NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Racing Under the Lights: Better, or Just Hype?

The colors are brighter, somehow. Everything is magnified, and, well, they just lookfaster. Whether there’s a full moon in the sky above or simply the stars that pale in comparison to the shining lights, watching a NASCAR race after dark is quite an experience.

Night racing has become a staple on the NASCAR circuit since the first night race was held in 1978 at Bristol; nine of this year’s 36 races — a full quarter of the schedule — are scheduled after-dark affairs. Add the qualifying races for the Daytona 500 and the all-star events and somebody’s going to be paying some impressive electric bills.

Is the aesthetic appeal of night racing enough to keep fans interested?
Is the aesthetic appeal of night racing enough to keep fans interested?

Night races are popular with fans. Not only does the racing seem more exciting, somehow, to many of the legions in the stands, but it’s also cooler in the evening than it would be in the heat of a summer day. Even tracks in places like Michigan and New Hampshire aren’t exempt from summer heat, and the South is downright sweltering, so waiting for the sun to go down provides a little relief from the heat. With all that going for it, racing at night has to be good for the sport, right?

Well, not so fast.

While it may be more comfortable to sit in the stands during the cooler evening hours, and while the bright lights may make it seem like everyone is racing just a little harder, the racing itself is likely to suffer.

Why? Most of the best racing has some things in common. Older, slipperier pavement that wears out tires faster and makes drivers fight their cars generally produces the best racing. Case in point: look at the last couple of races at, of all places, Auto Club Speedway. Following a rash of repaving that left several tracks lightning-fast with plenty of grip, the aged pavement in Fontana actually produced a couple of the better races in the last couple of seasons with its old, worn-out surface.

Racing during the day actually helps this cause. The heat of afternoon draws oils to the surface of the asphalt, making the track slick and giving drivers colossal headaches as they try to figure out how to find the grip they need. Generally, they’re fighting loose race cars, and as we all learned from Days of Thunder, loose is fast. It seems contradictory, but a surface that lacks grip will often make for closer racing, especially if that surface is older and slipperier to start with.

Racing at night, when the sun isn’t pounding down on the track, gives the cars more grip, effectively tightening them up. In a race where there’s a transition from day to night, some teams will intentionally set their cars up to be too loose during the daylight, knowing that when the sun sets, the cars will come to the drivers and all will be well.

And for the teams, all will be well if they get the setups right for the night. The cars get easier to drive, and easier for someone to open up a big gap on the field. Tire wear and engine cooling become lesser strategies to play, putting fuel mileage at the forefront of many teams’ playbooks. Sometimes, that makes for an exciting or unpredictable finish — the 2007 Coca-Cola 600 comes to mind, where the top 5 was definitely a change from the norm.

But for most fans, is fuel mileage compelling enough to make them not only watch the race, but also talk about it later? Is one driver pulling away from the field enough to keep other drivers’ fans interested? Probably not.

Sure, you can have all of the same issues with a day race as with one under the lights. It’s happened, especially with so many tracks choosing to replace aging pavement just as the racing was getting better. But night racing, which insures faster speeds to those who can buy speed without much need for extraordinary strategy, makes the things many fans don’t like about today’s NASCAR even more likely to go down.

There’s still the heat factor for fans, though. No doubt there have been fans who suffered ill effects during day races due to the heat, especially if there were alcoholic beverages involved. Heat stroke isn’t something to take lightly by any means. But on the other hand, before most tracks even knew lights were an option, fans attended races during the day in the heat of summer and drivers climbed into their cars and drove them, without benefit of the cooling technology today’s racers enjoy. The heat was considered merely a part of the experience, and for the teams, the strategy.

The other consideration is one that’s been debated within the sport for years: does it hurt the smaller, local tracks when NASCAR’s top series is on track on a Saturday night, when many of the country’s short tracks are in action? The jury’s hung on this one. On one hand, many NASCAR fans who hit the local tracks a few times a year may indeed stay home and watch the race on TV or in person if it’s close enough. And that does hit the locals in the pocketbook.

On the flip side, there are some local diehards who won’t let a NASCAR race change their weekend plans. And with NASCAR’s TV ratings falling, fans are certainly doing something besides watching races, and if they really love racing, they might be at the track instead. It’s harder to use the local track angle to argue against night racing than it is to look at the racing itself.

Should NASCAR wipe out night racing in the future? No. At some tracks, like Bristol, it does add some excitement, and it also forces teams to employ different strategies from day races at the same track. But perhaps reducing racing under the stars to a smaller number, maybe four or five a season and never more than one at any track with the possible exception of the All-Star Race and Coca-Cola 600, would increase the novelty while making sure the racing is the best it can be. Because the better the racing, the happier the fans at the end of the day.

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