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NASCAR finds big audience for night races

Seeing the lights

Posted: Thursday, February 06, 2003

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- These are the easy days at the Bristol Motor Speedway. Only 200 of the daily calls to the ticket office are concerning the Sharpie 500, the race that shed new light literally on stock car racing.

By June, three months before the green flag on Aug. 23, the calls to the ticket office will increase to more than 1,500 a day.

And everyone will get the same response: There are no tickets.

Demand for tickets to the oldest nighttime race on the NASCAR Wins ton Cup Series schedule ex ceeds the Super Bowl and World Series, according to brokers at Tickets Inc. in Atlanta who buy and sell tickets to the most prestigious sporting events. They say only the Masters Tournament is a tougher ticket than Bristol's night race.

Bristol's 165,000 permanent seats, cool nights and the sparks and fire of racing create a demand that far exceeds supply. It's why the Richmond International Race way, the Lowe's Motor Speed way near Charlotte, N.C., and Daytona International Speedway already have all changed some or all of its racing programs to night.

Speedways at New Hampshire, Darlington, S.C., and Atlanta are hoping to move races to prime time slots as NASCAR continues to veer further from its traditional Sunday afternoon shows.

''They call prime time prime time for a reason,'' said Lou D'Ermilio, a spokesman for Fox Sports, which, like television partners TNT, NBC and FX, hopes to benefit from higher ratings. ''It's a simple fact that the later start in the day, the more eyeballs that are available to watch.''

Saturday night's Budweiser Shootout all-star race at Daytona was moved from Sunday afternoon to prime time Saturday. Also, the October race at the Lowe's Motor Speedway has been shifted from Sunday afternoon at 1 to Saturday night at 7:30.

A sport that had one night race 24 years ago now has seven, including both of its all-star events.

Nighttime races used to be common more than 35 years ago when the series bounced from town to town on the weekends. When the modern era started in 1972, however, every race had an early afternoon start. Bristol was the first to break ranks in 1978 and others have slowly followed.

And more are on the way.

''The cars themselves, under the lights, there's just something about that,'' said Jim Hunter, a NASCAR vice president. ''You can see the fire come out of the exhaust. You can see the sparks. It's a great show.''

Three days after the NFC and AFC conference championship games posted record ratings after moving their starting times to late Sunday, NASCAR announced it would entertain a ''realignment'' of its schedule to include later starting times, more night races and a possible shuffle of its overall lineup.

The NFL moved their conference championship games from their traditional 12:30 p.m. and 4 p.m. slots to 3:30 p.m. and 7 p.m. The result was an eight percent increase in viewers compared with a year ago, D'Ermilio said.

One fact is clear: Nighttime races are extremely popular. The Sept. 7 race at Richmond, Va., drew a higher national audience on cable's TNT than NBC drew with its Saturday night lineup during prime time.

For Daytona, which moved its July Winston Cup Series race from 10 a.m. to prime time in 1998, the change has been a boon. By merely delaying the start by nine hours, the speedway saw an increase of nearly 80,000 fans, almost doubling its best daytime attendance for the same race. July's Pepsi 400 will attract about 170,000 fans.

Now Daytona is hoping for the same kind of success with Sat urday's all-star race.

The networks, which enjoyed record ratings a year ago for every race, are becoming more active in turning the NASCAR circuit into a moneymaker. The television networks responsible for broadcasting every Winston Cup and Busch series race will pay the sport $400 million this year, and the possibilities of selling more expensive advertising during prime time is a good way to erase that cost.

''First of all, whatever is decided will be decided by NASCAR,'' D'Ermilio said. ''We have a free-flowing exchange of ideas. It never dawned on anybody we should move them later. We're applying some of that thinking to NASCAR.''

And NASCAR is seeing the light literally as well.

Reach Don Coble at doncoble@bellsouth.net.



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