Stars won't pay attention to race during Oscars

California Speedway officials want the Hollywood crowd to show up. Having a race on the same day as the Academy Awards isn't the way to do it, writes Terry Blount.

Updated: February 25, 2007, 10:21 PM ET
By Terry Blount | ESPN.com

FONTANA, Calif. -- California Speedway officials desperately want to court the Hollywood crowd to show up at the races, but having the Auto Club 500 on the same day as the Academy Awards isn't the way to do it.

NASCAR makes the schedule, not the speedways. Surely in this case, any other weekend is preferable to Oscars weekend. The movers and shakers in Tinseltown have other things on their mind.

NASCAR communication director Kerry Tharp says NASCAR sees it as an opportunity to take advantage of a big weekend in Southern California.

"A lot of people are in L.A. this weekend that wouldn't normally be here because of the Academy Awards," Tharp said. "It's a chance to get some of those people interested in the NASCAR races."

It can work both ways. California Speedway has struggled to sell all 92,000 seats. The race starts at 3:30 p.m. ET. The Academy Awards telecast starts at 8:30 p.m. ET.

It isn't a direct conflict, but some of casual fans aren't going to make the trip east to Fontana -- about a 50-mile trip on I-10 from downtown L.A. -- to watch a race and risk missing part of the Oscars telecast.

They can TiVo, of course, but this is the Oscars. For many people out here, it's like TiVoing the Super Bowl.

And don't forget the preview shows on the red carpet, along with Barbara Walters' annual interview show with the big stars. Even some of the drivers chimed in about who they're picking:

"Eddie Murphy was pretty good" in 'Dreamgirls,' Mark Martin said. "There were a lot of good movies this year, but I'd like to see an Oscar for that Daytona 500 last week."

You might say that people who care about racing don't care about the Academy Awards. For some hardcore fans, maybe that's true. But NASCAR isn't here to get the hardcore fans. NASCAR wants the stars involved.

A few celebrities will make the show. Kevin Costner will give the command to start engines. Legendary rocker Sammy Hagar, a Fontana native, has the same job for the Busch race Saturday.

But most of the beautiful people in Beverly Hills will spend Sunday getting ready for their biggest day of the year. Race cars aren't part of the deal. The only car they care about is the limo that will carry them to the red carpet.

The Cup Series is off next week while the Busch teams race in Mexico City. NASCAR wants an off-week for Cup so some of the big-name Cup drivers will compete in Mexico and help sell tickets to that event.

So why not have the Cup teams take off the week after the Daytona 500 and move the Mexico race to this weekend?

Momentum, that's why.

NASCAR wants to capitalize on the buzz from Daytona, and there was plenty of buzz following one of the most dramatic and controversial finishes in the history of the event.

Winner Kevin Harvick was in New York for a "Late Show with David Letterman" interview and other interviews before flying to L.A. to garner media attention in the country's second-largest market on the week of the Fontana race.

But most of that L.A. media will be camped out in Hollywood all day Sunday. Added media attention is one of the major reasons NASCAR races twice a year at Fontana, so going up against the Oscars defeats the purpose.

California Speedway president Gillian Zucker opened an office last year in Century City near the movie studios to try to gain more attention from the Hollywood elite.

At the time, Zucker said she wanted the California Cup races to become "the toughest ticket in town" -- no easy task for city overflowing with entertainment options.

If Sunday's race doesn't sell out, some traditional NASCAR fans will continue to say, "I told you so." They don't like it that NASCAR took away the Southern 500 from Darlington and moved the Labor Day weekend date to California.

Whether the California races sell out isn't the big concern for sponsors spending million of dollars in Cup. They want exposure in the big markets. Races near L.A., Chicago, Dallas-Fort Worth, Kansas City and Phoenix deliver that exposure far better than Darlington, Martinsville or Pocono.

NASCAR also races in the shadow of L.A. to draw more Hispanic fans. Officials are hopeful that having Juan Pablo Montoya in the field will help that effort.

But any NASCAR event is going to finish a lap down in L.A. on the same day as the Academy Awards.

Terry Blount covers motorsports for ESPN.com. He can be reached at terry@blountspeak.com.

Terry Blount

ESPN Seattle Seahawks reporter