NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Beside the Rising Tide: See Ya Later

Digging farther into their seemingly bottomless bag of tricks NASCAR (at the behest of network overlords) has come up with their latest “can’t miss” trick to bolster sagging TV ratings and dwindling attendance. Beginning in 2017, they’re going to start races later in the day. This weekend’s Pocono event, as an example has now been pushed back to a 3 p.m. ET green flag.

Really. I’m serious.  If I could make up stuff this stupid, I’d be working for one of the presidential campaigns.

In the days of yore, you still needed to figure out which network the race was on (as you still must today in this era of races seesawed between broadcast TV and the digital wasteland of their startup satellite channels.) But back then, if someone asked me what time the race was on, I’d reply “one o’clock” without devoting much thought to it.

Oh, there were a few night races and an occasional west coast date. But by and large, not too long ago the traditional start time was 1:00 real…er, I mean, east coast time. During those boom years of NASCAR’s popularity, fans fell into a Sunday rhythm many  still miss. You went to church services, came home, had breakfast with the clan and then switched on the race. (Often literally. Some TVs still didn’t have remotes back then.)

By one o’clock, you know I really mean one o’clock. As opposed to today’s seemingly endless pre-race procrastinating, prognostication, pontificating, promoting and horribly failed attempts at comedy back then if the TV Guide (which was still available in paper form) said the race started at 1 p.m. well gosh, ten minutes after the hour there’d be cars circling the track driven in anger. The race was over by four o’clock, worst case five, leaving fans plenty of time to enjoy some afternoon leisure activities before sunset. No, this column isn’t me viewing prelapsian rewrites of history again. This is the way race fans, myself, so many people spent their Sundays.

Compare that to next year, when all of three races are scheduled to start before 2 p.m. ET. There will be Texas in the spring, Dover in June, and Martinsville in the fall. That’s three out of 36 points-paying races, slightly less than 10 percent of the schedule. For comparison’s sake, there’s seven “night” races next year, events which to date have been some of the lowest rated in the sport’s history.

(Photo: NASCAR via Getty Images)
Say goodnight, Jimmie. Fans at NASCAR tracks without lights might be out of luck if weather rolls in with later start times next season.  (Photo: NASCAR via Getty Images)

Why the change? Well, some NASCAR spokesperson (who deserves an Oscar for keeping a straight face while saying it) says it’s better for the fans. Of course it’s better for the fans. Everything NASCAR does is better for the fans, which is why they need to use firehoses to keep the stampede of fans trying to get into all the sold out races lately.

One start time change that immediately grabbed my attention was for both Pocono events. As previously mentioned, those races will “start” at 3 p.m. ET So let’s say that the race actually begins roundsabout 3:30. Say the race itself runs about three hours in length, about average for a Pocono Cup race since they were shortened to 400 miles.

We’ll next be optimistic here and say it only takes fans an hour and a half to get out of the parking lot and clear local race day traffic to get to a major highway, one where traffic flows somewhat freely. (And that’s being overly optimistic. It’s the most confounded thing I’ve ever seen. Even with race attendance less than half of what it used to be, the traffic around most tracks hasn’t gotten any better.) It’s another three-hour trip home to the suburbs of Philly or Long Island, Pocono’s two biggest markets.

That means the race fan family (two-and-a-half badly sunburned kids screaming because their phones need to be recharged; Dad, just slightly tipsy to the point he’s slipping up and using an occasional profanity you only hear on TV during presidential debates; and a thoroughly irritated Mom whose wondering if its time to slip that cute barista at Starbucks her phone number) pull into the driveway, it’s closing in on 11 p.m. That’s well past the little monsters’ bedtimes, Dad (and probably Mom) need to be at work the next day and it’s too late for Mom to call her sister and wonder aloud how her life had degenerated into such a loveless living hell.

But, someone might say, that’s only two hours later than the happy family would have gotten home had the race still started at one like God and Dr. Joseph Mattioli intended! Well, sir, I have limited experience dealing with kids based on babysitting (and later nieces and nephews). The levels of irritating depravity they are capable of ratchets up exponentially between nine and 11 which might explain why I don’t have kids. On the other hand, I have practically limitless experience dealing with drunks (or as I fondly call them, my social circle.) The difference in the level of intoxication between nine and 11 at night is dramatic. It’s like going from “forgetting to use a coaster” buzzed to “laying face down in the front yard with his pants around his ankles and the cops checking for a pulse” polluted.

Certainly, the later start times could benefit the tracks. Along with plunging ticket sales we’ve seen precipitous declines in concession revenues. The longer people are at the track, the more likely it is they’ll bite the bullet and buy a nine-dollar hamburger and a five-dollar soft drink to wash it down with. Multiply that by 4.5 members of our fictional family of no-longer-quite-so-happy race fans and you’re talking some major coin, especially when Junior is wider than he is tall and his epic sunburn is measured in acreage.

Of course, nobody wants to see weather delays at a racetrack, not even fat kids. Scheduling start times later in the day, especially at places without lights gives NASCAR less wiggle room when it comes to delaying a race rather than postponing the event to the following day. At tracks with lights, there lays an even more troubling scenario wherein we see a race allowed to run until 3 in the morning again like the 2015 Firecracker 400.

I’d be willing to bet my scoot at least once next year we’ll see a race that could have run at least to halfway if it started at one o’clock delayed until the next day by foul weather. Of course, we could also see a race that starts on time due to the later start that would have been delayed if it started at one o’clock. But while some people see the glass half full, I still see it as half empty, containing vile pus drained from a boil on an ailing pack mule (or Budweiser, as some people term it).

So if the tracks are going to lose ticket sales and the fans I’ve spoken to embrace the idea of later start times like a rabid porcupine, who wants this shift to happen? This one has got the TV partners (FOX and NBC’s) fingerprints all over it. There’s apparently a school of thought that having the races conclude just prior to primetime will somehow boost ratings both for the races themselves and that network’s primetime lineup. Yep, I can see how having casual and even some more devoted fans figuring out not just what network the race is on but what time a race begins boost TV ratings.

Intelligence doesn’t matter here though; money does. With the majority of their revenue, and the only source of income NASCAR has not subject to the vagaries of fan interest, there’s no way the powers that be in Daytona Beach are going to say “no.” Naturally, when a race runs long, creating an actual overlap between the race and primetime things will probably not work out well for race fans. Even our TV pals at ESPN once tossed us under the bus and cutaway from a Busch race to jump toward the pre-event festivities for the Kentucky Derby.

Yep, I tend to be a bit harsh on the TV types. I have little patience with anyone in any endeavor who produces sloppy and shoddy work then stands there beaming, waiting for their “participant” trophy. Way back in the days of yore, before many of you were likely born, most NASCAR races weren’t on TV at all. In the few cases they were shown on TV, it was several weeks after the event and only portions of the race were shown between segments of other sports.

Then along came ESPN, a blip-on-the-radar-screen cable TV sports outlet in the 1980s with more air time to fill than it had stuff to show. They decided to gamble on stock car racing to fill up the afternoon time slots on Sundays. Of course, the experiment worked out splendidly. If one will argue NASCAR was very, very good for ESPN it also must be noted that ESPN was very, very good for NASCAR. Other cable channels like TNN, TBS and others latched onto the bandwagon and viewership exploded.

In fact, stock car racing became so popular FOX and NBC came in and outbid all players for exclusive rights to their respective halves of the season. Back then? NASCAR said it was better for the fans. The ruling France family was practically giddy announcing all 36 races were going to be on network TV starting in 2001.

How’d that work out for ya’ll?

What’s always confused me is the new TV networks saw what was working with the previous network’s broadcast of our sport – you know, stuff like starting the races at 1 p.m. – and yet they decided they knew better how to get the job done. A look at the difference in ratings between 2000 and today, though seems to indicate rather strongly they were wrong.  Wrong sort of like the way Captain Edward Smith got a little behind in his steering of the HMS Titanic….

I’m sensing a growing trend amongst race fans that stock car racing is no longer what they used to call “appointment TV” they planned their lives around. More and more people are choosing to use the trusty DV-R to record the race and watch it when it’s damn well convenient for them, not when some mid-level Wharton business school marketing network exec thinks they ought to be glued to the couch. Most importantly, they’re wearing the paint off the “FF” keys of their remotes skipping the incessant and insane commercials, plus the boring stretches of races (which at some tracks comprises everything other than the first three laps of the race and the first three laps after restarts.) I think I could have seen everything I needed to see of this year’s Brickyard 400 in about ten minutes.

So to all the champions of the later start times, sure, you go right on ahead and try it. We’ll catch up with ya’ll in a bit or if not, we’ll see you later.

 

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janice

i’m waiting to see how race coverage fairs during the olympics. nbc is the olympic station, so all their affiliates have olympic coverage scheduled, so you know nbcsn has it as well. if race at watkins glen gets delayed or postponed, i guess the mess at rio will just float the untreated human waste further out in the tide.

i knew when i logged in an saw fog was rolling into area at pocono on monday it was a done deal.

later race times, i’ll just have to adjust my afternoon nap schedule. i forget about races now, later, ha, i’ll never remember. can’t say i’ve missed watching racing. i catch the highlights at the end of the race when they’re in victory with the gibbs team of the week winner.

Josh Owenby

First of all, I don’t like the later starting times either. But several years ago, the fans complained loudly about the races starting later in the day. NASCAR and the networks agreed to earlier starting times and promoted it all year long. Unfortunately, the ratings didn’t go up. So the fans don’t need to start complaining about it now. They got their cake but they didn’t eat it.

spot1

Is that along the lines of You! Yes, you! Behind the bikesheds. Stand still laddie!

Upstate24fan

They tried the uniform 1pm Sunday start times a few years ago, but then oops the Chase races were starting when the 1pm NFL games kicked off. So, that quickly changed. I don’t mind a 2 or 3pm start on Sundays. It gives me some extra time on Sunday’s to get stuff done before the race. It’s not like it’s that tough now to find when something will air on tv. Gone are the days where you need TV Guide or the newspaper. However, the concern with weather bothers me, especially putting a Pocono race at 3pm.

Paul L

I’m sure the later start times are because most NFL games start at 1. There are some later games but usually only 2 or 3 so NASCAR probably figures less people are interested in those games and they will turn over to the race instead. Yeah, bet that works out wonderfully.

DoninAjax

Maybe the green flag could drop at 12:30, before the NFL game starts. But, with Brian’s “product,” there’s a good chance the football game, or beach volleyball match, will get more viewers. It’s a lost cause and Brian won’t come to grips with it.

Bill B

Well that’s a good theory Paul L but it’s hard to see how the NFL matters to the two Pocono races (and some others that have later start times).
Now the ratings get to drop in prime time instead of the afternoon. No real difference.
I’ll let you in on a little secret too. Nothing NASCAR does or doesn’t do will change the fact that the NFL will always kick their ass. I hope they know that by now.

katiescarlett

Matt , how did you know my ff and mute buttons were worn off? These announcers don’t describe the race, they just try to out-talk one another.

It will be harder than ever to watch with variable start times. And, bless their hearts, delays mean the networks switch over to the affiliate channels without notice, so our DVR records something other than a race. I guess if I miss it, so what? I’ve been frustrated with the broadcasts for a while now. I didn’t even watch Indy–at all.

John

great article – funny as Nascar supposedly had went back to the earlier times a few years ago “because of the fans”. Trust me, no fan anywhere… has ever wanted or agreed to a 3:30 start time. Just another complete lie from the France leadership.

You pointed out the biggest concern I have personally, that this will result in more postponed races, and TV disasters. I remember not that long ago a Daytona 500, back when they were trying to start the race late. Any idiot who could look at the sky, a weather report, or radar could clearly see that rain was coming later in the day. Nope, gotta stand around all day long, talk, listed to Kenny and Michael Wallace, a Sheryl Crow performance in the infield, etc. Then right when the dark clouds start to roll in, do an extended pre-race ceremony with military, sing the anthem, and clear all the jokers out of the pits so they can finally start. Then, run a few green laps, call it a night.

Then, don’t tell the fans what’s going on. Even when the rain stops…leave everyone clueless. They have lights you know, it may start back up at 10 pm. Then at 11:30, tell fans they are starting. By then, the race has been moved to Fox Business Network, but unless you check a website somewhere, you will never know.

Ken

The later start times aren’t a factor at home. Well, not at my home anyway. Nobody here watches football, as my wife and I both hate football with a passion! We feel the same toward baseball, hockey, basketball, and soccer! It’s also not really that much of an issue when we go to a race, as we go back to the hotel, stay over night, and come home the next day. (I also plan for the possibility of weather delays, and will stay over to see the race, come heck or high water.) However, I still prefer earlier start times, and yesterday was an example as to why. We were at Michigan in June, 2015. If they had of started that race at around 12:30, the skis were sunny and clear. They probably could have got a lot more in than just 138 laps. The bad weather didn’t roll in until about 2:00, and from there, it was all down hill. Put me down as preferring earlier starts.

Jack

Matt, the last time you had a headline like this you left us for an unacceptable amount of time. Never do this again. Went to my first Cup race I in the mid 70’s at N. Wilkes. and saw Cale hit the turn four wall and come back from three laps down to win. I am old. Don’t do this to my heart. You leaving your god given talent as my favorite NASCAR scribe can only be taken once.

Max

Matt, to use a phrase you have used many times it doesn’t matter what time they start the races, it amounts to re-arranging the deck chairs on the Tiitanic.
Nascar is never going to get what they want, no matter what contrived gimmick or ruse they come up with.
That cat is out of the bag due to Brian France’s failed leadership. It ain’t going back in folks.
I am thinking that in the next 10 years what we will be reading about, and what you will be writing about, is contraction of the schedule, contraction of the race teams, and a re-thinking of what stock car racing really is.

It may be time to start the discussion in some back room somewhere of forming a new stock car racing organization. Dare I think this?

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