Darren Rovell gets lapped
breaking down NASCAR Inc.

          Posted: Monday, July 13, 2009

Darren Rovell's NASCAR documentary, "Inside Track: Refueling the Business of NASCAR," fails to answer its most pressing question:

Why was this project done?

The purported hook is to examine how the sport will handle the decline, and perhaps future lack of participation, of GM and Chrysler.

But this topic is handled only in the middle of the program, and Rovell's treatment of this problem suggests it really doesn't matter. Old-school NASCAR writer Monte Dutton complains that nowadays, "the cars are generic," and the "terrible secret that no one wants to talk about is, is that the engines are a great deal alike."

Unlike Melissa Francis' recent documentary on the Kentucky Derby, which is broadcast by NBC, NASCAR is now primarily an ESPN/ABC operation, according to its TV schedule Web site.

So Rovell's goal figures to be tapping into that vast NASCAR audience, which is not necessarily the typical CNBC viewer.

Rovell disappointingly only wants to talk about NASCAR's present and future, not the past. The truth is that NASCAR did not explode into mainstream consciousness in the 1990s. It's long had an extremely devoted niche following that would've been larger long ago if it hadn't been, like several other major sports such as college basketball and the NCAA Tournament, under-exposed for so long.

In the '70s, auto racing was often relegated to "Wide World of Sports" type of weekend programming well before there was an ESPN. And to casual sports fans, Indycar racing was regarded as the elite sport and the Indy 500 as the gold standard. NASCAR, to many, was a "regional" thing, just as college basketball was once viewed as something best appreciated on Tobacco Road, in Lexington, in Indiana and perhaps Los Angeles. The most famous names in racing in the 1970s and early 1980s included Richard Petty but generally consisted of Indycar legends A.J. Foyt, Jackie Stewart, Mario Andretti, Rick Mears, Al and Bobby Unser and Johnny Rutherford.

Rovell misses a great business story here, how did NASCAR eventually conquer Indycar for the hearts and minds of the nation's racing fans. He doesn't get anywhere near this subject. Of course the CART/IRL split devastated Indycar's status, but NASCAR was gaining too quickly anyway. Many CART drivers were foreign and colorless. NASCAR drivers have always come across as regular down-to-earth people, a massive part of the circuit's appeal.

This being a program on a business network, it is made clear that NASCAR has long mastered the art of the sponsorship. Rovell points out how a steep payment to the Dale Earnhardt Jr. team by the sports drink Amp apparently paid off handsomely in market share. Rovell says it costs about $600,000 per car for each race, or a total $30 million per car for the whole season. It would be fascinating to include marketing experts such as former CNBC fixture Donny Deutsch to explain which companies benefit most from a NASCAR sponsorship and which are possibly tossing money away. (One guess: a new product probably benefits the most.)

Rovell says the era of big sponsorship began in 1972 when STP paid Richard Petty $200,000 a year.

The track owners tell how Brian France, of the circuit's ruling France family, made them a unifying force in television negotiations. TV revenue is shared, 65% to the race promoter, 25% to the purse, and 10% to NASCAR.

Rovell says 7.8% of the fan base is African-American (Confederate flags were seen in at least one fan shot), and that, for climate-change discussion, the cars average about 5 mpg during the races.

Some skeptics will claim that auto racing is hardly a sport. The players aren't going to run and jump. What NASCAR fans do get is the rivalry, intensity, daring, temper, braggadocio and exhilaration of regular joes, a sports version of a Lynyrd Skynyrd concert. It's a massive success of the type of branding, going back to the days of Richard Petty and beyond, of regular, approachable people in a heavily competitive, festive atmosphere in which everyone can kick back and watch. Rovell gives people curious about NASCAR only a brief, albeit earnest, overview as to what it's all about. As a business documentary, it's barely more than a pit stop.

"Inside Track: Refueling the Business of NASCAR" (2009)

Featuring: Marcus Smith, Doc Mattioli, John Griswold, Brian France, Dave Finley, Richard Petty, Lauren Hobart, Kyle Busch, Carl Edwards, Al Johnson, Kari Taylor, Tony Stewart, Tom Murphy, Ed Peper, Brian Wolfe, Monte Dutton, Ed Laukes, Brett Frood, Bobby Hutchens, Steve Odlund, Julie Geary, Max Siegel, Mike Lynch, Dave Patey

Hosted by: Darren Rovell
Executive producer: Jeff Pohlman
Producer: Tom Rotunno
Editors: Nick Stantzos, Conrad deVroeg
Cameramen: Gerard Miller, Chris Balcom, Jerry Frasier
Audio engineer: Dave Grogan
Designer/animator: Michael Schwartz
Creative director: Victoria Todis
Marketing manager: Cydney Goldberg
PR director: Jennifer Dauble
Director post production: Vito Tattoli
Supervisor post production: Gina Saudino
Manager of production: Patrick Bucci
Managing editor: Tyler Mathisen
VP, strategic research, scheduling and long-form programming: Ray Borelli
Interns: Gina Brigante, Ellen Robinson

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