In this second of three stories relating key moments from RACER.com’s first 25 years, this is the second chapter detailing the development and continuing evolution of RACER.com, as recounted by its founding editor, Bill King.
In July 1999, RACER founder Paul Pfanner was approached by cable TV mogul Roger Werner, longtime president of ESPN who had left to launch Speedvision, a new motorsports-themed channel. The contract for Speedvision’s website was up for renewal, and Werner asked if RACER would be interested in taking over the site management and content provision beginning in January 2000. In our first meeting, Werner said, “I hate my website, and I love yours.” A deal was struck in early December — the only catch was that we had to be up and running by Y2K.
Somehow, founding publisher Bill Sparks had a new Speedvision.com ready to launch at midnight, Jan. 1, 2000. It incorporated the old RACER site under the Speedvision masthead, a TV schedule and promotions for upcoming programming, including the network’s all-encompassing coverage of the Rolex 24 At Daytona, Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring, 24 Hours of Le Mans and the Monterey Historics — all of which we accomplished with a daily countdown featuring a year in the event’s history by the brilliant historian Chuck Dressing. RACER.com, meanwhile, became a dedicated subscription service site in support of RACER magazine.
It was a happy marriage, but with little in the way of NASCAR stock car coverage on the network, both Speedvision and its website were missing a huge audience.
Enter an unlikely patron saint, Dale Earnhardt Sr., who singularly modified the viewer demographic of both Speedvision and Speedvision.com by sharing a Corvette with Andy Pilgrim, Kelly Collins and Dale Jr., in the 2001 Rolex 24 at Daytona (pictured, top).
We had a tireless on-site web team of Erik Mauk, John Gardner and Andrew Cotton and, with the broadcast crew constantly plugging us, both web traffic and Speedvision viewership almost doubled that February weekend thanks to the senior Earnhardt. And it stayed there as the NASCAR fans soon discovered that Speedvision.com offered extensive race coverage and commentary from Gerald Martin and Ben Blake, two of the most eloquent and dogged reporters in the business.
We were flexing our muscles. Gardner did live F1 race reports plus post-race interviews with the F1 broadcast team — Bob Varsha, David Hobbs, Steve Matchett and Sam Posey — a precursor to the post-race shows of today. We were also on the ground at Le Mans with hourly reports and on-air crew follow-ups.
By the end of 2001, Speedvision.com had become the most visited general interest motorsports website in the world. There were some 30 regular columnists — one new column every day — and contributors from the full spectrum of the motor racing industry, including a weekly column by Brock Yates.
In addition to Blake and Martin, our contributor list included Gordon Kirby, David Phillips, Jeremy Shaw, Maurice Hamilton, Alan Henry, Chuck Dressing, Jon Asher, Dave Densmore, Drew Brown, Jeffrey Franz, Jeremy Hart, Andrew Cotton, Bill Oursler, Peter Brock, Bill Lovell, Steve Nickless, Steven Cole Smith, John Zimmermann, Jeff Olsen, Lewis Franck and Dave Argabright.
Then there were the photographers: Bob Harmeyer, Hal Crocker, Bryn Williams, Nigel Kinrade, Brian Czobat, Brian Cleary, Bob Chapman, Rick Dole, Dave Davies, Greg Aleck, Victor Newman, Kevin York, Hiko Amano, Geoff Hewitt, Dan Boyd, Michael C. Brown, Rich Chenet, Mark Weber, Bob Costanzo, Gary Gold, Art Flores, Don Grassman, Rick Graves, Ron Hussey, David Hutson, Dave Kommel, Russ LaBounty, Bob LeSieur, Ron McQueeney, Tom Riles, Regis le Fedure, Roz Rosintoski and Frank Ruch.
We got serious inquiries from race teams after being the first major media outlet to write about karting stars Danica Patrick and Scott Speed and young stock car shoe Brian Vickers. Every couple of weeks, we beat AP on a story. We broke the Ford/Jaguar/Stewart F1 story in 2000 thanks to The Guardian’s Alan Henry, who often smoked Autosport by working past Brit pub time and having the private numbers of everyone in the F1 business. Stories he filed with Speedvision.com were up by 5:00 p.m. Eastern, well into the evening in London.
But changes were brewing. Speedvision was acquired in the summer of 2001 by FOX as part of its move to take over the NASCAR broadcast contract. After initially looking to void our agreement to run the channel’s website, in a fateful meeting at Speedvision HQ in Bristol, Conn., on Sept. 17 — only six days after the 9/11 attacks — Roger Werner stood with us to defend our position to FOX execs and our deal continued. However, RACER‘s Charlotte office was closed down and the original RACER.com team broken up. Even as the original Speedvision faded, though, the RACER vision lived on.
Up next: From SPEED TV to the rebirth of RACER.com