Now that the reverberations have subsided from last week's announcement about NASCAR's schedule retooling for 2005, speculation has begun about the next shoe to drop in the so-called "realignment" of stock-car racing.
Among the likely developments, according to motorsports analysts and promoters: The disappearance of Martinsville (Va.) Speedway from the Nextel Cup circuit and the demise of short-track racing in general; new superspeedways near Seattle and metropolitan New York, followed by a NASCAR race in Mexico City; and a healthier bottom line for the two companies (International Speedway Corp. and Speedway Motorsports Inc.) that own the bulk of the tracks on NASCAR's Nextel Cup circuit.
While none of this will happen overnight, the upside for NASCAR, its broadcast partners, corporate sponsors and track owners is so compelling that it's probably a matter of time, predicts Tim Conder, a leisure analyst with A.G. Edwards.
"The whole thing is served by moving into large media markets and increasing the exposure," Conder said in a recent interview.
Lowe's Motor Speedway president H.A. "Humpy" Wheeler believes NASCAR will eventually add races overseas, spurred by what he views as the inevitable arrival of foreign cars in the sport. Toyota entered NASCAR's truck series this season, a move widely perceived as a prelude to competing in the Nextel Cup in 2006 or 2007. Wheeler thinks Mercedes-Benz and BMW may follow.
But before NASCAR's expansion plans can unfold further, more tracks in small TV markets and saturated regions of the country will have to lose their coveted Nextel Cup race dates. Explains Conder: "You really can't add more dates to the calendar so you'll have to pull dates from existing facilities."
Martinsville, which draws sellout crowds each year but seats just 60,000, is an obvious place to start, as is Darlington, S.C., which was left with just one race in 2005 following last week's announcement.
"We think Darlington will eventually go away," Conder said. "Where would you rather be: Darlington, S.C., or New York or Seattle?"
He also suspects Watkins Glen (N.Y.) International could be wiped from the NASCAR schedule. The road-course facility is owned by ISC, which is controlled by NASCAR's founding France family. That would make it fairly painless to yank the race -- particularly if the date could be moved to an existing venue in Mexico City.
"The Hispanic population is the second biggest ethnic group in the United States," Conder notes. "And when you tap into Mexico, a lot of sports in Mexico are broadcast throughout Central and South America. So do you need Watkins Glen long term? I would think you'd make that trade."
For now, NASCAR fans are struggling just to absorb news of the radical changes unveiled last week.
To recap: North Carolina Speedway in Rockingham, N.C., will be dropped from the schedule; Darlington (S.C.) Raceway will be stripped of one of its two races; and superspeedways in Texas and Phoenix will now host two races each year (up from one apiece).
NASCAR's corporate sponsors were wild about the news.
"If it's good for NASCAR, as one of their top national sponsors, we believe it will be good for Visa," said George Perry, director of event and sponsorship marketing for Visa USA, which has advertised through NASCAR since 1999. "Whatever NASCAR can do to bring the sport to a national distribution, we think it's going to be great for our partners [member banks]."
Added Sherri Phillips, vice president of marketing for Levi Strauss Signature, which became an official sponsor of the sport earlier this year: "Being a national brand, we look at it quite positively. NASCAR is a growing sport with a national fan base that aligns with the consumers we're talking to. We're really talking to mainstream America -- the average American family -- and that really is who NASCAR targets."
But fans of short-track racing will end up losing out if Martinsville follows Rockingham and North Wilkesboro (N.C.) into obscurity.
"You grow the sport in a lot of different ways -- including making it more attractive and more effective on television," said former CBS Sports president Neal Pilson, who serves as a TV consultant to NASCAR.
"You also try, as we are doing, to move into the bigger markets and put more races in larger population areas, move the sport from its roots in the Southeast to the rest of the country. At the same time, you don't want to abandon your heritage."