Before NASCAR.com took to the Web, it's safe to assume, the stereotypical view of a NASCAR fan was more likely to involve an oil can and a greasy trucker's cap than a high-speed connection and computer mouse.
Five years later, however, NASCAR.com has been transformed from a fairly simple Web site with stories and streaming audio of driver/pit communications to one that is easily one of the more feature-rich sports sites available today. The site is also available on video cellphones, which is where executives are putting a big push.
The Web site's top draw? PitCommand, a feature that allows race fans to know virtually everything a race-car driver is doing during a race, from the swerves to the curves. Drew Reifenberger, NASCAR.com VP/general manager, calls it the embodiment of “seeing is believing.”
“If 100 people see it,” he says, “that's 100 people who will think it's cool.”
Sportvision, the company responsible for such broadcast-sports innovations as the First and 10 marker for football, provides the technology that drives PitCommand. The company places sensors throughout each of the race cars to monitor different attributes such as braking, throttle and speed. That data is then passed on to both the broadcaster covering the race (NBC, TNT or Fox) and NASCAR.com. PitCommand lets members track that information for any of the drivers instantly and in real time, as the data is transmitted from the cars 500 times per second.
PitCommand also provides an overhead graphical representation of the track and uses GPS to let subscribers see at a glance where each of the cars is on the track relative to the others.
It's that sort of cutting-edge technology that has persuaded what NASCAR says are hundreds of thousands of fans to fork over $9.95 per month. (The subscription also includes in-car audio, a live leaderboard, access to condensed races, and other video and audio content, as well as a race-day scanner.)
“This is well past a niche service,” says Reifenberger, who says that approximately 50% of users watch NASCAR races on TV at the same time that they use PitCommand.
Since its inception five years ago, NASCAR.com has grown significantly and continues to do so. “We originally had 10 employees,” says Reifenberger, “and now we're up to 70.”
Editorial and technical staff help keep PitCommand running but also create original video and text content for the site, as well as a mobile-phone service. “Right now, we have a huge emphasis on broadband video and wireless as it becomes more and more pervasive,” says Reifenberger. While wireless video and cellphone services are making gains, Reifenberger says the penetration is nowhere near what it's going to be. That's part of the reason NASCAR.com, which is owned by Turner Sports Interactive, continues to push its R&D and take advantage of work done for sister networks such as CNN and the Cartoon Network. Of course, not every technology step catches on.
“Three years ago, we built a video sorter that would let subscribers edit and sort their own race clips,” says Reifenberger. “We thought it would be a real killer app, but it wasn't that popular. As it turns out, people want those types of things produced for them. It was a $50,000 bet that didn't work out.”
Accidents will happen. But this is a Web site that's claiming the checkered flag more than it's hitting the wall hard.