The Frontstretch: Ratings May Have Been Down, But PIR Left Little To Complain About by Tommy Thompson -- Thursday April 23, 2009

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Ratings May Have Been Down, But PIR Left Little To Complain About

Thompson In Turn 5 · Tommy Thompson · Thursday April 23, 2009


The debate over why folks continue to turn off and tune out NASCAR rages on. Fuel for the debate is the steadily declining television rating numbers that were posted for last Saturday night’s Sprint Cup race from Phoenix International Raceway. The theory that there is a significant decline in fan interest has been reinforced as of late by the whopping 18% drop in at-home-viewers when compared to last year’s running of the Subway Fresh Fit 500K. In fact, year-to-date FOX Broadcasting ratings are down some 14% in viewer numbers versus their first nine point-earning race telecasts in 2008. That considerable drop is a definitive indication that NASCAR is in a state of decline.

However, whatever the reason for the disenchantment of spectators towards the most successful auto racing series in the United States, it’s not the fault of the track or competitors who collaborated to provide as good an auto race as anyone should or could expect last weekend. In most ways, Saturday’s running of the Subway Fresh Fit 500K was actually counter to most of the more popular criticisms routinely leveled at NASCAR in recent years.

First off, Phoenix International Raceway is not one of the 1-½ mile “cookie cutter” generic race venues that dominates the Sprint Cup schedule and has many of the disgruntled shouting B-O-R-I-N-G! Once solely the jewel of USAC and open-wheel racing, the track, built in 1964, has been part of the NASCAR Cup schedule since being purchased by NASC, errrr… International Speedway Corporation in 1988. The track is a driver favorite that races similar to two fan favorite stops on the Sprint Cup tour, Richmond International Raceway and Darlington Raceway.

Tommy Thompson says fans were left with little to complain about after an action-packed night of racing at PIR.

With the track at its best, last Saturday night saw more than a fair share of bumper-to-bumper, fender-to-fender, two and three-wide racing back in the pack. Basically, it was just the kind of action that most fans profess to desire. The track’s configuration, moderately-banked turns, and length provided the perfect combination to watch racers battle short-track style, a la Richmond, with speeds approaching the larger, 1.366-mile in length Darlington.

And whatever else the complaints may be concerning NASCAR’s new, common template race car, it is particularly suited for the smaller tracks — including Phoenix. The drivers clearly are required to manhandle the machines, and at PIR, they prove capable of doing so. The track seems to bring out the best in both the drivers and their cars, as it allows for skillful passing absent the need to shove competitors out of the way. These are passes that are of the exciting side-by-side variety, unlike many of the bigger tracks where drivers need not even enter each other’s zip code to challenge for positions.

There is also not much more appealing to the eyes than the sight of 43 race cars running at breakneck speed while illuminated by the high-powered track lights. It is hard to fathom why any dedicated race junkie would not enjoy the familiar feel of a Saturday night show at one’s local track … except on a much grander scale.

So, if race fans truly attend races for the quality of the competition, the probably inflated official attendance number of 80,000 spectators on hand had no reason to be disappointed in the race they witnessed Saturday night with the Arizona desert as a backdrop. Only 29 circuits of the 312-lap event were run under caution. Yet despite the long runs between caution flags, 17 drivers finished on the lead lap with 13 cars only one lap down — a number that would have been considerably less due to the “lucky dog” provision had there been more cautions thrown. No question, the race was plenty fast and plenty competitive!

An interesting characteristic of the Phoenix event is also its distance. When it is billed as the Subway Fresh Fit 500, the 500 does not represent either the number of laps or miles to be completed. Instead, it denotes kilometers. 312 laps at PIR roughly equals 500k — but only 312 miles. That, as it turns out, makes for a pretty nifty race distance—a race length that is neither too short nor excruciatingly long.

The race took just 2 hours and 53 minutes from the drop of the green to the waving of the checkered to complete. At just under three hours, there was plenty enough racing to be had. However, because of the shortened length in comparison to most other Sprint Cup races, there is very little time for drivers to just pace themselves and coast until the final laps. Time is not on their side, and that seems to prompt drivers to “get up on the wheel” and race harder.

At nearly an hour shorter than this season’s Auto Club 500 from Auto Club Speedway, the length of time seems to be a good balance between giving fans their money’s worth without creating nothing more than a mid-race nap opportunity for those watching from home. In truth, the naptime carries very little risk of causing the viewer to miss anything in the race of much importance, either. Long races have drivers understandably just making laps and waiting to make their moves, while leaving spectators to ponder the meaning of life or some other such mind-occupying exercise.

To conclude, I thought it was a good show all and all for a sport that seems to have lost its footing somewhere along the way. Based on what I saw, there was very little for any race fan that follows the sport simply for the sake of the competition to gripe about at the completion of Saturday night’s race. And then to top off what had already proved to be a good evening of racing, sentimental fan favorite Mark Martin put a smile on all but the most jaded of fan’s faces when he conquered the field and won for the first time in almost four years.

So, whatever the problems are that are driving fans from the sport … they were not evident last Saturday night. The only thing going on at PIR was a lot of tough, fast-paced stock car racing! Isn’t that what we want?

And…that’s my view from Turn 5.

Contact Tommy Thompson

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Today on the Frontstretch:
Beyond the Cockpit: Alexis DeJoria On The 300 mph Women of the NHRA
A Swan’s Broken Wings Equal NASCAR’s Next Concern?
Thinkin’ Out Loud – The Off Week Season Review
Pace Laps: Swan Racing’s Future, Fast Females and Dropping Out
Sprint Cup Series Facilities Can Build Upon Fan Experience by Looking to Their Roots


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04/23/2009 08:14 AM

I don’t think the racing is what made the race coverage boring. I think it was the TV coverage. The coverage did not show the action on the track and the commercials as well as the promotions during the race made it almost unwatchable. Most of the racing back in “the good old days” were broadcast on the radio only and then as now, the radio coverage is more exciting and informative than the TV coverage.

Casey B
04/23/2009 09:37 AM

I agree with you Ken, its the TV coverage that makes it so hard to watch a full race. Hopefully things will get better with TNT and ESPN, but we are only left to hope. Who knows…

Great article though Tommy.

04/23/2009 10:28 AM

by any odd chance… would you have included that sports in general on TV is suffering similar ratings drops?
Care to mention that overall TV viewership has dropped?

The story you wrote becomes less credible if you do tell the whole story.

04/23/2009 10:28 AM

ditto to the above! fans do not want to watch cartoon characters. fans could careless what the opinions are from the hollywood hotel. fans miss the absolute rawness of the initial espn race broadcasts…nothin’ fancy…less IS more!

04/23/2009 10:43 AM

I have bad news for you Tommy . Regarding your opening sentence , there is absolutely NO debate about why the fans are tuning out in droves . The tv coverage has been unwatchable for several years , unless you are interested in the constant “ pay attention to me “ , and “ no , pay attention to me instead “ routine of the talking heads .

Kevin in SoCal
04/23/2009 12:55 PM

I think its hilarious that the TV people constantly mention the “dog leg” in the backstretch at this track. If you look at it from above, it looks like most other D-shaped ovals. The difference is the start/finish line is on the straight-away (backstretch)instead of on the curve (frontstretch).

04/23/2009 08:11 PM

Man, I really enjoyed the race saturday night.

Even though I could do without the “FOX stuff”, I loved it.

We NEED MORE saturday night racing.

But, as I stated before, I have some friends who say they didn’t watch out of “fear” that Jimmie would win…so why bother? LOL.

So they missed out on an awesome Mark Martin win.

But I love Phoenix and always watch that race. Unlike Auto Club, which I haven’t watched in YEARS.

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