Analysis: NASCAR shifting gears

NASCAR, whose rapid growth over the last two decades made it an American sporting phenomenon, hit a speed bump this past season, yet changes could bring a new buzz to the US stock car circuit

Analysis: NASCAR shifting gears

Television ratings were down and attendance slipped for the slice of Americana born in the rural Southeast, where bootleggers and farmers raced their souped-up cars for bragging rights and spending cash.

Now the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing is shifting gears.

It is changing television partners in the hope of bonding better with its fans. It is excited about the arrival of charismatic former Formula One driver Juan Pablo Montoya and the Hispanic audience he is expected to draw. It is gearing up for enlivened competition thanks to the addition of Toyota cars.

"I think any time something has grown at a fast rate there are always going to be times that the pace slows down," four times NASCAR champion Jeff Gordon told Reuters in a telephone interview. "You just hope that it doesn't plateau and reach its peak."

That is not to say the sport's economic indicators are soft.

A new eight-year television pact that begins with the 2007 season is estimated at nearly $4.5 billion (USD) involving several networks and reuniting the circuit with ABC and its cable sports giant ESPN. Big corporate sponsors still line up to sponsor teams.

Foreign Market

Gordon said opening up international connections could get NASCAR on an even faster track.

"You've got Toyota coming on next year, which is going to open up the foreign car market. It's possible that that could take it further outside the US.

"I hope one day that it does, if we get more foreign car manufacturers that could be a part of it. I think it could be huge."

A Toyota driven by Josh Wise was fastest in a three-day test meeting this month among a record 75 drivers at Daytona International Speedway with a top lap of 181.925 mph (292.778 km/h).

Gordon said Grand Prix winner Montoya, who has been brought over by the Chip Ganassi team, would bring a big lift.

"It definitely adds excitement. I think that's very cool. To have the name and the talent and what Juan Pablo brings to the sport is very cool," Gordon said about the former Williams and McLaren F1 driver.

"I think it's a huge compliment to our sport that he has chosen this challenge. It tells volumes about what kind of character he has.

"To be able to race in F1 and be one of the top drivers over there and say 'I want to go race NASCAR' to take that challenge in a totally different race car, race tracks, competitors, everything. I think it's great."

Owners' Championship

Gordon, 35, is still racing. He finished sixth in the 2006 Nextel Cup final points standing but picked up his first owners' championship as he was part-owner with Rick Hendrick of the No. 48 driven by series champion Jimmie Johnson.

To help fans get through the off-season before February's Daytona 500, Gordon has collaborated on a multi-media look at NASCAR racing with New York Times best-selling author Joe Garner.

"Speed, Guts & Glory: 100 Unforgettable Moments in NASCAR History" chronicles the closest finishes and some of the most colourful characters and spectacular crashes over more than six decades of NASCAR racing.

The coffee table book is full of lively history and photographs and includes a DVD on which Gordon is interviewed and provides narration.

Gordon said there was something special about stock car racing and the hold it had on fans.

"They used to actually be stock cars bought right off showroom floors and modified to go out and race," he said. "Now they are pretty much custom built from the ground up.

"But they still resemble more of a street car than any other type of race car out there.

"I do think that a lot of the fans say, 'Hey, that could be me. I could drive that car that fast and I could go out there and do that. I drive my Chevy Monte Carlo pretty fast at times.' And I do think there is an appeal to the sport because of that."

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