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.
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 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.[poll id=”3″]
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.
About the author
Matt joined Frontstretch in 2007 after a decade of race-writing, paired with the first generation of racing internet sites like RaceComm and Racing One. Now semi-retired, he submits occasional special features while his retrospectives on drivers like Alan Kulwicki, Davey Allison, and other fallen NASCAR legends pop up every summer on Frontstretch. A motorcycle nut, look for the closest open road near you and you can catch him on the Harley during those bright, summer days in his beloved Pennsylvania.
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