Fox, FX, NBC and Turner Sports will pay at least $2.4 billion to lock up NASCAR rights for the next six years.

Fox and sister cable network FX will split the broadcasts with NBC and cable partner Turner beginning in February 2001, with the four outlets combined paying approximately $400 million annually to carry NASCAR’s Winston Cup and Busch Series events.

Fox and FX have an option to pick up rights for another two years.

That gives NASCAR auto racing, the nation’s fastest-growing sport, one of the most lucrative contracts in television. The new pact is worth four times NASCAR’s previous deals, which were set at about $100 million a year.

The pact is also higher than ones for the National Hockey League, which receives $120 million annually from ABC and ESPN, and Major League Baseball’s $340 million deal with NBC and Fox.

“This is a historic announcement for NASCAR,” said Brian France, senior vice president of the stock car racing organization. “All three companies will be able to build a national franchise around NASCAR.”

Fox and FX will air NASCAR races the first half of the year and then hand off rights to NBC and Turner at midseason. But Fox and NBC will alternate carrying the Daytona 500, NASCAR’s crown jewel. Fox carries the event in odd years, NBC in even years.

The move shuts out longtime NASCAR television partners ABC, ESPN, CBS and TNN. Those networks were clearly disappointed by Thursday’s announcement.

“As the original cable home of NASCAR, we are very disappointed with this decision,” read a statement from CBS Cable, which owns TNN.

“We made an aggressive and appropriate bid,” said ESPN spokesperson Mac Nwulu.

The move does give ESPN and CBS more money to battle for rights to the NCAA men’s basketball tourney, which is up for renewal next week.

Sources said the NASCAR deal came down to network scheduling, not money. With a clear slate through the spring, the Fox network will be able to air as many as 17 Winston Cup events, while rival bidders like CBS don’t have as much room for a large number of races due to other programming commitments.

As a result, under the new pact 70% of NASCAR races will be broadcast.

“Both of these partnerships presented to us an unparalleled opportunity to expose our sport across network TV,” said Bray Cary, vice president, broadcasting and technology at NASCAR.

Org officials noted that Fox’s portion of the coverage can be heavily promoted during NFL finals, while NBC’s portion can be promoted during the NBA finals. Also, NBC’s coverage of the Daytona 500 in 2002 will air during the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics, giving it an added promo boost.

“You have two of the biggest events in sports perfectly sitting there right in front of it,” said NBC Sports prexy Dick Ebersol.

Fox Kids Network had already picked up the animated series “NASCAR Racers,” which debuts as a 90-minute movie on Nov. 20. The half-hour skein will air weekly on Saturday mornings beginning in February.

The new pact also streamlines NASCAR’s broadcasting scheduling. In recent years the sport has appeared on six networks, including NBC, which airs its first event in years this weekend.

“You won’t have to figure out where to find NASCAR,” France said. “We’re an appointment sport. We want to make it very easy and comfortable for fans.”

Said Fox Sports chairman David Hill: “You almost had to have ESP to figure out where the races were. We firmly expect that you’re going to look back at NASCAR figures on television in 10 years and say, ‘This is where the growth really started.’ ”

NASCAR has become a major sporting force in recent years, ranking second only to the NFL in ratings on the broadcast networks.

“NASCAR is the only major sport that has shown continual growth through the ’90s, and that’s with six TV partners,” Ebersol said. “NASCAR has made itself one of the major brands in American sports.”