By now, most of you know this year’s Indy 500 drew higher Nielsen TV ratings (4.1) than the World 600 (3.8) for the first time since 2005. But the finish might be closer than it appears. NASCAR ratings tend to climb after the overnights, inching closer because stock car racing has a lot of appeal in some smaller TV markets that aren’t originally counted. As far as actual viewers, the numbers appear too close to call. For now, call it a photo finish, especially because it’s impossible to say how many people were watching either race intently and how many had the TV on for background noise as they grilled on the back porch.
I tried looking up historical ratings numbers over the last decade, but someone else did it faster and better. A fellow, Mr. Paulsen, of sportsmediawatch.com posted the chart below on his Twitter account. I don’t want anyone to think this work was my own, so for anyone curious to see the historical TV ratings for both races from 2000 to 2015, here’s what Paulsen uncovered….
— Sports Media Watch (@paulsen_smw) May 28, 2015
Let’s see what we can deduce from these numbers. First, back at the dawn of the new millennium on the open-wheel side, the sport was still reeling from the infamous IRL/CART (Champ Car) split. A lot of the big name drivers were no longer racing in the Indy 500. Some of you may recall in 1996, there were actually three races on the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend: the Indy 500, the World 600, and the U.S. 500, a CART race in Michigan meant to send a clear message to Tony George in Indy an open-wheel series in America could get along just fine without the Indy 500, thank you very much. What a bumblefug that turned out to be. Qualifying at Michigan was delayed by snow flurries (yes, in May). Then, the field was lined up to start the race in three rows, as was traditional at Indy. But before the race could even go green, a bunch of guys in the front rows started hitting one another and the resultant wreck took out 10 cars before the race had even gotten underway. CART decided to let those teams roll out backup cars and compete that day anyway. Jimmy Vasser won that race in a backup car, but that whole boondoggle had left CART flat out on the canvas, both eyes bloodied and hollering for its mommy.
In 2000, car owner Chip Ganassi decided enough was enough and entered cars in that year’s Indy 500. One of his drivers – you might have heard of this Juan Pablo Montoya fellow somewhere – went ahead and spanked the IRL field. Oops. In his post-race press conference, Montoya noted that winning Indy wasn’t that big a deal and he wouldn’t be back the following year because he’d inked a deal to drive in Formula 1. In 2001, Roger Penske returned to Indianapolis as well. There was a nice little spike in the ratings in that period as beleaguered open-wheel racing fans started slowly returning to the fold.
It can be argued that NASCAR racing benefited greatly from the open-wheel rift and became the 600-pound gorilla of American motorsports. For 2001, the big news in NASCAR racing was the new TV deal that would have most of the sport’s races on network TV, not cable. (This year, it’s about a 50-50 mix, with the races on cable shown on networks hardly anyone gets as part of basic cable plans). FOX covered the first half of the season, which included the World 600, and promoted the hell out of the sport. Sadly, they got a temporary ratings boost after Dale Earnhardt Sr. was killed in their first race broadcast. But things were looking pretty rosy that May for FOX, at least on paper with a 5.3 rating for the 600, a figure the network has eclipsed just once in the 14 years since. That year, the Indy 500 still out-rated the 600, posting a 5.8 rating but their place atop the charts was short-lived. Throw out the 2005 season, when Danica Patrick debuted at Indy and the 2009 events, when the 600 was postponed due to weather and the 600 has reliably beat out the Indy 500 every year since.
But it’s not just this year that’s the problem for NASCAR. Take a closer glance at that chart. Stock car ratings are trending down, not just for the 600 but for most races across all networks. It didn’t seem that a declining interest in open-wheel racing was benefiting NASCAR’s TV numbers. I have some guesses as to why. FOX, in their infinite bravado had self-appointed themselves the “Saviors of Stock Car Racing.” However, right from the outset, their coverage had many long-term (ahem) more mature fans grinding their teeth into calcium powder as the network sought out a younger, hipper fan base. How young? Does anyone remember Little Digger, the rodent that was going to sell stock car racing to the Gymboree set? Yeah, that worked out well, didn’t it? I forget the FOX exec’s name but when told that stock car fans found Digger annoying, his reply was terse. “Tough.” When told a lot of fans found ol’ DW mighty annoying as well, FOX extended his contract, extending the tidal wave of aural terrorism the old codger launched from day one. Yes, “Boogity-boogity-boogity” is a minor irritant. I’ve grown accustomed to muting the television if I’m at home, at least until the cars reach the first corner. Yep, it’s a minor irritant but it does, in fact, set the tone for rest of the broadcast. FOX has told the longtime fans, “We don’t care what you think. This is how we present a race and if you don’t like it, don’t watch it.”
A few million fans heard that message loud and clear and have not only decided not to watch races any longer, they’ve decided to stop attending them as well. Back in the day, a particularly good race (and the ratio of classics to clunkers was a lot better back then) would sell a bunch of grandstand seats for the next one. Nowadays, not so much. One could argue whether the decline of interest is the fault of NASCAR or FOX but I see them as co-conspirators in the gradual strangulation of a sport that was once a centerpiece of my life.2005 really stands out on the chart. As noted above, that was the year Danica Patrick ran her first Indy 500. Interest in the 500 was off the charts as a result. That year, I had to cover the 600 in the evening but I was watching the 500 simply out of curiosity. I watched the first half of Indy live and taped the rest so I could go to a neighborhood party. In this neighborhood, it’s a matter of “be seen or be talked about,” especially when you’re the only single guy on the street and you use a 55-gallon barrel for recycling.
I remember that year a lot of the neighbors who had about zip interest in auto racing – and would typically drift off quickly if I started discussing it – all wanted to know, “How’s the girl doing at Indy?” (Yes, my neighbors should be more politically correct. Patrick is a woman, not a girl. And she’s a field-filler, not a racer, but I digress.) When I told them Patrick was doing quite well, for the first time ever at a holiday weekend party, a small TV was dragged out on the porch and a bunch of my neighbors who’d never seen a single lap of an auto race watched at least part of Indy as I provided commentary between hot dogs and gulps of beer. (So obviously, I wasn’t talking a whole lot.) Patrick went on to finish fourth. Perhaps there were other TVs dragged onto back porches for the first time that day, as the race posted a stellar 6.5 rating.
Here’s what I find interesting. I’d have thought that more people watching the Indy 500 would have equated to less people watching the World 600. As it turns out, it’s not a competition for viewers between the “taxi-cabs” and the “go karts.” A rising tide lifts all boats. The 600 drew a 6.1 rating that same day, so it would seem that race fans will watch both rather than choose between the two. That 6.1 rating for Charlotte is the highest FOX has enjoyed since they took over telecasting the first half of the NASCAR season. Unfortunately, that year’s 600 wasn’t a very good race. In a rare misstep, Charlotte promoter Humpy Wheeler had decided to “levigate” the track to remove the infamous “Humpy’s Bumps” drivers had been complaining about since Grandma Moses was at her junior prom. The resultant “diamond”-grooved track became coming apart and with it came the tires. That year’s 600 was run under caution for more than 25% of the laps and the marathon took a whopping five hours and 16 minutes to play out. While there was a nice battle to the checkers between eventual winner Jimmie Johnson and runner-up Bobby Labonte it might have been a matter of too little, too late. Way too late. Perhaps that has something to do with why ratings for the World 600 have declined almost every year since?
Jeff Gordon crashed as a result of the track issues. That contributed towards his missing the Chase that year. Yep, the Chase was with us even back in 2005, in its second year back then. Fans didn’t like it but NASCAR told us we just had to get used to it… eventually we would? I’m still waiting. (Thanks to my colleagues Philip Allaway, Vito Pugliese, and “The Other White Matt” Stallknecht for their assistance on the particulars of the 2005 World 600. Their recollections of the event are somewhat clearer than mine. I must have had too many hot dogs that day.)
Sadly, if a rising tide lifts all boats, a lowering tide must sink them back on the shoals. Since that day in May 2005, ratings for both races have remained marooned in the low-to-mid fours with an occasional dip into the upper threes. If we were discussing dollars here, that wouldn’t sound like much but those rating points and percentages represent millions of folks no longer watching auto racing of either flavor. Meanwhile, ever growing numbers are actually laying out hard-earned cash to watch a couple of tattooed thugs in an octagon kick each other in the face.
It seems inescapable that overall interest in auto racing is in decline not only specifically but generally. Nobody seems to have a solid plan to arrest that slide and turn it around. I’m a “keep it simple, stupid” type. Forget trying to market and hype the sport on social media. Improve the product and they will come. (Or in this case, they will come back). The millennials have also shown an indifference toward not only auto racing but autos themselves. I’m one of five children my parents had to endure, with four of us all teenagers at one time. My sisters were never gearheads but damn, do I remember how much they wanted a driver’s license and their first car. Sharing cars simply didn’t work. At one point, the McLaughlin family driveway looked like a used car lot. (With Matt’s junkyard of half-completed project cars out back serving as a constant annoyance to our neighbors in an upscale Main Line community.) Compare that to the current generation. Among my nieces and nephews of driving age, one of them has never had a license and doesn’t want one, a couple of them only drive occasionally and six of them don’t own a car. None of them watch auto races.
So I’d suggest to the networks, then that they should target their broadcasts to their audience: longtime, more mature fans. Taylor Swift doesn’t spin the letters, but Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy haven’t gone off the air in all these decades, have they? If you watch any of the network’s nightly newscasts, the ads are geared heavily toward seniors they might convince have developed some new disease or ailment worth talking about at the Olde Country Buffet. (Side effects may include your teeth falling out, your bones turning to jelly, your head exploding and in isolated instances, a runny nose.)
I guess the scariest part of looking over the ratings from last weekend is that neither the Indy 500 nor the World 600 was the top-rated sports broadcast. That honor went to basketball, an NBA game that was broadcast on cable not network TV. Remember back when the Dark Overlords in Daytona told us NASCAR racing was the second most popular sport in the country, second behind only the NFL and we were running down the NFL quick? It’s interesting that their marketing numbers claim there’s still tens of millions of stock car racing fans out there. Apparently, most of them just don’t bother watching races anymore which begs the question, “What is a fan?” I’m told the ratings drop might be attributable to folks using their phones, laptops and now even watches to follow the sport. Sure, OK. I’m sure the crew told guests on the Titanic they were just stopping to pick up some ice, too.
So I bought a .44 magnum it was solid steel cast
And in the blessed name of Elvis well I just let it blast
Til my TV lay in pieces there at my feet
And they busted me for disturbin’ the almighty peace
Judge said “What you got in your defense son?”
57 channels and nothin’ on.