NASCAR & Auto Racing

ABC series presents racing for nonfans

Motorsport purists may consider it "NASCAR for Zombies," but an ABC documentary series launching next week isn't steering for that audience anyway.

"NASCAR in Primetime," airing at 9 p.m. Wednesdays for five weeks, aims to explain the culture and attraction of the nation's fastest-growing sport to people who think it's nothing more than a redneck sloshfest.

NASCAR, obsessively protective of its image, granted ABC unprecedented access to the tracks this season to film the series, which opens at Atlanta Motor Speedway and focuses on Lowe's Motor Speedway in Concord in an upcoming episode tentatively scheduled for Sept. 5.

"They are an organization that has thrived on control," says Michael Bicks, the show's executive producer and a 25-year veteran in ABC News.

"They're control freaks -- and very good ones. My experience with control freaks is that to let go is very hard. But they did. And they've been good to work with."

NASCAR has agitated to get a look at the finished shows, Bicks says, but the network has said no.

While not an exposé of the racing world, the series does air some criticism of NASCAR by drivers. A frustrated Johnny Sauter complains about being treated unfairly after being penalized for aggressive driving. Tony Stewart has some gripes, too.

But overall, the series -- which uses fans to provide the narration rather than using a reporter to lead viewers through the stories -- focuses on the dynamic of the sport. Bicks, coming into the assignment with no NASCAR experience, says he's come to realize the attraction is more about personality than carburetors.

Cars become an extension of the drivers, a gladiator metaphor using fenders rather than swords.

"NASCAR is a large subculture," says Bicks. "People who like it aren't crazy. They identify with the drivers who represent their hopes and dreams. It's dramatic. If you didn't care about those drivers, you wouldn't care about the race ... It's like a real-life soap opera that guys can follow."

Juan Pablo Montoya, for example, is among those featured in the first hour, and his family life -- living in a motor home during the circuit -- is a sidelight. His wife, Connie Freydell, says they spend more time in their travel quarters than in their Miami home.

Bicks, based in Boston, says six months on the road with a documentary crew of about 30 following the races each week has been life-changing for him. He's come under the spell.

"Now I go on to see how my folks are doing."