There is no race quite like the Daytona 500. Every year, when that special Sunday in mid-February rolls around, NASCAR and Daytona International Speedway pay off three months’ worth of anticipation among fans and competitors. This weekend was no different, with NASCAR set to begin a new season and a new decade of racing.
Then, the rains came. The first stoppage for weather occurred just before the drivers got the green flag. After nearly an hour delay, the track was dried and the race got officially underway. But it only took 20 laps before the race was halted once again. For a little over two hours, NASCAR tried valiantly to get the track surface dry, but at that point, the damage was already done. With intermittent rain showers continuing into the evening, NASCAR postponed the remainder of the Daytona 500 until late afternoon Monday. (TV coverage will still be provided on FOX).
Was there anything NASCAR could have done differently Sunday? Obviously, the sanctioning body cannot control the weather, and Florida’s finicky climate did them no favors. Popup showers have literally rained on Daytona’s parade throughout the track’s existence. Yet if there can be any logic attributed to Florida weather, it’s that those popup showers are most likely to occur in the late afternoon… when the majority of most recent Daytona 500s have been run. Perhaps NASCAR would have had more success with getting the race in had the green flag dropped earlier.
Back in 2010, NASCAR made a pledge that all Sunday afternoon races not on the west coast would start at 1 p.m. ET. Citing fan feedback and a desire to standardize the more traditional early afternoon start times, NASCAR kept its promise for the 2010 season. However, the sanctioning body quietly abandoned the experiment after just one year. Over the course of the last decade, most Sunday races reverted back to mid-afternoon starts.
The Daytona 500 has been particularly susceptible to late afternoon starting times. The logic behind this trend is understandable. A later start time means the race is more likely to end under the lights and closer to primetime. Starting later also gives NASCAR and FOX more opportunity to air pre-race coverage in the early afternoon. The Daytona 500 is NASCAR’s biggest race, after all, and it deserves to have the pre-event pomp and circumstance that a major sporting event should have.
However, as the old adage goes, everything in moderation, right? While a pre-race celebration to kick off the season is important, it should not overshadow the actual race itself. It certainly should not put the completion of the race in jeopardy.
This year, the pre-race festivities did both.
Longtime NASCAR fans understand that the beginning of race day race coverage, and even the advertised starting time of a race, is not actually the time a race “starts.” In this case, race day coverage of the Daytona 500 began at 1 p.m. local time. Coverage of the race proper was set to begin at 2:30 p.m., with the green flag planned to fall around 2:50 ET.
Even though the Daytona 500 is NASCAR’s premier event, does it really require nearly two hours of pre-race coverage and buildup? It all feels so superfluous. Note that even after 2:30, when proper race coverage was supposed to have begun, fans got an awkward short consisting of Mike Joy and Jeff Gordon driving around the speedway, coupled with a cartoon that was a little too reminiscent of the infamous Digger show.
Of course, having the president on hand did not help the race get started in a timely fashion either. Don’t misunderstand that comment; it is an honor to have a sitting president attend a NASCAR race and give the starting command (although it’s funny how that only tends to happen in election years.) But there is no doubt that having such a high-profile guest delayed the start of the race even further. Seeing the president’s limousine pace the field was a cool moment, yet it’s not why the fans showed up to Daytona in the first place.
The fans at the track, as well as everyone watching on TV, wanted to see a race, and there was very little of that on Sunday. Perhaps the race would have been shortened by rain if it had begun earlier, and that would have been a frustrating situation as well. However, a short race is not necessarily a bad one. It is not uncommon to see drivers race aggressively at superspeedways with rain in the forecast. Often times, they’ll make more risky and exciting moves to advance their track position when there is an element of uncertainty at play. At least in that case, the appetite of fans would have been more satisfied than it was with what actually occurred.
For a long time, NASCAR’s pre-event race day coverage has felt like overkill, and it bit the sanctioning body in the worst way on Sunday. Instead of building up the race for established fans and catching the attention of casual viewers, the bloated coverage only led fans to 20 unsatisfying laps as the drivers waited for the next band of rain to arrive. NASCAR and FOX can try to build up anticipation for the Daytona 500 all they want, but if the race never really gets underway, all their efforts are in vain. Seeing the cars roll back down pit road after getting the one to go signal was the equivalent of letting the air out of a balloon. The only thing fans could do is go back to waiting for a race that many will not get to experience.
The Daytona 500 may be a major sporting event, but the festivities surrounding such an event should never take precedence over the actual competition. As it is now, and as it has been for over 100 years, the main attraction in Daytona is racing. Going forward, NASCAR and FOX should keep in mind that the completion of the race is paramount to anything else that happens on race day.
So if that means cutting back pre-race coverage or starting the main event earlier, so be it. After a whole winter without the major leagues of stock car racing, there comes a point where NASCAR can’t build up any more excitement for the Daytona 500 anyway. All fans want to see is their favorite drivers rumbling around the track.
Unfortunately, the only thing rumbling through Daytona Beach tonight is rain.
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