Sunday, March 11, 2001

Auto Racing Insider

NASCAR viewership continues to soar

By Tom Groeschen
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        NASCAR, for better or worse, is being watched by more people than ever in its 53-year history.

        The aftermath of Dale Earnhardt's death has lured fans and non-fans in to see what's going on. The Fox network's rating of 6.5 for last Sunday's Las Vegas race beat ABC's Duke-North Carolina basketball game by 2.7 points. The Vegas race ratings jumped 63 percent from a year ago.

        Some still find it hard to fathom, but NASCAR years ago surpassed Major League Baseball and the NBA in TV viewership. NASCAR annually stands second only to the almighty NFL in regular-sea son TV numbers, according to Nielsen Media Research.

        Also, for those who think this is all Earnhardt-related, think again. After a slight dip in TV ratings in 2000, NASCAR began the 2001 season — with Earnhardt in the field — with its best Daytona 500 TV ratings in 15 years.

        And now, with NASCAR's superstar gone, the curious are tuning in to find out why Earnhardt's death continues to be a big national story. At least one major New York newspaper expressed amazement at the national outpouring of grief, given The Big Apple generally ignores anything below the Mason-Dixon line.

        Closer to home, a few Enquirer colleagues also have stopped by to express their amazement. Such as: “You know, I've never watched a NASCAR race before, but I watched that one the other day.” And: “I didn't realize how big this guy Earnhardt was.”

        Although the Atlantic Coast Conference basketball tournament is in Atlanta's Georgia Dome this weekend, Atlanta Motor Speedway figures to be packed today for the Cracker Barrel 500. And the TV ratings, fueled partially by Earnhardt's death, figure to be strong again.

        This season's average rating of 7.8 for three NASCAR events is up 39 percent from last year's 5.6.

        STRANGE BUT TRUE: The 19-car wreck at Daytona started it, and then some big names had trou ble again last week at Las Vegas. The result is a weird-looking Winston Cup points race.

        Sterling Marlin the leader? Robert Pressley eighth? Way back, there is defending champion Bobby Labonte, standing 19th, and Jeff Burton, one of the preseason favorites, buried in 33rd place.

        Who among the big names is still afloat? Jeff Gordon and Dale Jarrett have avoided enough trouble that Gordon is second in the points and Jarrett fourth. Both are former Winston Cup champs, and given their histories of running steadily, they're now the favorites for 2001.

        LOCAL SCENE: The Cincinnati region of the Sports Car Club of America has finalized plans for road races Aug.18-19 at Lunken Airport, race chairman Bruce Wolff said.

        “We'll be able to close down two runways, but we'll keep the big, long runway open,” Wolff said. “It's going to be a spectator event, and we hope to make it big.” More details are to be announced.

        • The Cincinnati-based Doran/Lista Racing team, featuring drivers Didier Theys and Mauro Baldi, finished third at last week's Nextel 250 at Homestead-Miami Speedway. It was the second race of the Grand American Rolex sports car season. The team is operated by Delhi native Kevin Doran.

        • Cincinnati's Matt “Spanks” Overbeck will split his 2001 season between the Kendall (Ind.) Late Model Series and the NASCAR Gatorade All-Pro circuit. Overbeck hopes to drive in at least eight All-Pro races, including the two scheduled for Kentucky Speedway this season.

        • Jeff Alsip (Independence, Ky.) has a verbal agreement to drive in the NASCAR Craftsman Truck race at Kentucky Speedway this season and is seeking sponsorship. Alsip also will try to drive in the ARCA races again at Kentucky Speedway this year, with Bill Green's Master Motorsports team out of Walton, Ky.


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