DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Five years ago, live NASCAR racing returned to ESPN for the first time in six years when the NASCAR Nationwide Series race at Daytona International Speedway aired on ESPN2 on Feb. 17, 2007.
From 1981 until the end of the 2000 season, ESPN helped build both the sport and network’s popularity when it televised 262 NASCAR Sprint Cup races, as well as NASCAR Nationwide Series races and others.
But the ride came to an abrupt halt when TV rights for the top series went to other networks in 2001. For six years, no live NASCAR Sprint Cup races aired on either ESPN or ABC.
“There was a thirst,” said Rich Feinberg, ESPN vice president, motorsports, who was coordinating producer of ESPN’s NASCAR coverage in the late 1990s.
“There was initial disappointment and then, I’m a race fan, so you’re seeing it unfold every week on TV and you’re wanting to be involved. But that’s not what the cards had in store for us at that time.”
When the next round of negotiations ended, ESPN walked away with an eight-year deal to return NASCAR to the network in 2007. Feinberg and his team went to work midway through 2006 on a ramp-up project.
“There was a great sense of anticipation because you were destined to get back to what you had missed for six years,” Feinberg said.
ESPN’s state-of-the-art new production trucks turned heads when they arrived in Daytona Beach, Fla., in February of 2007 to prepare for the first race telecast.
The network was introducing the first use of HD in-car cameras as well as many other enhancements. This wasn’t the ESPN of old, which in the mid-1980s saw races produced with one truck and fewer than 10 cameras.
More than 60 cameras were focused on Daytona for the first race.
Dr. Jerry Punch, who had been a pit reporter for ESPN’s previous NASCAR coverage, was in the booth for the first race to call the action. Two former NASCAR champions, driver Rusty Wallace and crew chief Andy Petree, joined him as analysts, and ESPN veteran Brent Musburger was telecast host.
Musburger set the stage for the telecast, calling Daytona “a legendary coliseum of roar,” and “a modern-day Circus Maximus,” and Punch reflected on ESPN’s long absence as the field was coming to the green flag.
“These fans have been waiting and we have been waiting. Boy, have we been waiting!” Punch said.
NASCAR was back on ESPN. On Feb. 25, the season will again open with the Daytona Nationwide Series race, and ESPN will air the event at noon ET.
“After that first race, the feeling was you’re back in the game, and now I know what I missed so much, and why I liked it,” Feinberg said.
“It’s a challenge, a lot of responsibility that comes with it, but it’s very fulfilling. It’s a privilege and you can be very aware of what it was like not to do it.”