Fox Sports Will Bring NASCAR up to Speed

Having struck Nielsen gold with its 2001 coverage of NASCAR races, Fox Sports has signed a deal that will give NASCAR control of nine hours per day of the Speedvision cable network's programming schedule.

Under the umbrella title NASCAR TV, the 3 p.m.-midnight block will kick off Feb. 11, the date that Fox Sports officially relaunches Speedvision with a new name, the Speed Channel.

NASCAR VP of broadcasting Paul Brooks said the block will consist of buildups and post-mortems to weekend NASCAR races, up-to-the-minute news and information programming centered on auto racing, talk shows and footage of classic races from the past.

Speed Channel also will start scheduling events such as qualifying races and various regional races, many of them not now televised.

NASCAR officials termed the arrangement with Speed Channel an unprecedented channel-within-a-channel strategy devoted to a single sport. "It's about as far as you can go without actually creating a brand-new 24-hour network," said one NASCAR insider.

Fox Cable's affiliate-sales execs plan to use the NASCAR block as the highlight of a sales pitch to woo recalcitrant cable operators into taking on the Speed Channel, which reaches 46.5 million homes. That number falls well short of what a network with critical mass can generate. ESPN, for example, gets into 85.6 million.

Fox Network and its siblings FX and Fox Sports Net have just completed the first year of an eight-year, $1.6 billion contract with NASCAR to cover the association's key weekend races from February to June.

The broadcasts on the Fox Network reached an average of 19.9 million viewers for the period, a million more than watched the comparable broadcasts on ABC and CBS in 2000.

Coming off these results, "the Speed Channel deal was a no-brainer," said Brooks. He's convinced that the year-round programming block on Speed Channel will serve as a massive promotional vehicle for the actual races on Fox and, during the second half of the year, on NBC and TNT, which are also finishing their first year of a six-year contract worth a combined $1.2 billion.

-- Reuters/Variety