Defending-champion Dale Earnhardt Jr. took the lead late in this year's Daytona 500 but lost it in the final minutes. The heartbreaking ending was one of the wildest finishes in the 47-year history of the race, the Super Bowl of U.S. motor sports.
And for all 200 laps, fans were right in the front seat with Junior and six of his rivals, flipping between seven respective channels displaying live driver's-eye views fed straight from the cars' roll bars. Others followed the race on the XM Satellite Radio service, the HDNet high-definition TV network, multiple sports cable outlets and even at two movie theaters showing the race.
All that might seem like overkill, but Nascar is determined to maintain its lead in interactive services over other sports associations, which have largely settled for real-time stats and scores as they try to figure out how and what to offer. So advanced are Nascar's experiments that they have become important well beyond professional sports, to studios and practically any other company that produces shows that go on the air.
It makes perfect sense for Nascar to be a pioneer for advanced digital content. An estimated 30 million of its 75 million fans are considered hard-core, spending up to nine hours a week consuming related media, much of it online.
"Nascar has been pushing the envelope--packaging content to offer a much fuller way of watching a race," said David Asch, senior vice president of programming at cable service In Demand, which developed Nascar's in-car cameras and other interactive-TV features.
The aggressive interactive strategy stems at least partly from necessity. While other sports have multiple
games occurring simultaneously, Nascar has one event per weekend. To make the most of it, the racing body has been providing fans new ways to get related information and deepen their interest.
Its services are a far cry from the original promises of interactive television--such as technology that would enable viewers to click on and a buy a product as they saw it used in a TV show--but their relative simplicity may be a key reason for their success. "The early problem with interactive television was that it was complex, leading consumers to be intimidated or not interested in them," said Aditya Kishore, an analyst at research firm The Yankee Group.
Still, he and others say the demand for Nascar's interactive services is not abundant enough to justify additional operational costs. That may be one reason that Nascar, while touting a spike in demand for its in-car TV service after the Daytona 500, refused to divulge the specific number of subscribers.