NBC hopes to kick NASCAR ratings into high gear

By Jenna Fryer
Associated Press
NBC will use a "bat-cam" that will be rigged to zoom along Daytona International Speedway's backstretch above the racing.

Daytona Beach, Fla. — NBC picks up its half of the NASCAR schedule with Saturday night’s race at Daytona International Speedway. Its task: Stop the ratings slide.

Fox Sports wrapped up its portion of the season last week with the least-watched race at Sonoma Raceway since 2002. Not counting rainouts, all 15 Cup Series races this season have set or tied a multiyear ratings low.

Still, last Sunday’s Fox Sports finale ranked second among all sports events watched on a single network, trailing only the final round of the PGA’s Hartford Open. Even so, the downward ratings turn is something NBC hopes to flip.

“I think we can control what we can control, and that’s putting the best possible product on the air,” said Sam Flood, executive producer for NBC’s NASCAR telecasts.

“We also make sure we market and get the word out as well as we possibly can that this is must-see TV. And we’ve got a good history and a good track record at NBC of making events bigger.”

Flood pointed to NBC’s coverage of the Kentucky Derby and the NFL on Sunday nights. The network is entering its third year of its return to NASCAR.

“We know how to do this,” he said. “We just need to work hard, and it’s going to take some digging, but we’re going to get there because we believe in the sport and we believe in these people and we believe that it is a great product on television.

“We want more people in the stands. We want people to enjoy it and be as passionate about the sport the way they were in ‘01 when we came in the first time. We think that’s all possible. We wouldn’t be sitting here and working as hard as we are and planning as hard as we are if we didn’t believe that was going to happen.”

NBC will use a “bat-cam” that will be rigged to zoom along Daytona’s backstretch above the racing. The camera is expected to debut in Friday night’s Xfinity Series race. Mike Wells, the NBC director for NASCAR, plans to use the camera to show cars exiting Turn 2 or turn the camera around and have it head toward the cars.

“It goes 0-60 mph in about a second,” Wells said.

NBC also will introduce a “visor cam” similar to the one Danica Patrick wore last week at Sonoma.

“We’ve got nice toys there that we think will help amplify the speed, the drama and the excitement on the racetrack,” Flood said.

The booth will again consist of play-by-play announcer Rick Allen and analysts Jeff Burton and Steve Letarte.

Letarte, Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s former crew chief at Hendrick Motorsports, will launch a segment that features traveling crew members. NBC also brought former Olympic sprinter Ato Boldon, the network’s lead track and field analyst, to Daytona to anchor features as a newcomer to the sport.

NBC will also be able to cover Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s final season from a unique vantage. Letarte is Earnhardt’s former crew chief and a confidant while Burton is a former competitor and friend. It gives NBC the ability to offer insider’s insight as NASCAR’s most popular driver winds down his career.

“I’m feeling he’s 100 percent engaged,” Letarte said. “The sport is difficult. What we’ve seen Dale Jr. battle this year is exactly why we all tune in every Sunday because there are no gimmies, there are no guarantees. Joe Gibbs Racing is winless. Chase Elliott is winless. No one, I think, could have predicted that. And Jimmie Johnson has three wins, but he’s the only Hendrick driver to get to victory lane this year.

“I think Dale Jr.’s retirement announcement is a good way for people to have a conversation about his focus. But what I’ve seen on the racetrack, seems to me from a driver and a team that want to go to victory lane, I don’t see a lack of determination or desire at all.”