Behind the Scenes at the 2012 Daytona 500; Or, What Was Going On While You Were Watching Juan Pablo Hit a Jet Dryer
“If this thing gets rained out before the end, we’re screwed, I mean, it’s a lot of money.”
The Fox PR man kneeling beside me was talking in a whisper inside a trailer filled with executives whose eyes were glued to the overhead monitors. It was five minutes after the long-delayed start of the Daytona 500, Monday, February 27, and the race was 30 hours behind schedule. For Fox, if the never-before-rained-out 500 now had to be put over again until the next day, the issue was not only lost ad revenue (the audience share for Tuesday daytime being considerably less than for “sports Sunday”) but the 500-mile race in Phoenix the next weekend. Phoenix is 2100 miles away. Fox would have to get its caravan of 29 trailers there in time for practice on Friday morning—which may have been no more, no less than the car owners’ problems in having to send their haulers back to home-base Charlotte for fresh race cars first—but it was a logistical nightmare any way you cut it. Mike Helton, NASCAR’s president, had called a meeting at 9 that morning to acknowledge that if they didn’t get through this evening and the rain didn’t quit by morning—as some weather reports indicated—the next available date was not until Easter Sunday. Screwed indeed.
Historically, sometimes people do, in fact, get lucky. Driver-turned-promoter Bill France got lucky. He came to Daytona Beach, Florida, in 1935, raced on the sand in the 1930s and early ’40s, and bought a piece of the town that already enjoyed a reputation as a speed-record-setting and stock-car-racing venue. In 1948, he founded the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing. That enterprise quickly prospered—in large part because of Americans’ postwar love affair with their Fords, Chevys, Oldsmobiles, Hudsons, and Chryslers. The first races were run on the hard-packed sand; relying on local bond issues and endless glad-handing, France built the 2.5-mile Daytona International Speedway in 1959 and the even bigger 2.66-mile Talladega (Alabama) Speedway in 1969, two of the tracks that have come to embody the sport. Today, there are 12 Sprint Cup tracks in the France family portfolio and stock-car racing is America’s No. 2 sport, fractionally behind the NFL. The Sprint Cup, Nationwide, and Camping World Truck Series races are NASCAR’s premier events, and there are hundreds of regional races that serve as a feeder system for the national series. Week to week, from Valentine’s Day to Thanksgiving, all the major races are televised.
Scale is key. The purse for this year’s Daytona 500 was $ 19,142,601. The average worth of a top Cup team, according to Forbes, is about $ 143 million, while a seasonal sponsorship of a front-running car—think Tide, Budweiser, Home Depot—runs roughly $ 20 million. This is all but chump change compared with the annual revenue from licensed fan merchandise (caps, jackets, T-shirts), which NASCAR reports at $ 1 billion to $ 3 billion; that sum gets split between drivers, team owners, and the organizers.
But prize money and the profits from T-shirts go hand in hand with TV contracts, and it is TV coverage that keeps the sport whole: This year marks the sixth of NASCAR’s eight-year contract with the Fox network, which, together with ESPN/ABC and TNT, pays an average of $ 560 million a year in broadcast fees to NASCAR. But more important is that NASCAR attracts an average 6.5 million viewers to its races, making it one of the most-watched regular-season American sports.
“We’re in the entertainment business, no question about it,” says NASCAR president Helton. “Our model has always been free enterprise. We depend on the health and success of our teams, just as we value the loyalty of our fans.” Adds chairman and CEO of the Fox Sports Media Group, David Hill, “I’m proud of our relationship. The collaboration between Fox and NASCAR has produced exemplary television, and we’ve come a long, long way.”
NASCAR has been a family-held company since the beginning, and its partnership with Fox has had a lot to do with the Frances’ desire for “continuity of exposure.” The ’70s saw the emergence of cable that needed content. But by the late ’80s, when all the big NASCAR races were being televised, coverage was scattered. R.J. Reynolds, the organization’s chief sponsor at the time, had helped with inroads to the non-race fan, showing that a non-automotive company could use racing for advertising, and the Frances felt they had to take the rights back in order to negotiate a forward-looking and, indeed, modern package. CBS had a deal to cover Daytona; cable this and cable that had rights to cover Bristol and Charlotte or whatever. But there was no continuity or, for that matter, control.
“The Frances felt the sport would be better served by not parceling out the rights on a multi-network deal,” Helton explains.
Enter Fox and the huge profit-making exposure that continues to this day.