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Motor Sports
Ed Hinton
July 13, 1998
Empty FeelingPostponement of the Pepsi 400 put NASCAR's prime-time bid on hold
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July 13, 1998

Motor Sports

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Empty Feeling
Postponement of the Pepsi 400 put NASCAR's prime-time bid on hold

The fallout from the postponement of last Saturday's Pepsi 400 at Daytona because of the devastating wildfires in Florida will be felt throughout the remainder of the 1998 season. The new date, Oct. 17, delays NASCAR's bid to become a force in prime-time network sports television and also jams the Winston Cup schedule, promising to make the stretch run the most grueling ever for the championship.

"It would have been a milestone for NASCAR," Mike Helton, the sanctioning body's vice president for competition, said of its first live prime-time network telecast ( CBS) and first night race at its showcase track. Many in the racing community expected the telecast to attract more than just hard-core fans. Live prime-time Winston Cup racing is common on cable networks, so racing officials were excited about the potential impact on the sport that a 190-mph, fender-rubbing, sparks-flying show from Daytona would have.

In fact, the drama surrounding the race should be higher on Oct. 17 than it would have been on July 4. The Pepsi 400 is still expected to be telecast live in prime time, but it's uncertain which network will carry the race. If CBS carries it—at week's end the network had not made a decision—the delay could be serendipitous for NASCAR. Saturday-night TV audiences in the fall are far larger than on summer holiday weekends, which could bring the sport its first double-digit ratings. It would also be NASCAR's chance to challenge the World Series (Fox) head-to-head for viewers, a worthy barometer for measuring racing's popularity. But if CBS decides against showing the Pepsi 400, the race would be relegated to cable, and NASCAR's next giant step toward the mainstream would be delayed until next July 4.

The makeup race also filled the only open date on the second-half schedule, meaning there will be 16 straight weeks of competition, from the Pennsylvania 500 at Pocono on July 26 through the season-ending NAPA 500 at Atlanta on Nov. 8. That's a lot to ask of race teams already stretched by trying to keep their stables race-ready.

Compounding the revised schedule's drain on teams and equipment will be the unprecedented placement of two races that require carburetor restrictor plates six days apart. The Winston 500 at Talladega is scheduled for Oct. 11. The restrictor plates, used only at the 2.5-mile Daytona and the 2.66-mile Talladega to hold speeds below 200 mph, make for radically different racing. Daytona- Talladega cars are custom-built more for aerodynamics than for traction, their engines deliver only 450 horsepower (down from the usual 750 hp), and drivers find that the cars are extremely difficult to accelerate out of trouble, often leading to massive wrecks.

Teams usually keep only one or two Daytona- Talladega cars in their stables. In anticipation of those back-to-back races, however, already-overworked teams may have to build spares.

Gordon, Wallace Under Siege

Boatloads of nosy and sometimes taunting fans are on the verge of forcing Jeff Gordon and Rusty Wallace out of their dream houses on Lake Norman, north of Charlotte. "I'm thinking about selling," Wallace says of the waterfront mansion he built 18 months ago, about a half mile down the shore from Gordon's four-bedroom place. "It's terrible when you've got to sit in your house with the blinds drawn. People with binoculars will sit in boats at my seawall, and they'll stare and stare. Boatloads of them will yell, 'Hey, Rusty! H-e-e-y Rusty!'—rooting for you," he says. "Then another boatload will yell, 'Hey, Rusty! F—- you!' Then they go down to Gordon's house. They're driving Jeff ape. That's the reason he's moving to Boca Raton [ Fla.].

"I love fans, and I never hide from them at racetracks," adds Wallace, who is fifth in points on the Winston Cup circuit. "I'll go right into the middle of a crowd and b.s. with them. But when I'm at my house, I want some time with my family. [ Wallace and his wife, Patti, have three children: Greg, 18, Katie, 13, and Stephen, 10.] I don't like people on the lake bugging me and shouting profanity. On Memorial Day, I counted 70 boats in front of my house. One guy jumped onto my seawall, ran up to the front of my house, put his hands and face up to my windows and walked all around my house, looking in."

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