Race Weekend Central

Raining On NASCAR’s Parade: Struggling With The Status Quo

Another rain-delayed Sprint Cup race? Complete with hours of waiting until officials finally call the event?

Ain’t nobody got time for that.

On a serious note, with the Texas race rescheduled, NASCAR is now on pace for 15 “late starts” or rain postponements for 36 races this season. That’s an astounding number, a projection that has to lower itself over time… right? This rain cloud following stock car racing can’t stay around forever…right? At some point, a season filled with promise has to find its rhythm for something as basic as when the race is going to start… right? Right?!

There are no real answers to these questions, of course, because weather is an unpredictable beast. Here’s the one certainty we know: NASCAR should not be twiddling thumbs, waiting for the answers while the rest of the world simply evolves. As I wrote a few months earlier at Daytona, the reality of sports in 2014, is your biggest events need a backup plan; a worst-case scenario is to provide us with hours of “we don’t know.” The rain delay for NASCAR’s Super Bowl, resulting in record low ratings is a warning sign of the price you can pay. Ever since, it’s been difficult to build momentum within this sport even with exceptional competition. Just last week at Martinsville, a five percent drop in the audience was seen as “progress” asNASCAR fights everything from the Olympics (February) to the NCAA Tournament in order to get the nation’s attention.

Oh, it’s raining again… what time will the race happen? Will fans wait?
Oh, it’s raining again… what time will the race happen? Will fans wait?

For some reason, NASCAR thinks the best alternative plan is to make each rain delay an hours on end affair, keeping fans hooked with teasers that the racing “might” come soon after exceptional drying efforts from the Air Titan 2. Overrated. It’s an awful idea, one that leaves fans more exasperated than excited once they waste too much time in front of the television. It’s also a no-win for FOX, who seemed in the dark Sunday as to when, or if the track was getting dried appropriately. Perhaps that caused them to stick with at-track coverage too long, providing unnecessary analysis instead of reverting to the trusty racing replay. Hey, race fans, what would you like more: Michael Waltrip waxing poetic, doing a “rain walk” on the grid or the last 50 laps of competition at Martinsville?

Oh, it’s raining again… what time will the race happen? Will fans wait?

The answer there is always number 2; it’s the racing, not the talking heads that gets fans tuning in every Sunday. How can you sell a product to new fans when all they see is people talking about stock cars – not the stock cars themselves? A little Ricky-Danica love story or Kyle Larson’s dog side can only go so far in retaining viewership and keeping fans connected. Personalities drive the sport; they always have, but those personalities must also be connected to the product. And while I stay out of the TV coverage fracas, for the most part, it can’t do FOX any good to have the analysts fans are frustrated with forced to take center stage for hours. If people don’t like Darrell Waltrip’s analysis for 15 minutes of on-camera time in a pre-race show, you can imagine what they’re throwing at the television after three hours’ worth.

The NASCAR policy, it seems these days, is to run each race on the same day when reasonably possible. But it also can’t expect millions of fans, from whom their TV revenue is being derived, to sit in front of the television for an entire day. The East Coast on Sunday, had some perfect Spring weather following a winter most would like to forget. You better believe people found better things to do, quickly, instead of waiting through a myriad of “what ifs.” The Information Age offers too many choices; scramble too long and you’ll be put on the end of the list.

I understand NASCAR, by exerting patience, is trying to cater to those fans spending hard-earned money to come to the racetrack. It’s not like baseball, where local fans attend home games and one rainout means a free ticket for another day. Those who fly in, from thousands of miles away may not get a chance to see a race for 12 months. Still, in this age the television audience has to be weighed; no other sport makes their fans sit for hours at the track or at home while letting Mother Nature have total control. The trick here is to take that power back to minimize the damage. Maybe you put a limit on any type of delay (two hours?) and then have a “backup time” where the race would be scheduled to start. The Daytona 500 in primetime has been hyped for several years; why not have a backup plan to do the same on a rainy day?

In a rare event that a race does get pushed back at tracks with lights, why not make it a Monday night primetime event as well. It allows a maximum amount of fans to watch from home, live while giving localites a chance to work and see the race. Sure, there’s some fans whose travel plans were built around a Sunday race date. But what better way to bring them back next year then with full ticket refunds, a discount ticket to next year’s event and parking on the house? It’s the least a track can do, in the midst of the madness especially since the concessions alone from those race fans can turn them a profit.

If anything, this rain cloud should show NASCAR it needs a rain plan. The Air Titan can blow away all the water it wants, but in 2014, an age where everything is at the push of an iPhone button, the cold reality is fans won’t wait. Lazy Sunday afternoons are now busy weekends where NASCAR serves as a distraction, not the center of attention. The show may not be pretty, but there has to be a way for the show to go on, either through rain tires or some sort of modified level of competition. Research in this area won’t be instantaneous; answers could take years. But a snobbish turn of the nose, paired with a “can’t happen” also isn’t the right answer here. How would you feel, with money tight if you see three rain-delayed races in seven weeks? You’d have to be wondering if you spent $1,000, over a race weekend whether it would even end up worth it. It’s a pattern of delays and disappointment that makes fans clearly hesitate, a warning sign one wouldn’t have to worry about for a similar “vacation” to go see some NBA games out-of-town, for example.

That type of patience was fine in the ‘80s, when distractions were fewer, NASCARwas a hot new ticket, and half the races weren’t even televised. It’s 2014, and times have changed. A cute Twitter hashtag game, played by 3,000 dedicated fans-in-waiting won’t replace the millions who have gone off to do something else.

NASCAR has to have a better alternative, a direct approach to capture their attention for how and when the rain will affect things. I’m not brash enough to say I have the answers, but it’s also clear that NASCAR doesn’t have them now, either. Throwing up your hands in the air, praying for Mother Nature’s mercy isn’t a marketing plan; it’s the wrong type of white flag.

One of surrender.

About the author

The author of Bowles-Eye View (Mondays) and Did You Notice? (Wednesdays) Tom spends his time overseeing Frontstretch’s 30 staff members as its majority owner. Based in Philadelphia, Bowles is a two-time Emmy winner in NASCAR television and has worked in racing production with FOX, TNT, and ESPN while appearing on-air for SIRIUS XM Radio and FOX Sports 1's former show, the Crowd Goes Wild.

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