Archive for Thursday, July 12, 2001

Hello, Chicago

NASCAR road show reflects sport’s push into new territory

July 12, 2001


Chicagoland Speedway sits in the middle of a remarkably nonurban field near Joilet, Ill., a suburb of America's second-largest media market.

It's nearly 40 miles to the skyscrapers of downtown Chicago, but as far as NASCAR is concerned, that is plenty close enough to make Sunday's Tropicana 400 an important step in stock-car racing's continuing move toward the nation's larger population centers.

"There are fans in that market, we think, who want the product," says George Pyne, NASCAR senior vice president. "The Chicago market has size and scope, and we like the fact that when everybody wakes up on Sunday morning people are going to be talking about a NASCAR race."

It remains to be seen how much NASCAR talk there is in Chicago this weekend don't look for a three-game crosstown rivalry baseball series between the Cubs and White Sox to get shoved too far out of the spotlight.

Still, racing near Chicago and, in September, near Kansas City, carries the sport to two more big-time markets that are new venues for stock-car racing.

Like the additions of races in Las Vegas, Southern California and Miami, this year's expansion comes without the loss of events in racing's traditional stronghold in the Southeast.

With 36 races now on the schedule, however, future additions of other large-market tracks are widely expected to come at the expense of tracks in smaller markets. Though no tracks are expected to lose dates on the yet-to-be-finalized 2002 Winston Cup schedule, speculation has already begun that big changes could be coming in 2003.

"Questions about managing growth and managing success and the new challenges that come along with it are probably the toughest things right now that NASCAR is facing," Pyne said. "It's not easy.

"There are people and partners who've helped to make you a success, like the track operator ... or a local community that has supported NASCAR. That's a factor you have to take into consideration.

"You have to factor in the teams and the crews and what benefits them and what doesn't benefit them. There are the fans. You have to take all of that and put them in a ball together and make a good decision."

As happy as the 75,000 fans who'll make their way to Chicagoland Speedway on Sunday will be to have Winston Cup racing in their area, there will be an inevitable backlash once the decision is made to take existing race dates away from some tracks.

When the event at Texas Motor Speedway and a second race at New Hampshire International Speedway were added to the schedule, those dates came at the expense of the track in North Wilkesboro, N.C., and there are thousands of fans still upset over that.

Pyne contends that NASCAR's growth over the last 15 years from a sport that had no consistent national television package to one that is now a hot product on broadcast networks shows that such decisions have been handled well.

"I think the track record is that the process, while not perfect, has been effective," he said. "Bill France, the France family and Mike Helton have done a great job of taking the sport and managing its growth and its success and taking the sport to the current position it is today, which is arguably the second-most popular sport in the United States.

"That doesn't make the future any easier. There are always going to be new challenges. How do you best serve those constituents? You weigh all of things and balance out what's in the best interest of moving forward.

"In the past 10 years we've gone Indianapolis, New England, Dallas-Fort Worth, Las Vegas and Miami and you've gone back to Los Angeles. You brought events to where current fans are trying to meet their needs, and you've brought events to people who like it once they've sampled it. That's worked.

"When you brought your product into the new markets, the sport blossomed. That obviously meant there were fans out there who wanted to go to races."

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