of NBC’s NASCAR broadcast team back in 2006.
He expects himself and the rest of the ESPN squad to finish on a high note, especially with a new-look playoff format to bolster storylines and conversation.
“I can tell you from my personal experience, October 2005, when NBC called us all into a room and said, sorry, we lost the bid, we’re out, but we’ve got a year and a third to go, let’s finish strong, that’s exactly what everybody did,” Bestwick recalled during a Speedweeks media center session back in February.
“The same is and will happen here. It’s in nobody’s interest, personally or professionally, or the company’s interest, business-wise, to do anything but keep our right foot pressed all the way to the floorboards and that’s what will happen.”
ESPN by The Years and by The Numbers:
- 2007 was first time a single network had televised entire NASCAR Nationwide Series schedule
- First use of HD in-car cameras in NASCAR coverage (Daytona Nationwide Series, 2007) – also made ESPN first network to televise NASCAR fully in HD
- First network to record/have available for playback all 43 team radios during a race telecast (2007)
- In 2007, first network to have an enclosed mobile studio for cutaway race car and demonstration of technical elements of racing (ESPN Tech Garage)
- First network to have two female pit reporters on NASCAR Sprint Cup telecasts (Jamie Little and Shannon Spake)
- 2011 – introduction of “NASCAR NonStop” for split-screen commercial breaks during second half of all Chase races (ESPN pioneered split-screen commercial breaks in IndyCar coverage in 2006)
- 2011 – introduction of “dual path” technology in Sprint Cup coverage – allowing views from two different onboard cameras in same shot for first time
And of course ESPN only continued what it had done while televising 262 NASCAR Cup Series races during the 20-year period between 1981 and 2000 – some of the technical innovations during that period included:
While not the first network to have live, flag-to-flag telecasts of NASCAR Cup Series races (CBS was in ’79 at Daytona), ESPN moved it along and brought full, live races from many tracks that had barely had any TV coverage in the past. (Best example: Bristol, which was exposed to national audience via ESPN and went on to add seats and have sellout streak of more than 20 years)
- 1985 – first network to have live telecast of qualifying for a Cup race
- 1989 – introduction of “crew cam” attached to a member of Rusty Wallace’s crew at Rockingham – followed by other unique innovations including telemetry, “CableCam,” “FootCam,” “RoofCam,” “SuspensionCam” and the use of an infrared camera and roving reporters.
- 1991 – introduction of “Tread Cam” buried in the asphalt at Indianapolis Raceway Park for telecast of (Nationwide) Series race – the innovation won a Sports Emmy Award for Point of View Technology.
- 1996 – rpm2night becomes TV’s first daily motorsports news show