Night races used to be a main highlight of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series schedule. From the old Winston to August’s Bristol night race, every event NASCAR held under the lights had added significance. Fans showed up early and burned the midnight oil at their favorite tracks as races ran well into the evening.
Unfortunately for the sport, those aren’t the days we live in anymore. Nowadays, night races control nearly a fourth of the Cup Series schedule, no longer the “special treat” they used to be. Saturation has come with low viewership, single-file races and higher risk of postponement due to rain.
With all the issues piling up at least one track is giving up on the concept. Richmond International Raceway will convert their spring night race into a Sunday day event, returning to their former schedule beginning with the 2016 season.
With Richmond taking the plunge, the question has risen whether they’ll start a trend. Should NASCAR remove night races altogether?
Should NASCAR Get Rid of Night Races?
Opinion One: Yes! Please!
As announced by Motorsport last month, the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series plans to lose at least one night race next season.
If fans are lucky, NASCAR might just cut out the rest of them while they’re at it.
First established in the 1992 Winston All-Star Race, or “One Hot Night” as the race was referred to, night racing was a spectacle at first. No one believed that a 1.5-mile track could be lit up properly for drivers to see during a race. Yet, with reflective mirror in the midfield, NASCAR pulled it off.
Night races were an interesting new concept back then, but that was 23 years ago, back in the day of the Sony Walkman, when the internet was just being introduced and MTV still played music.
In the modern era, night races aren’t looked upon as anything special. The races don’t see any extra viewership from running at night. They’re just another event on the schedule at best, and with a large portion of NASCAR’s fanbase getting older, they’re also events that many struggle to stay up for.
With most races starting at 7 p.m. ET or later, night races also suffer from an issue that haven’t plagued day races to the same degree: rainouts.
Including exhibition races, 11 of the year’s 41 events – a full fourth of the schedule – were planned to run on either Thursday or Saturday nights. Of those 10 events, two were postponed until the next day by rain, forced to run on the Sunday afternoon slot they should’ve had to begin with. Another, the Coke Zero 400, was forced run well into the night, ending shortly after 3 a.m. ET on Monday morning.
The reason for the postponements is simple. While races scheduled to run during the day have a period of 7-10 hours to wait for rain to halt and the track to dry, night races often offer a period of less than five hours to wait before it gets too late to justify airing by the network.
The sad truth is that that many fans prefer a rainout so they can view the race on Sunday. Why? Because there’s a least a glimmer of hope to see some passing when the race moves to the daytime.
Driving on cool, grippy tracks, many of the night races in recent years have put on a show similar to the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, a show of paint schemes and speed without any actual passing.
While a few races have managed to avoid this fate – Kentucky and Darlington with the low-downforce package come to mind – the argument could be made that both of those events would’ve been even stronger during the day, when a hotter, slicker track would’ve encouraged passing and increased tire wear.
Need more proof that day races are superior to night races? Just ask NASCAR’s most popular driver.
Following another snoozer at the All-Star Race, Dale Earnhardt Jr. admitted to preferring day races to NASCAR.com.
“I think everywhere, you prefer racing during the day as opposed to night,” Earnhardt said. “Night racing sort of has its places, and certain tracks can put on a great show at night. Certain tracks put on a better show during the day. I think that your potential to have a good show doesn’t really depend on the time of day, but you’ve got I think a better opportunity during the daytime.
“There’s a bit of a science to it — the track surface is hotter, the track’s slicker, the groove’s wider. You saw this past week in the All-Star Race, a lot of guys struggled with running in the top, making the top an advantage. You could get up there and use it. You saw some guys maybe make some passes up there, but it was never really a place somebody spent a lot of time with and dominated with or found a really competitive time up there consistently throughout those little runs.”
Take away the minor backtracking to save face for night racing in the first paragraph, and what’s seen above is essentially Earnhardt claiming that a day race always has a greater opportunity to be strong than one ran under the lights.
The truth about night races on the schedule is that they cover up a greater issue. Ran roughly every four races, night races offer an easy way to switch up the series schedule and add extra flavor. However, the move isn’t working. Fans aren’t tuning in.
NASCAR’s real issue is that the schedule is too long. Were the series to cut roughly four races and give teams a few more off-weeks, the schedule would stay fresh, cut out unnecessary duplicate races and allow the Firecracker 400 and Southern 500 to be ran during the day as they always were in the past.
Moving a race to the night time, or “primetime” as TV executive refer to it, was a fun gimmick for NASCAR in the early ’90s, but with a playoff format, new cars, myriad debris cautions and double-file restarts, NASCAR has enough gimmicks on its hands. It’s time to remove the night races and bring some light to NASCAR’s real issue: the overloaded schedule. – Aaron Bearden
Opinion Two: No! Night Races Are Here to Stay
Night races have been a NASCAR tradition for over 20 years and do not deserve to be dumped from the schedule. Have they contributed to the ratings decline? The answer is a resounding no. Instead, people aren’t tuning in for three reasons: the rules package, television contracts and the Chase.
Two of these — the rules package and the TV contracts — are issues that affect night races and can be explored. Let’s begin.
It’s a common complaint that night races lack the excitement that the 1992 Winston brought, and most of those complaints stem from one dreaded word: aero. Here’s how it goes. Night races are held under cooler temperatures than those during the day. Cooler temps give teams more grip and bring about faster speeds. Faster speeds equal more aero dependency and the competition suffers.
Under the current rules package, that certainly is true. Night races are largely follow-the-leader affairs, with the leader having a tremendous advantage. Seeing drivers lead three-quarters of a race, as Matt Kenseth did this fall at Richmond, is a legitimate issue.
But a runaway winner isn’t just an issue at night races. Kevin Harvick led 355 of 400 laps at Dover two weeks ago. He led 224 of 312 laps at Phoenix earlier in the season.
Kurt Busch led 291 of 400 laps at the first Richmond race. Joey Logano led 227 of 334 laps just four days ago at Charlotte—and both of these dominating performance occurred during a race originally scheduled for night but run in the day after rain forced their postponement.
The 2016 rules package, which was race tested this season at Kentucky and Darlington, both produced so much more competition that fans and drivers both asked NASCAR to abandon the current package come Chase time and utilize the new one instead. Wait, Kentucky and Darlington put on good races? Don’t they get run at night? Hmm.
So it’s not so much a temperature issue as it is a rules issue. The 2016 package is by no means the end-all of rules packages, I’ll admit. During the Darlington race, Brad Keselowski was still able to lead 196 laps. Kyle Busch led 163 laps at Kentucky. Clean air plays a large role in the new package, but it is a significant upgrade over the current one. I’d bet both types of races — night and day — will benefit from the new package.
Alright, now a more contentious reason why we need night races: the NFL. Football is a ratings behemoth, and anything going up against it is going to lose. Every time. The sport is one of the biggest reasons why Brian France created the Chase, because he wanted a playoff system like they had. But putting races up against any of the 15 or so games held each week isn’t a smart idea.
A major reason why television ratings are dipping is because NASCAR is losing casual fans to the pigskin. A lack of competition is one huge reason why casual fans are leaving. The new package could help right that ship.
Holding races at night not only helps Brian France stay away from a head-to-head battle with Roger Goodell, but it allows races to be held on national networks such as FOX and NBC rather than FS1 and NBCSN. Because, let’s face it, executives at those networks are never going to replace football with auto racing.
By showing races on flagship stations during time slots away from football, ratings will be higher than now not only because casual fans don’t have to choose between their beloved Cowboys or Earnhardt Jr., but also because the sport will be shown to more eyeballs than it currently is. Not everyone gets the specialty channels races are currently held on.
NASCAR does need to reevaluate when they place the night races on the schedule, however. Saturday nights just don’t cut it. People aren’t going to give up plans to watch a race and Saturday nights are about as scheduled as they come. And Fridays? Forget it. There’s a reason why scripted television doesn’t air on Saturdays and why Friday is considered the death slot for showrunners. People are busy!
Instead, NASCAR can either move races to Sunday evening, which would put them up against Sunday night football, or they can schedule them for a weekday. A mid-week show is something that NASCAR execs have talked about before. The biggest issue is logistics. It’s hard enough for a team to turn around Sunday night, make it back to the shop and head back to the next track in a week, let alone three days.
NASCAR would have to figure out the logistics before committing to this change, and that is a whole other column. A couple of suggestions? Starting the races before seven and holding shorter races during these events. Track attendance would suffer, but television ratings would rise. What’s the more important metric? I’ll leave to you to decide.
It’s worked before. Eldora and the 2012 Daytona 500 — the first run in Monday primetime — show that people will tune in during the week to watch racing. In fact, that Daytona 500 was the second-most watched iteration of the race at the time, with over 36 million people tuning in.
There’s an appetite for night racing. It needs to stay. It’s just up to NASCAR to keep up with the times so it can bring a great show to the most people possible. – Sean Fesko