NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Beside the Rising Tide: NASCAR Goes West, Ratings Head South

Go west young man, haven’t you been told?
California’s full of whiskey, women and gold
-Toby Keith (Should’ve Been a Cowboy)

It had to be tempting to a young man back in the mid-19th century. For those who worked as a longshoreman, apprentice, mucking stables or endless hours at the family store, tales of streams brimming with gold out west in California dreamed up a fortune, just waiting, there for the taking. Yep, a fellow could retire a millionaire by the time he was 30 and enjoy all the good things in life. (Like a well-insulated outhouse or a faster horse, I’d imagine since most of the good things in life hadn’t been invented yet.)

Oh, there was gold out there. But there were also a whole lot of prospectors out there looking for it, and the equipment needed to find it was being sold at… well… gold rush prices. If the gold was easy to find, it would already have been found and more than a few young dreamers went broke looking for the treasure. And if a fellow got lucky, deciding to ride into town to celebrate with a pocket full of gold and a gut full of whiskey, he’d likely end up with a chest full of lead courtesy of a robber.

The Gold Rush lasted less than a decade. But to young folks on the right coast, the west and California in particular maintained its allure. Hollywood. Beverly Hills. Malibu. (The town, not the mid-size Chevy.) If your garage band got a few gigs at frat house parties or you got the lead part in your high school production of Oklahoma, it was time to head west, find your fortune, and move into that beachfront mansion. Or, more likely, you’d end up waiting tables, turning tricks or working in the porn industry between bouts of homelessness.

But the idea of spending an afternoon doing the Frug on the beach with Annette Funicello, surfing the big ones, and drag racing before playing rock and roll music all night at the clambake died hard. Even the poet of his generation, Jimmy Morrison, promised, “The West is the best. Get here and we’ll do the rest.”

The Lizard King wouldn’t lie to you, right? Well, maybe unless he was out of his skull on acid at the moment and found the lyrics to a song written on the bed beside him when he came down in the morning, like is sometimes said to have happened later in Morrison’s career. Weird scenes inside the gold mine, indeed.

NASCAR apparently fell for the myth as well with the inclusion of their annual Western swing, held early on in the Cup Series schedule. Yep, they were out to prospect gold of their own in the form of wealthier, fanatically brand loyal and hipper fans than the clodhoppers they appealed to back home in the Southeast. Yep, for all the hundreds if not thousands of rock songs written about California, I can only think of three written about Alabama; one each by Neil Young, Lynyrd Skynyrd and the Grateful Dead, admittedly a pretty august group of legendary musicians there.

2017 Phoenix I NXS Justin Allgaier wins Rusty Jarrett NKP
Justin Allgaier’s Phoenix victory in NASCAR’s XFINITY Series happened in front of many empty seats. (Photo: Rusty Jarrett/NKP)

Come on. This time of year, it’s just too durn cold in most of the country to hold an outdoor stock car race. Interestingly enough in these parts, we had one weekend in February that was warmer and a whole lot drier than nearby Pocono last year. And of course, it never rains in California, which would likely shock the actual residents of the area after this winter’s climatic calamity.

But NASCAR’s three western swing races were greeted by Chamber-of-Commerce-style weather for all three events unless you want to whine that it was perhaps a bit warmish at Phoenix. And all those wealthier, younger fans thus had the option to do a great many enjoyable things out of doors those three Sundays. By and large, by a huge margin those Californians, Arizonans, and Nevadans found pleasurable outdoor pursuits that didn’t include stock car racing. The crowd at the Phoenix XFINITY race was particularly troubling. It seemed a NASCAR official could have taken the time to thank every one of them individually by name during the stoppage in action following each stage break. Yep, there might be potential race fan gold up thar in them hills, but so far NASCAR hasn’t done too good a job prospecting them.

Of course, the races were also televised. Surely, winter-weary fans on the Right Coast and the Midwest would put aside their shoveling and shivering awhile. What else were all those potential fans going to do? There was nothing else on TV anyway… er… oh, apparently there was. Some sort of basketball tournament.

I can’t claim I follow college hoops myself. Gonzaga sounds more like a Muppet’s name than an institute of higher learning to me. But apparently, this tournament is a pretty big deal. Somehow, some NASCAR types claimed this year was the first time that NASCAR ran opposite the NCAA tournament. I’m not sure how that could be the case. The tournament seems to run around the clock and takes place every March. NASCAR typically races every weekend in March except in the event of an early Easter.

So how did that work out for our friends at FOX? Not well. Ratings for the Las Vegas race were 3.6, the lowest ever for the event at least since 2001. About a half million less fans chose to tune in. If the viewers who did watch recalled anything from that Las Vegas race, it was probably what some labeled as “a fight” between Kyle Busch, Joey Logano, and the No. 22’s pit crew. In my mind, it was more of a hullabaloo than a fight, but that’s a matter of semantics.

Either way, there was consensus the incident provided NASCAR with a major boost in the mainstream media. Ratings were likely to spike at Phoenix the following week.

How’d that work out? Everything was great… except for the ratings. The 3.0 in the Nielsens was down about 18 percent from last year and was the fourth least-watched Cup event since FOX took over broadcasting the first half of the season way back in ’01.

What went wrong there? Where was the anticipated ratings spike?

One is left to ponder how much more horrendous the ratings would have been absent the fight the previous week. Phoenix track management would like to move their race date back a few weeks into April. Yep, I’m sure that will take care of everything. In breaking news, as of this writing we’re getting the overnight numbers from the Fontana race and once again, the news isn’t good. The rating slipped to a 2.9 from a 3.6 last year. That’s about a 17 percent drop. If there’s any comfort, the ratings decline this year seems to be in the 16-20 percent range so at least we’ve established a bottom.  

So what went wrong with the attendance and TV ratings? NASCAR had felt that clustering those three races together as the Western Swing would increase interest in the sport in the Southwest. My guess is, given the price of attending a race has become so high, people got selective with their money. A fan who might have chosen to go to two, if not all three of the races if they were scheduled further apart instead only attended one.

As far as potential TV viewers, I think there’s a lot of confusion in the sport right now that might be driving people away. If the Three Stooges… er… Stages format of racing was supposed to be a magic bullet that staunched the hemorrhaging ratings number, to date it has failed. The “stoppage of play” (i.e. green flag racing) seemingly annoys a lot of fans. After the green/white flag ends a stage, the networks work in two lengthy commercial breaks, show the pit stops between those breaks and do an in-car interview with the driver who won the stage.

In the first few races of the season, the total time of those breaks was 12-15 minutes, though over the last couple events that’s been trimmed back to around 10 minutes (still twice the five-minute length NASCAR had predicted between stages). For a fan at home, it’s clear there will be no on-track passing during that period. As long as the batteries in the remote are fresh, there’s a serious temptation to channel surf around to see what else is on like, oh, I don’t know, a basketball game perhaps.

There’s only so many times anyone without the patience of a saint can sit through the same Toyota and KFC ads over and over. As for our friends at Toyota, the choice to go with an ad campaign stating, “Let’s go forward. Let’s go faster. Let’s go further” on the 75th Anniversary weekend of the Bataan Death March was perhaps a bit insensitive.

Once they leave, clearly some of those armchair fans are forgetting to surf back. Typically, ratings for a NASCAR race not delayed by weather peak in the final half-hour of anticipated competition. A fairly valid argument could be made that’s all a fan really needs to see anyway in today’s stock car world.

But why tune in late when you don’t understand the final results? Whether they watch the race broadcast flag-to-flag or surf in occasionally, a lot of fans haven’t figured out the new points system yet and it irritates a lot of them. This shift might be yet another example of NASCAR finding an answer to a question nobody was asking. The points awarded at Phoenix appeared to have been wrested from Alice’s Wonderland.

Ryan Newman and his team decided to gamble on staying out on old tires when the final caution flag flew. As such, Newman only led the final six laps of the race. Be that as it may be, the old saw in auto racing is “It doesn’t matter how many laps you lead, as long as you lead the last one.” Not anymore, apparently. Three other drivers (second place Kyle Larson, third place Kyle Busch and fifth place Brad Keselowski) all scored more regular season points on Sunday than race-winner Newman.

chase
Chase Elliott may have run 12th at Phoenix but he still scored the same number of points as winner Ryan Newman. (Photo: Zach Catanzareti)

Chase Elliott did what Elliott seems to do in every race. He qualified decently. He advanced himself in the first stage of the race. He became a potential contender in the second stage of the race. Then, he went ahead and posted a disappointing finish. Whether it’s a slow pit stop, a bad restart or a penalty Elliott never seems to finish as well as he runs. Almost invariably, he’ll line up for the final few restarts in the non-preferred groove (be it inside or outside) and he’ll lose a ton of positions late then go off to sulk somewhere.

At Phoenix, Elliott finished 12th, but get this, he earned the same amount of points that winner Newman did. Huh?

Ponder the above all you wish until your ponderer is sore, that just doesn’t make any sense. But, someone counters, Newman got those five valuable “playoff” points towards the postseason. And at the end of the regular season (after Richmond in September, weather permitting) drivers will get another sack of magic playoff-only points based on their standings at the conclusion of the regular season.

The leader will get 15 of those points, the second-place finisher 10 and so on down to one point for the driver in 10th. So there’s that. And presumably there’s also some sort of double-top-secret, fairy-borne, magic-sparkles points that a driver earns for reasons inexplicable to anyone with a lick of sense. These will finally allow NASCAR to declare Dale Earnhardt Jr. the series champion to help right their corporate ship which is listing badly to port.

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I just don’t get it. I looked at the sports page that Monday. I didn’t watch a minute of basketball this month (despite being a ‘Nova grad, class of 1981) but I could figure things out. In every instance, the team that scored the most points won their game.  Nobody was allowed an extra player, a lower net or a starting score of 15 to their opponents’ zero for making the Great Egg Harbor Toll Plaza… oops, I mean Great Eight.

Remember back when it used to be like that in NASCAR racing, way back in, say, 2016?

To me, confusing and irritating the hell out of fans isn’t a valid business plan for moving forward. This year the NFL, ratings behemoth that it is, saw the Nielsens for most of its games lower slightly. Interesting enough, the NFL decided they were going to figure out why by listening to their fans. One of the things football fans don’t like is there’s too many stoppages of play. After one team scores, there’s a commercial break. That team then kicks off followed by another commercial break.

It seems interesting that the NFL is trying to increase their ratings by having less scheduled downtime at the same time NASCAR is adding two Stage breaks to our sport. It’s also worth noting that the NFL is telling their various TV partners, “I’m going to tell you how it’s going to be…” while NASCAR made a myriad of changes to the rules at the behest of their TV partners this year.

So sayeth NFL commissioner Roger Goodell

We also know that you feel there are too many elements in the broadcast that aren’t relevant to the play on the field. With our partners, we will be looking to instead focus on content that is most complementary and compelling to you — whether that is analysis, highlights or stories about our players. 

That frightened whimpering you’re hearing right now is Darrell Waltrip diving back beneath his covers, irrigating his shorts a little. What is this Goodell fellow implying? Does he think fans don’t want to hear announcers go off on narcissistic rants about the announcers themselves?

Apparently not. Goodell went on to say, “We have seen commercialization maybe creep into the game in areas we don’t think is appropriate. And we’re going to work with our network partners to try to pull that back, to make sure that we can create that compelling experience for our fans.”

Keep your hands inside the car, race fans. What comes next is going to be a dark ride.

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25 Comments
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russ

Lets face it times have changed, and less and less people find sitting there for hours watching cars run around in a circle appealing. I’ve followed it since ’63 or so, but these days there are so many other things I can be doing at the same time.
I don’t see how you can change that.

Ken

NASCAR has taken racing and made it a boring parade of generic cars driven by generic drivers on generic tracks with little to no actual racing. NASCAR forces the cars to be identical while the team owners and sponsors force the drivers to be PC and repond to the same questions asked with identical answers. When the typical race has the lead car several seconds ahead of everyone else and the drivers are afraid of taking a chance and being banned from the race if they have a minor accident, what is the point of watching or attending the “show”?

russ

think the drivers, and teams, are much more concerned about sponsor reaction than Nascar reaction.

Thomas Edwards

Kyle, is that you using an alias?

babydufus

what are you talking about? everything is great!

Merc

Agree

Jeff

I hear this a lot. Look back at the finishes in the 70’s 80’s and early 90’s and you will see winners not only several seconds ahead of second place, but in many cases several laps ahead of second place. We even look back on some of the upset wins in the 70’s and 80’s with fond memories of excitement, even though the upset winner was a lap down when the leader ran out of gas.

Capt Spaulding

take the lucky dog, bogus cautions, and wave around out of today’s racing and see how many cars are on the lead lap at the finish.

DoninAjax

When you said Three Stooges I thought you meant Brian and two of his toadies.

Brian’s getting real close to the cliff.

Charles

You’re spot on with everything except your history. 50th anniversary ? I too forget much of the 60’s and 70’s, but I’d remember that!
Ratings will stabilize for football (which is just starting a skid I think) and racing when they get commercial breaks and windbag announcers under control, and just focus on the product. That probably means less revenue, but networks aren’t going to renew what people don’t watch anyway.

Bill B

Actually the NFL was pulling a NASCAR when they ignored the real reason for the drop in ratings last season and came up with a bunch of lame excuses. If you read the comments on NFL articles last season where ratings were discussed, at least 30-40% of the commenters stated that the NFL allowing Colin Kaepernick to disrespect The National Anthem without any repercussions was what made them stop watching. They didn’t think they should have to have any political agenda rammed down their throats when watching a sporting event (we watch sports to forget about all that crap). Of course the NFL refused to acknowledge what those fans were saying and it was never mentioned as a factor at all because it didn’t fit their liberal agenda (much like NASCAR keeps telling us that the chase, PC behavior, stage racing, kit cars, the wave around, etc. are what NASCAR fans have asked for).

Carl D.

You hit the nail on the head, Bill. I for one refuse to watch the NFL this past season until the 49er’s were eliminated, which was before the playoff’s started. Truth be told, I’m more of a College FB fan anyway, and a Clemson fan at that, so I had better things to watch then a guy with bad hair be a bad American. IK know others who didn’t watch the NFL because of Kaepernick as well. The NFL will never admit that it had an effect on the ratings, though.

Bill B

The regular season points have become an afterthought anyway. Now that winning a race pretty much gets you in the chase and playoff points are ultimately what matters, those race points are only going to matter to about 4 guys that are trying to point there way into the chase come September. The point being how much should any of us care about race points week in and week out. As I type this I remember that they will also be giving playoff points to the top ten in the standing at the end of the regular season so I suppose that makes race points matter a little more. Still, points aren’t as important during the regular season as they used to be. I used to stick around and watch the post race show until they showed the points standing but that is not the case anymore. I’ll start paying attention to points in August. In fact, I’ve gotten to the point where I really don’t care about the championship at all, I just watch the races. Tracking the championship is just an afterthought.

I miss Stevie Gaines

10 years from Now, the Muppet’s will still be relevant…

Bill B

What about Ronnie VanZant? Do you miss him too?

DoninAjax

38 Cars entered at Martinsville! As of now. Brian has to work his magic.
Includes the 23 and 32 and 83.

No Derrick Cope. Heart-breaking.

Joseph Jacalone

I agree with Russ. I think time has passed auto racing in general, and NASCAR in particular by. They can make all the changes they want, the young people of today aren’t into spending 2-3 days at a race, or sitting in front of a tv for 3-4 hours. When NASCAR started gaining popularity, they thought their was no end. It was just a fad for a lot of people, who have moved on. They need to get their head out of the sand and realize this, and start catering to the core of hard core fans.

Richard

First off, get rid of he football lingo. Call the first two parts Heat Races. Then call the Feature the Feature Race. Call the final rounds ‘Runoffs”. Lose the Waltrip brothers. DW was a great driver, but he’s lost as a comedian or broadcaster. MW is just lost. Ease up on the penalties on pit road. Who cares who was ‘speeding’ by one mph? And lastly, get rid of the ‘cookie-cutter’ 1 1/2 mile tracks. Go to tracks of less than one mile in between the superspeedway races. Also add a couple of road races and a couple of dirt tracks. All that would increase ratings at least 50 percent. The way it’s going, Nascar will be bankrupt in five years.

Ren Myers

Richard, Hey brother, you hit the proverbial nail square on the head! I couldn’t agree more. I loved the days of “The Skoal Bandit” Harry Gant & of course the never duplicated , The Intimidator, Dale Sr. IMO, the only series that Nascar hasn’t completely destroyed is the Truck Racing. Xfinity races are by far more entertaining when Sprint Cup drivers are exempt.

Jonathan VanDeBogart

I don’t know about you guys, but for myself personally, I was introduced to NASCAR by an older family member. I know I am not alone. In fact, I dare say this scenario was very common. An older NASCAR fan of many years takes a youngster to their first NASCAR race as a right of passage. They explain the handful of rules (think good old days), highlight the major historical moments in NASCAR (think good old days), provide valuable lessons on logistics ie. what to bring, where to sit, what track food won’t poison you, etc.

Whenever the veteran NASCAR fan feels his young protege has sufficient NASCAR knowledge and skills, then he is turned loose to cultivate his/her own NASCAR experience. Gradually over time, this protege will become the mentor to another youngster, and the cycle repeats itself.

This method has been been providing a steady stream of new NASCAR fans for many, many years without fail. NASCAR never had to lift a finger to find new fans, because it’s older fans did all the recruiting and work. What a sweet deal it was for NASCAR, and it allowed NASCAR to focus entirely on the actual “product,” the races themselves.

This cycle functioned like clockwork, and was as reliable as the rising sun. It was a natural, beautiful thing that was impossible to screw up because it required nothing of NASCAR except to host races. Everything else would take care of itself and everyone would live in a harmonious state of sheer bliss. It would take a deliberate act of sabotage to screw up this act of nature.

Enter Brian France. There was only one thing that could ruin this generational passing of the NASCAR torch, and that is to totally piss off every fan. I mean piss them off so badly that they refuse to pass the torch down to a younger person, thus destroying the natural cycle of new fans replacing the older fans. Which of course is exactly what has happened. I couldn’t live with myself if I brought a young, naive, and innocent child into this steaming pile of NASCAR manure. My conscience simply will not allow it, and frankly, no one is that good of a salesman to pawn this lemon off on some poor, unsuspecting kid.

There you have it, the reason for the decline in NASCAR, and what unfortunately will be the total demise of NASCAR as well. A trained monkey could have kept this cycle going because all it required was to leave it alone and do nothing. NASCAR could have survived or even prospered with the trained monkey at the helm. However, it couldn’t survive something much worse, Brian France. RIP NASCAR, I use to love you, but I had to kill you.

Sol Shine

Couldn’t agree more with this assessment. Problem is, what needs to be done to right the ship? I personally still think hardcore race fans understand that championship racing means an entire season of races counts, not the BS nonsense that goes on now. The fact that the decline started about when the Chase started adds to that belief. So what does that tell us? For sure, Nascar is not making things better again this year.

dewayne

Matt, have read your columns since Racing One, always look forward to it. I do not know the answer for NASCAR. First and foremost is that THEY do not have a clue on what people want to see. 6 laps at the stages on a 2 mile track? I am heading to Martinsville next week, how many laps there? 25? I guess the stages could maybe be an ok thing, as long as race winner always gets more points. Why not let teams pit or fuel before stage final lap? wouldn’t that bring more strategy back to the race? At Martinsville, run practice outside lane only to get rubber down. I have attended several Super Late Model races where that has been done. So many of the things that have and are being tried are so gimmick filled, it just makes it hard to swallow. I used to do 5 races a year, but I have just kept a couple short tracks. So many small things have added up to big things which just make the product as a whole less appealing. And for what it is worth, I am an absolute race junkie. We also do Super Late Model traces (outlaw and template) several dirt races (late model and 1 WOO) and fill in the gaps with whatever is running that weekend. I am also helping raise the next generation of fans as I have 6 grandchildren under 9. All but 2 have been to multiple races. And they love it. Hope the big leagues are still around as a viable product when they get old enough to take themselves.

dewayne

One more thing that has changed that I hate. I hate the new Jayski format!!!!!!!!

Don in Connecticut

Great article, Matt; you nailed it. The combination of the Chase, segment racing ,Waltrip
Fatigue and sponsor huckstering (” time for a full tank of Sunoco race fuel”), has done it for me.
I just stopped watching .

Ren Myers

This article was a great read & for once a journalist is tuned into his sport. Hey Nascar, you can’t understand the low ratings? Maybe entering 40 cars & less then half finish on the lead lap, on the cookie cutter 1.5 mile tracks with parity galore when it comes to stock cars?
The Xfinity race is watchable only when 6 of the top 10 aren’t Cup regulars. That leaves the Truck Series, which Imo is the most exciting/competition. Unfortunately, there are far too few. BTW, I don’t think this gimmicky​ caution thing is working all that well except for the advertising. Maybe add more road courses , dirt track
races & reduce the number of 1.5 mi to add 3/4, 1/2 milers. Heck, it’s just a thought from someone who has
Grown up enjoying Stock Car Racing.

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