Feb 27, 2014, 6:30 PM EDT
“Gotta go fast now…We can’t delay this.”
An urgent voice rings through the production control room inside NBC Sports Group’s International Broadcast Center in Stamford, Conn., and there’s a reason why it’s urgent.
The man of the hour has arrived. Dale Earnhardt Jr., fresh off claiming his second Daytona 500 victory the night before at Daytona International Speedway, is working through a whirlwind media blitz in New York City.
As part of that, he’s making time for a quick interview on the debut episode for NBCSN’s new studio show, NASCAR AMERICA. It only takes a few moments to mike up Earnhardt before host Rick Allen and analyst/part-time Sprint Cup driver Jeff Burton begin to ask him question about his big win.
And even though it’s clear that Earnhardt’s running on seven cylinders after a late night inside his No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet, the happiness over his accomplishment is there.
“I’m gonna enjoy it,” he says. “It’s not every day you get to go through this experience…I didn’t expect to do this once, let alone twice, so I’ll let it sink in and enjoy it.”
It’s a fact everyone connected with NASCAR acknowledges: As Junior goes, so goes the sport. It certainly didn’t hurt for NASCAR AMERICA to have the son of the Intimidator as the centerpiece for its debut episode – not to mention that the race was actually able to get done following a six hour, 22-minute rain delay.
But NASCAR AMERICA, which debuts 18 months before the start of NBC’s Sprint Cup and Nationwide Series race coverage, doesn’t aim to thrive solely on star power alone.
At over six decades old, NASCAR can boast of having an exciting tapestry of stories that continues to evolve. And it’s compelled NBC to go for it and not wait until their races begin in the summer of 2015.
“NASCAR is an incredibly valuable property and once we realized we had the resources and the ability to launch a show, it was a no-brainer,” Vice President of NASCAR production Jeff Behnke told MotorSportsTalk on Thursday.
“We are partners with NASCAR, first and foremost. Having this opportunity to be part of this, to re-energize NASCAR, and to get into it from a programming standpoint immediately was a tremendous opportunity for us.”
NBC re-enters a sport that is much different from when they left it at the close of the 2006 season.
TV ratings and live attendance have dropped, and there’s been renewed talk of having to regain the attention of younger fans in order to help bolster the sport’s older core.
However, that core is still very loyal and it’s a group that Behnke says will be served well by NASCAR AMERICA.
“Our first responsibility is to those core fans,” he said. “Our immediate goal is to do things in our show that are going to cater to the core fans. From there, yes, obviously the younger demographic is a key demo and as time progresses, we’ll do stuff for them.
“But the immediate goal is to go to the core fans and get them…When fans watch on TV, and see the fans are filling up the stands again, they think it is an important event and they’ll want to stay and watch it. It’s a progression – you have to start somewhere and that starting point is NASCAR AMERICA.”
For many of those core fans, racing is not just a three or four-hour affair in front of the television but a way of life itself. Every weekend, they haul their battered but unbroken race cars to the local short track to compete or to help their sons and daughters compete.
A brief but neat segment on the show, the Heart of Racing, acknowledges those grass-roots racers and their families who are, collectively, the lifeblood of American motorsport.
“Racing goes on at tracks all over the country, every weekend, every region,” Behnke explains. “It’s just one little way to let the fans know that racing is a big part of their life. We’re going to do the Heart of Racing all year long, and that small segment will continue to grow.
“That’s directly for core fans, but it’s also for other people to know about that world of racing, one that a lot of people may not know.”
There are other worlds that even the biggest fans don’t know about, and Behnke and his team are ready to reveal them as part of NASCAR AMERICA.
To help their efforts, NBC has set up a second studio for the show in Charlotte, N.C., the hub of the stock car racing industry.
“Some of the key points with our show is trying to take fans and viewers to places they can’t go,” Behnke said. “We have a LiveVue cam and we’re going to different race shops and doing different interviews. Just this week, we were at Tommy Baldwin Racing, Joe Gibbs Racing, Michael Waltrip Racing and Hendrick Motorsports, as well as one other shop.
“This week alone, we were at five different shops in our first four days. We have the ability to go to two different shops, do reports from inside the shops, and try to give those fans a view of a place they can’t normally go. It’ll be a key part of our show all year.”
All of that effort is necessary. As mentioned before, NASCAR constantly evolves and this year will be no different as elements such as a knockout-style qualifying format and a revamped Chase for the Sprint Cup (which sets up a four-driver, winner-take-all battle in the season finale) make their debut.
It’ll be an adventure staying on top of all the twists and turns of what should be a dramatic season. But Behnke and the team at NASCAR AMERICA are ready.
“We didn’t want to wait [for 2015],” he said. “It was time.”
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