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.
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.