Holding A Pretty Wheel · Amy Henderson · Friday June 7, 2013
Do they or don’t they?
The knock on NASCAR fans from fans of other sports has long been, “Aww, you only watch for the crashes.” After all, from the perspective of a non-fan, NASCAR is a bunch of guys driving in circles for three hours at a time, so a wreck or three must be the only things that break up the monotony, right?
Of course, NASCAR fans passionately deny that they enjoy cars crashing. Those are their heroes out there; why would they want to see them get hurt? They only want exciting racing, fans insist. It’s not that they want more crashes, say the fans, they just want closer racing, without those long green-flag runs that would make an insomniac sleep like a baby after 50 laps.
And most race fans probably say that honestly. But here’s the thing—there aren’t a lot of ways to break up a green-flag run. The caution flies for four basic occurrences: debris, fluid from an engine failure, rain, or wrecks. Nobody seems to mind a debris caution if there’s actually debris that they can see with their own eyes. Fair enough. Most fans profess to despise those debris cautions that seem to be inevitable if the race has stayed green for a long time and the field is spread out, yet the debris is conveniently never spotted by any driver on the track or the television cameras. That makes sense; people don’t want the races to be contrived.
Of course nobody likes the rain, especially if they spent hard-earned money to go to the race. Rain delays are more tedious than the least eventful race.
So, here’s the bottom line: according to most race fans, they don’t want to see fake debris, rain, or crashes, but they want to see fewer long green flag runs so the field is closer together and drivers can mix it up. But I can’t recall ever sitting in the stands or in front of the TV and hearing those around me hope fervently for someone to blow an engine. Sure, everyone secretly (or not so secretly) hopes for an inopportune parts failure for a driver they don’t like, but are fans really on the edge of their seats praying for an engine to let go to make the race more exciting?
Nor does the crowd jump to their feet when one happens. But that’s exactly what happens with crashes. And depending on the drivers involved, it’s likely there will be cheers, too.
All of this is, of course anecdotal. But there is some hard evidence that suggests that at least some people are tuning in at least in part for the crashes. According to Sporting News crashes are up from 2012. They’ve almost doubled this year compared to the same point last year; there have been 53 yellow flags for wrecks in 2013 so far. That’s an average of just over four crashes per race, up from 29 cautions due to wrecks (2.2 per race, on average).
Ratings, meanwhile, are up over last year for eight of the first 13 points races. They stayed flat on two more (Darlington and Charlotte) and fell for three (Las Vegas, Texas, and Talladega), one of which (Talladega) endured hours of rain delays. NASCAR was the only major American sport not to post ratings losses over the previous year, which is actually quite impressive. In 2012, ratings fell for eight of the first 13 points races, and only Bristol and Talladega saw gains from the previous year. Four times as many races saw increases this year, in other words
The numbers make it a little harder to believe that nobody is enjoying some old-fashioned wrecking, at least on the surface. It’s just hard to believe that the numbers, taken together, are a complete coincidence.
Now, you do need a grain of salt to digest that information with; overall, ratings for the first 13 races were close to even with 2012 at this point, so it’s not that millions of new viewers are tuning in to see who plows up a wall this week, it’s just that the sport isn’t bleeding viewers as they have in recent years. Don’t get me wrong, that’s a big deal; other sports couldn’t maintain as NASCAR did. So viewers are tuning in, and a lot of them, overall,.
So, with fans seemingly on the fence about the issue but ratings flourishing, are crashes good for the sport?
It’s pretty hard to say no.
The element of danger is what makes the sport exciting to fans. If there was zero chance of risk, it just wouldn’t be the same. And it is hard to argue that bunching up the field more often increases the overall chance that the outcome of the race will be unexpected (just look at Dover; that last caution doesn’t happen, Jimmie Johnson wins again and everyone not wearing a 48 t-shirt goes home pissed off. Instead, the caution changed the character of the race completely and brought about an unexpected victor).
And at the end of the day, that’s what people want to see: an unexpected twist.
Can you have that without crashes? Absolutely; pit strategy and fuel mileage come into play, and they have their own element of excitement. The aforementioned blown engine can bunch up the field just when we think we’ve seen this script before. Pit crews are human and make mistakes that cost drivers races. Weather changes the game.
But none of those things bring an entire crowd to its feet the way a big crash does, so it’s hard to argue that fans don’t like them as a whole. Nobody wants to see a driver hurt (and if they do, shame on them!) but that doesn’t mean they don’t like a wadded-up race car every now and then.
So, do they or don’t they? Without a doubt, fans, by and large, do like a dose of crash with their NASCAR. And with the added element of a new race car, drivers are still learning how to handle the changes, and that leads to more mishaps. And that’s meant more fans for most of the races. So, whether you want to see a driver go spinning or not, it seems that it’s good for the sport overall. Do people watch for the wrecks? Maybe, maybe not…but without them, it would appear, they don’t watch at all.
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