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In 1949, its first season, the NASCAR Cup Series raced eight times, at eight different race tracks. Of the eight venues that hosted races that season, there are only two left: North Wilkesboro, which is officially shut down but still capable of a racing return, and Martinsville Speedway. Technically, the Daytona beach course still exists, but it doesn’t have any form of seating anymore. Occoneechee Speedway still has some bleachers standing in the middle of the forest of North Carolina, but Martinsville is the only track actively being used. Many of the fans of NASCAR wax nostalgic about the paperclip in Southern Virginia that is one of the three tracks on the current schedule less than a mile in length. Unfortunately, from looking at the television ratings, while the fans of short track racing are vocal, there apparently aren’t as many of them as one might think.
Television ratings are compiled by the Nielsen Company through two different techniques. They can either issue diaries to households that are willing to participate and document their viewing habits throughout a period of time, or households have actual meters that are connected to the televisions and transmit the viewing habits through a phone line to the ratings company. Ratings are one of the biggest factors that advertisers use to determine where they will place their commercials, and the success of a program depends on how much time the advertisers want to buy during the broadcast.
There are a multitude of criticisms of the Nielsen system, with one of the biggest being that the sample size in comparison to the overall households in America with televisions is statistically insignificant. In 2009, there were over 114,000,000 households in the U.S. with televisions. The Nielsen Company surveyed 25,000 of them to determine television ratings. That translates into a little over .02% of the population. It is rare for any poll or survey to have a deviation of less than 2%, so to think that a sampling of .02% of anything is much more than statistically irrelevant — it’s ambitious at best. Yet the success or failure of television programs and, in turn, advertising rates for those programs is based on that sampling.
The folks at Nielsen certainly do their very best to get an accurate cross section of the television audience in America, but it appears as though they’re somehow consistently missing the NASCAR segment that enjoys Short Track racing. In an effort to be transparent, I will admit I am the Short Track Reporting Coordinator for Frontstretch, so I have a certain love for short tracks, but the reality is any time we hear from fans about what races they like to watch, it is overwhelmingly tilted toward short tracks rather than the 1.5 to 2-mile intermediates. However, when looking at ratings, the televisions consistently appear to be pointed toward the bigger ovals. Either the ratings company is completely wrong, which is a possibility, or the majority of fans who watch NASCAR do it silently.
That begs a question of just where the Nielsen households are coming from. Are they mostly in larger television markets, or are they accurately proportioned along regional or demographic lines? The data gathering system of Nielsen may have an inherent bias against rural race fans, who comprise the vast majority of short track enthusiasts versus urban, white collar fans who tend to lean more toward the newer, fancier venues of the intermediate tracks. If the people in the middle of rural America, living in mobile homes and on country roads are not being sampled for the ratings, it could explain why there is a “smaller audience” for Martinsville than almost any other track on the schedule.
So far this season, Phoenix and Las Vegas were in the 5s with their ratings. That translates into roughly 8-9 million viewers. Bristol, which is about to undergo a change to its racing surface because its race ratings have dropped, drew a 4.4, or about 7.3 million viewers. Fontana had the lowest rating of the season to date with about 6.1 million tuning in, but the race was delayed by rain and didn’t make it to the scheduled finish, which may or may not have skewed the numbers.
Then there is the Martinsville race, which featured a fantastic ending with cars spinning on a green-white-checkered finish, race favorites running out of gas and the most popular driver in the sport, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. battling back for a top-3 performance. The race pulled a 4.3 (6.8 million viewers), which beats only Fontana among the six point races so far this season. In trying to understand this number, I checked with several of my racing fan friends to find out what races they watched live this season. On average, they watched Daytona, Phoenix, Bristol and Martinsville. When asked if they could only pick one race to watch every season the majority picked Richmond, Bristol was second, and Martinsville was third on the “must see” list.
Yet somehow, the people I know who are race fans are not indicative of the ones that are being surveyed for the Nielsen ratings. Year-in and year-out, Martinsville is near the top of the list of most everyone I know who is a race fan. There are those who don’t like single-file racing and beating and banging, but the vast majority I know think Martinsville is one of the two to three tracks on the circuit that should be on every fan’s bucket list. However – and this fact remains consistent year after year – Martinsville still pulls terrible Nielsen numbers.
One of two things is going on here.
Either the ratings gathering system is flawed, missing the millions of short track fans in the NASCAR world by not including them in the sample, or the majority of NASCAR fans watch races silently and actually enjoy intermediate race tracks more than any others. If the first option is true, someone in the television business is really missing the boat. It is hard to believe the second option is true, although admittedly possible. If that is the case, we can anticipate more dates on mile-and-a-half tracks and the death of half-mile ovals on the Cup schedule.
I hope it doesn’t end up that way… but the numbers tell a disheartening tale.
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