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Backstage pass

Times Staff Writer

Something was wrong with Juan Pablo Montoya’s car.

Not that you would have known by looking. The NASCAR rookie was running near the front in the first Busch series race of the year Saturday and, from the grandstands, appeared to have the car to beat.

But to anyone who was listening, it was clear that looks were deceiving.

“There’s something wrong,” Montoya told his crew chief. “It feels like we’re misfiring.”

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A lap later, Montoya was ordered to the pits, where a mechanic popped the hood and confirmed the worst: The engine was gone and Montoya’s race was over.

That tableau played out completely over the Montoya team’s radio during the Orbitz 300 at Daytona. And it made for compelling listening.

But that wasn’t the only thing careful listeners -- and viewers -- were able to pick up from their trackside seats at Daytona last weekend. In Sunday’s Daytona 500, for example, Tony Stewart openly complained about other drivers over his radio, then predicted his manic charge through the field by telling crew chief Greg Zipadelli he was “fixin’ to put on a show.”

And fans monitoring Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s in-car camera had no trouble figuring out what caused the crash that knocked him out the race five laps from the finish.

Just try getting that close in any other sport.

“One of the things that has made NASCAR unique has been this feeling of access that is unparalleled,” says Dick Glover, vice president of broadcasting and new media for NASCAR. “It’s literally as if you’ve got access to the general manager, the coach and the quarterback at a football game.”

Consider the options available at Sunday’s Auto Club 500 at California Speedway, where radio scanners and cellphones will allow fans in the stands to eavesdrop on drivers and their crews while onboard cameras take others behind the windshield of more than half a dozen cars.

Leaderboards, lap times, even statistical breakdowns of pit stops, will be available on a number of platforms from wireless Internet connections to scanners, radios and telephones.

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“I don’t know of any other sport that’s doing anything like this,” says Scott Bailey, vice president and general manager of new media for NASCAR partner Turner Sports. “We feel as if we’re setting the bar pretty high for the fan experience.”

Among the innovations is Nextel FanView, a hand-held device that provides live video feeds from seven cars, and crew conversations from every team in the race; Nextel FanScan, which allows users to listen in to a majority of driver-crew conversations from their cellphones; and a Sirius Satellite Radio package of 10 channels that combine the regular radio call of the race with driver-crew communications.

Last Sunday, NASCAR also introduced RaceView, a 3-D Internet application that uses cutting-edge technology to provide real-time animated race coverage and statistics, and DirecTV’s NASCAR Hotpass, which provides five satellite TV channels, each dedicated to a single driver.

“Sports, because it is still live, unscripted drama, is going to always be a breeding ground for new technology, new ways to bring live experiences to people,” Glover says. “There absolutely is a vision. Where it gets very, very complicated [is] to make sure that the various partners that can bring different things to bear don’t trample on each other. That it’s all additive, as opposed to slicing up the same pie.

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“And that does take a lot of coordination.”

NASCAR may have found the optimal blend with FanView, a 12-ounce video-audio scanner it debuted in limited numbers last year and is aggressively marketing this season. Unlike the radio scanners, which have long been available at NASCAR events, FanView pairs audio and video components with continually updated statistics and each track’s in-house telecast of the race. It also allows users to pick and choose the information they want to see on the 2 3/4 -inch wide screen. There’s even an instant replay option that lets users listen to drivers’ conversations from as long as 3 1/2 minutes ago.

“We want the fans to be the producers of their own experience,” says Kurt Culbert of Sprint Nextel, which developed the device along with Canada’s Kangaroo TV and rents it for $50 a race. “This allows you to [decide] what you want to see, what you want to hear. It has unlimited opportunities to bring the fans close to the action.”

Cliff Wills, a race fan from Alabama, tried FanView last year at Talladega, Ala., and became hooked.

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“This just makes the experience so much better,” said Willis, who waited in line with more than 50 other people to rent one three hours before Sunday’s race at Daytona. “It’s like you’re watching TV when you’re here.”

But because the drivers know fans are listening, the language can seem pretty tame. For example Mark Martin, after losing the Daytona 500 by inches, radioed a very G-rated complaint to his crew chief. “Doggone it,” he said. “That’s a headache.”

Still the conversations -- or the silence -- offer a unique window into each driver’s personality.

Montoya, for example, had to be continually reassured by his upbeat spotter. “You’re doing great,” the spotter repeated after Montoya had fallen to 40th in the 43-car field.

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Jeff Gordon’s radio, on the other hand, was quiet for most of the weekend.

“There’s nothing like it in any sport,” says Gillian Zucker, president of California Speedway. “The idea that you can listen to the athletes and strategy during the race is remarkable.”

And, Glover says, other sports are noticing. The PGA and NBA, he says, are closely monitoring NASCAR’s progress with FanView, and the NFL has also experimented with it.

“I do think it will spread to other sports,” he said.

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And that’s fueling NASCAR’s drive to keep its fans on the cutting edge of technology.

“You can always do more. You have to constantly innovate,” says Bailey, who oversees the statistics-heavy cellphone service NASCAR To Go, as well as the online subscription service TrackPass through NASCAR.com.

“Who knows what it will be? Maybe it will be smell-a-vision, where you can smell the gas and the fumes.

“That’s what our guys stay up nights thinking about.”

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kevin.baxter@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Online poll

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Who says NASCAR is the world’s fastest-growing sport? There were only 601 votes cast in the most recent online sports poll: Who will win the Nextel Cup title this year?

*--* Jeff Gordon 22.5% Tony Stewart 21.5% Kevin Harvick 12.6% Someone not listed 11.8% Dale Earnhardt Jr. 10.6% Juan Pablo Montoya 9.3% Matt Kenseth 5.2% Jimmie Johnson 5.0% Carl Edwards 1.5%

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