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NASCAR enters its season of change

WashPost: No sport rewrites it rulebook more frequently than NASCAR, which has built itself into America's dominant form of motorsports by tweaking its rules as needed to level stock-car racing's playing field and ratchet up its entertainment value.
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

No sport rewrites it rulebook more frequently than NASCAR, which has built itself into America's dominant form of motorsports by tweaking its rules as needed to level stock-car racing's playing field and ratchet up its entertainment value.

But the pace of change entering the 2007 season is dizzying even by NASCAR standards, enough so to raise concerns about turning off longtime fans in an effort to attract new ones.

On tap as drivers prepare for Sunday's season-opening Daytona 500:

  • The debut of the first foreign nameplate -- Toyota -- in NASCAR's top ranks, which traditionally has been restricted to "American-made" cars.
  • The unveiling of the "Car of Tomorrow" -- a multipurpose racecar constructed around a chassis designed by NASCAR engineers. Billed as safer and more cost-effective, the car has a radically different look and unknown racing characteristics.
  • The rookie campaign of Juan Pablo Montoya, a native of Colombia, who brings the cachet of Formula One experience and a Monte Carlo residence, as well as the potential of wooing a Latino audience to stock-car racing.
  • An expansion of NASCAR's postseason field from 10 to 12 drivers; an extra five points for winning races; and the return of ESPN as a broadcast partner.

The result, says NASCAR's third-generation chief executive Brian France, should be a more competitive and compelling brand of stock-car racing that boosts TV ratings, which dipped toward the end of last season, and puts more fans in the stands.

"The law of big numbers does catch up with anybody," France said, when asked about perceptions that NASCAR's growth has hit a plateau. "But I think you're going to see us have a very strong 2007. We still think, for a lot of reasons, that we can be more relevant to the casual sports fan."

The concern in some corners, however, is that France may end up alienating NASCAR's core fans in his zeal to capture a larger audience.

"I think it's risk versus reward, like anything else in life," four-time champion Jeff Gordon said. "It's nice when you're not afraid to take risks, but sometimes you can go too far with it. There is a lot of change this year. I don't think that's going to be the case [alienating core fans]. I think there's going to be more excitement and curiosity that's going to bring maybe more fans. But who knows?"

Seven-time champion Richard Petty, 69, has every right to be stuck in NASCAR's past but is bullish about the changes in store. "You always hear, 'If it ain't broke, don't fix it,' " Petty said. "It ain't broke completely, but it's not growing, either, if we don't make changes. That's the new society. That's the new generation."

Still, it's a lot to ask NASCAR fans and racers to get accustomed to. This season, the NBA ended up scrapping its new synthetic basketball after less than two months following player complaints that it was too slippery and abrasive. Had the NBA introduced changes on the scale NASCAR is this year, the league would not only have switched balls, but also would have altered the dimensions of the court, designed a sneaker that every player had to wear and required each team to start a shooting guard under 5 feet 5.

For the short term, however, NASCAR's makeover is creating controversy. And controversy tends to drive fans' interest.

"It's the unknown," driver Greg Biffle says. "People will go out of their way to watch it and see what happens because it's different."

The entry of Toyota has been the most emotionally charged issue, and NASCAR team owner Jack Roush, who fields a fleet of five Ford Fusions, has likened the challenge posed by the profitable Japanese automaker to "war." To gird for the arms race, Roush is in the process of selling a 50 percent stake in his team to an investor group led by Boston Red Sox owner John Henry.

During a taping of the PBS program "CEO Exchange" at George Washington in January, France was asked about concerns that Toyota's deep pockets would drive up costs. Replied France: "That's capitalism! That's part of how it works!"

Some disgruntled fans also have made their displeasure known, voicing xenophobic sentiment on NASCAR Web sites, on talk radio and in letters to drivers and racing publications. The irony is that Toyota's Camry will be the only competitor in NASCAR's top ranks actually made in the United States (Georgetown, Ky.). The Ford Fusion is made in Mexico; the Chevy Monte Carlo and Dodge Charger, in Canada.

Says Mike Skinner, who races a Toyota in NASCAR's truck series: "You're always going to have your diehard people, and that's what has made NASCAR healthy. But one thing I'd like to bring to people's attention is that TV that you're going to turn on tonight and watch, most likely, wasn't made here. Your microwave and your refrigerators -- half the things in your home -- were made in China or Japan or somewhere else, for that matter. What we have to do as Americans is enjoy the fact that we live in a free country and enjoy the competition of NASCAR. And if Toyota is a part of that competition, then so be it. Let 'em come into our marketplace and earn their spot, just like everybody else has."

The bigger risk, insiders say, is the Car of Tomorrow -- set to debut at Bristol (Tenn.) Motor Speedway on March 25 -- because its success or failure will alter the very product NASCAR sells: close, competitive, side-by-side racing. Architects of the car say it will enhance the racing by making it easier for drivers to pass one another. That's because it's taller, wider and less sleek aerodynamically and, as a result, will punch a bigger hole in the air. Most racers aren't buying the claim until they see how it performs at top speed in a 43-car pack.

Its other selling point is safety. The driver's seat has been moved toward the center of the car to lessen the brunt of driver's side impacts. The door has been reinforced with steel and padded with energy-absorbing material for extra precaution.

Finally, NASCAR officials say it will save teams money because they won't have to build as many racecars each season. That's because it has been designed to perform equally well on all NASCAR tracks -- half-mile ovals, intermediate ovals, superspeedways and road courses -- with its handling achieved by adjusting the rear wing and splitter (a flat, metal protrusion that extends from the nose).

For now, skeptical drivers are balking at its looks, calling it a "brick" or a "flying school bus."

"Certainly, it's different," concedes former driver Brett Bodine, now a NASCAR official who helped develop the car. "I think when it's going to look its best is when it's in a pack, flying down a racetrack."

If NASCAR officials have their way, Montoya will be behind the wheel leading the charge, with a slew of newly converted fans in tow. Montoya's surprising defection from Formula One has already been a public-relations boon for NASCAR, regarded in most corners of the globe as a motorsports stepchild. If Montoya becomes a fixture in NASCAR's Victory Lane, that surely will help diversify the stock-car racing audience. That's a top priority for France, who hopes to attract more black and Latino fans in the United States, as well as export the NASCAR brand to Mexico, Canada and possibly western Europe and China.

Says a slightly wary Dale Earnhardt Jr.: "From a driver's standpoint, I hope that NASCAR achieves what they want to achieve. I think the hard-core fans that care to know will tune right in and indulge it and figure it out. But the casual fan might sort of lose interest because of the changes."

France, for one, refuses to look at the sport's growth as an either-or proposition.

"I don't think you have to worry about alienating your core fan," France said. "Your core fan wants the best racing in the world. And we're going to deliver on that."