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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Beside the Rising Tide: How Long Has This Been Going On?

Somehow I missed the memo.

There’s a rapidly expanding effort to hand the world over to the millennials and great efforts are being made to cater everything to their tastes,whims and needs. Living out here in the vast rural wasteland outside any known WIFI zone (and having thought until recently WIFI was a local classic rock station) I’m a bit behind the wave and not even sure exactly what a millennial is. My guess is that it’s folks who have been alive a shorter period of time than I reasonably expect to live going forward.

One trait commonly ascribed to the millennials is their atrophied attention spans. One is expected to wax philosophically on matters of great import in 140 characters or less. Not counting emojis, of course. Thus millennials seem as unable to communicate effectively at length as I am unable to communicate effectively without an open beverage near the keyboard.

In an era of declining interest in NASCAR, I have heard more than once that, to cater to the new era fans, the races need to be shortened dramatically. That’s actually a trend that’s been going on quite a while now. It’s come back to the forefront as of late with more than a few people telling me that if the drivers aren’t going to race hard until the last ten laps anyway there’s no reason for the races to be so long.

By chance I was over a friend’s for dinner Saturday night and as is common in the month of March the TV ended up tuned to a college basketball game, coincidentally enough one featuring my alma mater. Yes, I graduated Villanowhere on Philly’s prestigious Main Line, but prior to Saturday night I’d never watched the school’s basketball team play.

I won’t lie and say I much cared for the event, but I was impressed by how quickly it was over.

As it turns out, the average college basketball game lasts two hours and twenty minutes. (Though Saturday the final 43 seconds took so long to play FOX managed to work in three commercial breaks. Yep, it seems that talent developed in FOX’s NASCAR wing cross-pollinates into other sports.) But a little over two hours isn’t that long. Perhaps it meets millennials expectations and that’s why “March Madness” has exploded in popularity over the last decade. What started as sport’s programmers’ search for anything to broadcast between the end of the NFL season and the beginning of the NHL playoffs and the start of baseball has become a nationwide obsession.

(Photo: Nigel Kinrade/NKP)
Is watching cars go fast and turn left something millennial will ever embrace? (Photo: Nigel Kinrade/NKP)

By coincidence, Saturday’s NXS race only lasted one hour, forty five minutes, and 11 seconds, a rather tidy event. The race was, after all, only 200 miles long and was slowed just three caution flags for minor incidents. (Which isn’t to say that it was a good race at all. One driver, Kyle Busch, led 84% of the laps and would have led more had other teams not gambled on two tires in a futile attempt to derail the JGR Express.)

It was Busch’s third straight dominating win in NXS, which can’t be helping interest in NASCAR’s AAA series (ironically once known as the Busch series) any at all. If NASCAR and FOX want to increase interest in the NXS races, maybe they ought to buy Kyle a Harley bagger or something so he’d have another means to amuse himself Saturday afternoons. But I digress.

Is two hours a reasonable time period for NASCAR to shoot for? It certainly flies in the face of my old adage that if an event I wish to attend is going to be shorter than the time it takes me to get home afterwards because of traffic it’s not worth going. But an industry insider told me last year NASCAR races would ideally last three hours or less from a television perspective.

So where does NASCAR racing stack up against other professional sports? Let’s look at the big Kahuna, at least ratings wise: the NFL, which generates powerhouse ratings that dwarf other sports. The average NFL game lasts 3 hours and 12 minutes. (Of which the ball is actually in play just 11 minutes…go figure.)

How about major league ball, America’s pastime? Last year’s average MLB game lasted 2 hours, 54 minutes and 39 seconds. That’s actually an improvement of about eight minutes over the

previous year as MLB tried to pick up the pace, which is sort of like turbocharging a Yugo. NHL games are comparatively svelte at 2 hours and 19 minutes. It just feels a lot longer than that when you’re stuck at your former brother-in-law’s favorite tavern in Upper Darby waiting for the game to end.

NBA games last an average of 2 hours and 18 minutes though the league is looking to cut that down a bit potentially changing quarters from 12 minutes to 11. Which begs the question, “What is a quarter?” (Hey no snide jokes about your ex here!) A quarter of an hour is fifteen minutes.

So how does NASCAR racing stack up?

Well, Google let me down there, though I did find that 58% of Cup races last more than three hours and just 14 events last year ran under the three-hour mark. For the sake of clarity, I am told the length of the races is measured from green flag to checkered flag, not counting any red flag stoppages for bad wrecks, track cleanup or weather.

Reviewing last year’s races, I found just about all of them clocked in somewhere between 2 hours and 45 minutes and 3 hours and 15 minutes. Oddly enough, the Watkins Glen road course event was one of the shortest at 2 hours and 24 minutes.

I’m no millennial, and my favorite race last year was the Southern 500 which clocked in at a whopping 4 hours, 28 minutes and 35 seconds, thanks in large part to 18 cautions that slowed the proceedings for 89 laps. For the record the first Southern 500 back in 1950, presumably run before the millennials grandparents had even begun dating, lasted 6 hours, 38 minutes and forty seconds. Prior to that race there was real question if any “stock” (and they really were stock back then) car could survive 500 miles under such grueling conditions. About half the field did and the margin of victory for Johnny Mantz over Fireball Roberts was 9 laps. I am fairly certain that none of the cars that finished the event still had functional adaptive cruise control or lane departure warning.

NASCAR’s longest race, distance wise, was, of course, the World 600 at Charlotte but it lasted “just” 4 hours and 3 minutes, The first World 600 run in 1960 lasted 5 hours, 34 minutes, and 6 seconds. Charlotte promoters might be missing an opportunity not having the Coca-Cola 600 promoted as the Ritalin 600.

As I’ve said, many races have already been trimmed back considerably. The traditional 500 milers at Pocono and Dover have been scaled back to 400 miles. Just eight 500-mile races are left on the schedule. The Daytona 500 and the Southern 500 are off limits. I’m not sure what Eddie Gossage’s thought process is at Texas. (Probably just trying to sell more at the concession stands.) Talladega’s two races are still 500 miles, though it wouldn’t bother me if both races’ lengths were slashed in half. The 600 is, and, I expect, always will be the longest event on the schedule. I have no issue with that, though it is curious that the two longest races time wise – the Coca-Cola 600 and Southern 500 – are run at night. If millennials struggle to pay attention longer than two hours, us old geezers, the ones that actually still watch NASCAR races, struggle to stay up late enough to watch the 11 o’clock news.

There was a time in my life when I was rarely in bed before midnight absent female companionship, and staying up to three was no big deal. These days I enjoy the luxury of turning in by 10:30 a couple nights a week though this cursed daylight savings time nonsense will doubtlessly throw a wrench in the plans this week. (Let me just take a quick moment to thank the millennials for inventing Red Bull.) Charlotte’s fall race, still a 500-miler, is also a night race. It wouldn’t bother me at all if they trimmed that one back to 400 miles.

So where did the 500-mile standard come from anyway? (And a lot of tracks still use the 500 number to promote shorter events whether it be 500 laps at Martinsville and Bristol or 500 kilometers at Phoenix).

The short answer is NASCAR was playing second fiddle to the open wheel cars back in the day and dad-gum it, if the Indy 500 is five hundred miles, our races are going to be 500 miles as well. Darlington track founder Harold Brasington envisioned a Southern version of the Indy 500, so that’s likely why he chose 500 miles as the distance for the track’s first race.

But why did the folks at Indy choose 500 miles? As best I’ve been able to find, they wanted the race to last about 7 hours (no millennials were around to protest back in 1911 and there was nothing on the other TV channels that day in that TV hadn’t been invented yet.) That length of time would allow fans to arrive mid-morning, having already attended worship services, and allow them to get home before dark. Driving after dark in 1911 was pretty dicey stuff.

In exchange for the price of their ticket, fans would be able to spend an entire day distracted from the soul-sapping boredom of living in early 20th century Indiana. And they still run the race to this day. You connect the dots. Hopefully those fans who showed up for the first Indy 500 left well entertained with most of them beginning to consider maybe those new-fangled automobiles weren’t going to be just a fad after all. And hopefully none of them got eaten by bears on the ride home.

(Photo: Matthew T. Thacker/NKP)
The steely look in a driver’s eyes hasn’t changed, but fans don’t seem to see it anymore. (Photo: Matthew T. Thacker/NKP)

As NASCAR moved more and more races from dirt bullrings and short tracks to superspeedways the 500 mile length just kind of stuck. The distance was considered a real test of both man and machine. Dagnabit it, Martha, if that Petty kid’s Plymouth will run 500 miles wide open mine ought to get me back and forth to work at the mill a few years! When Curtis Turner and Bruton Smith opened their new (finically plagued and rough as a cob) track at Charlotte in 1960, they decided to one up everyone and go 600 miles, which they billed as the longest race of any sort on a closed course.

Perhaps word of the 24 Hours of LeMans hadn’t reached Charlotte yet. Either way, it’s a good thing NASCAR promoters never latched onto that 24 hours thing. The Baja 1000 didn’t come along until 1967, and oddly enough it was 849 miles in length. (Still, the 1000 is a tough test of man and machine second only to the commute from the base of the Ben Franklin Bridge to the Route 30 bypass down the notoriously pot-holed and permanently under construction Schuylkill (“sure kill”)  expressway and Route 202 in the Monday to Friday “Get Off Your Damn Smart Phone” 500-minute rush hour event.)

As stock car racing technology evolved, the 500-mile distance became less of a challenge.

In the 1965 Southern 500 seven of 31 cars in the race failed to finish due to mechanical issues. In 1975 fully 21 of 41 cars failed to finish the 500 miles for mechanical failures with 11 entrants sidelined by “engine” issues, nine of them before the halfway point of the race and one in only 29 laps. In 1985, fifteen of forty entries were felled by mechanical woes, 13 of them engine related. Poor David Pearson’s mill only lasted 17 laps.

By 1996 the attrition rate for mechanical woes was down to just four cars. In 2004, we lost the Southern 500 Labor Day weekend tradition and a pox on the lot of those who played a hand in that call. In the spring Darlington race of 2005, again just four entries failed to finish due to mechanical issues. In last year’s renewal of the Southern 500 in Darlington on Labor Day weekend, four drivers failed to finish, all of them due to wrecks and not mechanical issues.

So if 500 miles is no longer a mechanical torture test, is it wise to shorten the races, some of them considerably, to try to appeal to the millennials? It’s still a hot button issue. I remember a lot of friends and fans were pretty upset when Pocono and Dover shortened their races from 500 miles to 400 a few years back. They wanted to know if the price of their tickets were going to be cut by 20 percent as well.

It remains to be seen if shortening races would attract millennials at all. I don’t understand it myself, having been obsessed by cars since I was a toddler, but even males of the millennial species subset (in Latin Perpetuum Connecticus) no longer seem to have much interest in cars. I have four nieces and nephews in that age bracket that don’t own cars (when I was their age I typically had four or five cars at a time and on a good day one of them would be running.) Two of my young relatives have chosen not to even get a driver’s license. To be fair I guess there were some periods when I was their age I didn’t have a license either, but that was at the behest of the state against my strongest objections. They look at their sometimes amusing but near constantly weird uncle’s continued obsession with watching cars drive in circles for four hours as just another symptom of his rapid downward spiral into the depths of dementia.

I once watched a televised car auction with Jon, who was baffled as to why anyone would pay $180,000 for a ’63 fuelie split window coupe I helped a friend reassemble. After all, the car didn’t even have nav, it didn’t park itself, and it had three pedals on the floor. “But it’s fuelie.” I told him. “It doesn’t have two deuces like some of them”. What? Two carburetors. What? Chicks dig it. Why? To an extent I shared his bafflement. For that much money, I could have a ’70 Cobra Jet Mustang, a driver-quality ’70 Stage One, a ’76 50th anniversary Trans Am and enough money left over for some projects. (or lawn ornaments as my sisters called them.)

So my guess is that if NASCAR’s motivation in shortening races is to draw more millennial fans, the effort is doomed to failure anyway, mobile hot spots and socializing areas be damned.

The Titanic sunk the year after the first Indy 500, 104 years ago next month. When those left on deck realized they were going under and all the future they had left was measured in minutes not years, doubtless some of them panicked and wept. But a lot of them chose to play music, sing and dance. If we live in an era where the sport of auto racing is on its final legs, I just take comfort in the fact I’ll probably be gone myself before it fades away completely. I got me a violin and I beg you call the tune, anybody’s choice, I can hear your voice….

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9 thoughts on “Beside the Rising Tide: How Long Has This Been Going On?”

  1. ” if an event I wish to attend is going to be shorter than the time it takes me to get home afterwards because of traffic it’s not worth going.”
    There is a lot of wisdom in that statement. Most other sports rely on fans in the metropolitan area to fill their seats. The number of fans driving more than 2 hours is probably small compared to a NASCAR event. When you have to rely on people outside the 2 hour perimeter I would think the event better make it worth the drive. I believe cutting races to 2 hour events would increase TV viewership but kill track attendance.

  2. Random thoughts:

    a. If I had that kind of disposable income (right now I’m just thankful to have any income), it’d be on a ’71 Hemicuda.

    b. If millennials’ attention span is so limited, perhaps drag racing is more fitting.

    c. Indy Speedway sucks. It’s too flat/wide/long for stock cars. And the sightlines suck. If nascrap insists on staying in the area, they’d be ahead to go to IRP just a few miles away.

    • Well if you had enough spare cash to fund a Hemicuda, particularly a 71 ragtop, you’d have a choice to make.

      A) Spend years looking for one with a numbers matching engine, trans, and rear end.

      B) Self fund a campaign for the Republican nomination for POTUS.

      Yeah, I just wish my income had kept up with the classic car market. Like my buddy Jimmy once sang, “I made enough money to buy Miami, but I pissed it away so fast, never meant to last…..

  3. man i hear millennials everywhere now. seems like that is all that matters to anyone is that segment of the population. however, most millennials i know haven’t a clue.

    ok……my attention span isn’t what it use to be, i think once i hit that half-century mark a great number of years ago, a switch went off in my head. and don’t even try to keep me awake during this west coast deal. i get too busy to stop at 3 pm to watch race.

    i’m with bill……i have been to races that were great, but were ruined by the 5 hr trip to go less than 100 miles get home. how a 5 hr trip to and from charlotte to ga…that would be good. i drive too much, in crappy atlanta traffic during the week to even think a passing though about sitting in post-race traffic with a bunch of liquored up yahoos.

    i’ve said all along, a very long long time ago when this fledgling sports network had nascar races on, they came on at the top of the hour the race was to start. no 30-60 min pre-race yahoo. came on, viewers were able to participate in the prayer and national anthem and then it was time to go. you know, many things about life were simpler back then. you got home from church, sunday school and a lunch, changed out of your church clothes, and turned on the tv. no constant talk of the official toilet paper provider of nascar, or official provider of infield port-a-potties. just racing….3 guys in the pits and some awesome guys in the booth. and you know what…..NO BOOGITY or gridwalk! but then, they both were still racing then.

  4. Every time I hear the argument that races need to be shortened because millenials have short attention spans, I think of all the hours those very kids spend playing video games, or with their noses buried in their phones, texting up a storm. They seem to have plenty of attention to do that, but not watch a race that’s more than 3 hours long? Really? I find it a convenient excuse to once again throw tradition out the window.

  5. If there is sufficient action, the race length shouldn’t matter. Heck, the 400 milers at Michigan are usually the shortest races, averaging about 2:30-2:40 but most of the time it is 2:30-2:40 too long.

  6. I believe it’s “quarter” as in quarter of the total regulation game time. NBA games used to be 60 minutes but they cut it down because the scores were too high.

    Why does it take 27 minutes to play the last 48 seconds of a college basketball game, especially during March Madness? It’s almost as bad as a Yankees/Red Sox game that’s guaranteed to be more than 4 hours, especially on a Sunday night. Why does a coach call a timeout with 10 seconds left in the game and his team down 15 points? That’s quite a play he’s drawing up that never seems to work.

    When is Brian going to get the adage “The customer is always right,” provided he listens to the right customers.

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