(Photo: NASCAR Media/Getty Images)

Beside the Rising Tide: 3rd-Rate Rendezvous

Well campers, what should we talk about this week? I mean there’s nothing going in our insular little racing world across these vast United States of America, is there? Well quite obviously there is, of course, as all of us find a way to cope with an ongoing pandemic that has made a quick trip to the grocery store the logistical equivalent of landing a man on the moon. And then there are protests out in the street and outbursts of violence that are frightening to contemplate because of how suddenly peaceful protest sometimes morphs into looting and arson.

Social injustice isn’t a new problem. It’s just one that now that everyone carries a cellphone which will record video and audio is all too often splashed across your TV screen in graphic Technicolor. Hearing a man died in the street begging to be allowed a simple breath of air as a police officer sworn to protect and serve the community kept his knee to that man’s neck for almost nine minutes even after the victim lost consciousness is one thing. Watching it play out in real time while spitting your dinner into a napkin watching the news is a whole other matter. Greater minds than mine are needed to solve social injustice issues. The only thing I’ll say is the problem is real, it needs to be addressed and it needs to be addressed quickly. This is what my former roommate Dan would have declared, “A major league, yahoo, f***ing disaster.” But burning down the local Sears and Roebuck isn’t going to fix anything. 

I mention all of this only to stress I mean no disrespect doing what I always do Sunday afternoons and Monday mornings, which is writing about racing. Yes, there are bigger more important issues out there. But this is what I do. There’s always been other important issues outside of racing and likely always will be. And there’s plenty of folks to write about them. We now return you to your regularly scheduled column. 

Remember the long racing hiatus earlier this year? NASCAR pulled the plug on racing just about the time the transporters were turning into the garage area for Atlanta Attempt One. And for somewhere around 10 very long weeks, NASCAR went as silent at the croakers in the crick across the street during a cold snap. Stock car racing was hardly alone in taking an unintended and unplanned timeout. Stick and ball sports like hockey and hoops had been approaching their playoffs. NCAA college ball was about to host its big tournament. The crack of baseballs into well-oiled gloves was signaling the start of training camps prior to about the millionth season of Major League Ball. Not so fast, ya’ll. All of it was either put on hold or outright canceled until next year. 

And then on May 17, the Circus came sneezing and wheezing back to life for stock car fans. News outlets that normally treat NASCAR and its fans like a colony of lepers trumpeted the fact that NASCAR stock car racing was about to become the first big-league sport to resume operations. OK, there had been German soccer and Korean baseball, either of which you’d have needed to restrain me, sedate me and tape my eyes wide open to watch. We’re talking real life sports right here in the USA. 

Imagine the opportunity, some thought. Live NASCAR races would be broadcast this spring with no competition from the NHL, NBA, or The College Ball tournament. Not only was NASCAR going to be the big dog, it was going to be the only dog off the leash. There was some discussion frustrated fans of other sports would tune into ours and become enamored with a sport they once thought in pitiful ignorance was just cars driving around in circles. 

That first Darlington race back in May was a fairly good one, I thought. (Or perhaps absence just made the heart grow fonder.) And a fair amount of non-NASCAR fans must have tuned in. 6.3 million fans are said to have tuned into the race, giving it a 3.71 in the Nielsen ratings.  That’s way above average for a stock car race as of late. Of course it pales in comparison to this year’s pre-pandemic if rain-plagued Daytona 500, with almost 11 million fans coming back to watch despite rain postponing the event a day and a ludicrously late end time. A 6.26 Nielsen rating is nothing to sneeze at (if we were in fact still allowed to sneeze without being shunned for a month). But the 500, the Great American Race if you will, is our big event of the season. NASCAR may be alone in the Wide World of Sports in kicking off its schedule with the biggest event of the year rather than holding it as the conclusion of the season. In comparison, it would seem to date that the last NASCAR race of the season during which our champion will be crowned has grabbed the general public’s attention like a public service announcement on invasive toenail fungus delivered in Esperanto.  

A 3.71 isn’t awful. It beat every non-Daytona 500 race broadcast last year on either FOX or NBC. Last year, NASCAR averaged a 1.768 Nielsen rating for the season, down from a 1.889 season average in 2018. Many events last year struggled to break the 2.0 rating I was once told was the absolute basement. Weather complications left Dover last May with the ugly pup award, with just a .96 TV rating and about 1.5 million folks watching that race. Weather is always going to be a hazard at stock car races, but back in the sport’s boom days, I’d have wagered my left nut that no stock car race would ever have a less than 1.0 rating even if snowplows were on the track for the majority of the race. 

Despite the fact NASCAR is still the only game in town when it comes to major league sports, things have just gotten grimmer from there. The second Darlington race managed just a 1.22 rating. The World 600 did a little better with 2.37 rating. The second Charlotte Cup race really sucked eggs with a pitiful .91. Bristol did a bit better with a 1.74. But that number was down slightly from 2018’s 2.4 (to be fair, last year’s Bristol race did even worse with a 1.71). And yet we’re still the only game in town as far as live professional sports. Close to a million less fans chose to watch this year’s Bristol race than chose to do the same in 2018. Hey, where’d ya’ll go? The racing is actually pretty good this year most weeks. This Elliott kid might actually amount to something. 

Yes, I’m aware that the weather this year has been practically biblical it’s been so bad. It was lousy before the unscheduled break and it’s gotten worse since. Only two race weekends this year haven’t been adversely effected by weather: Fontana, and happily enough, Bristol. But rain delays at Charlotte did in fact shakeup the racing at Bristol to a degree simply because FOX had to delay a race to get the equipment to the track in time.
 
And I’m aware we are living in unsettled times. The schedule NASCAR released prior to the season is now only useful as chewed up gerbil bedding. Some fans might not have even got the memo things were cranking up again. Right now I am constantly getting emails, messages and phone calls from friends who are casual NASCAR fans asking when the next race is and where it is at. Normally most promos for upcoming races are done during the previous race. If you miss one you’ll likely miss the next one too. This is an awkward time of year in TV land anyway. Most of the high profile, high ratings shows have finished their 2020 seasons and are in repeats, leaving us with foo-foo-raw like Ultimate Tag. 

Midweek races weren’t even in discussion practically until they happened. Those 1.22 and .91 ratings indicate either the fans weren’t informed of the starts times or didn’t care for them. Hopefully NASCAR will host a midweek race or two with good weather and adequate promotion before simply abandoning the idea. That hope was dealt a blow when this week’s Xfinity race (0n a Monday night) reportedly earned a .09 rating. I hope that’s a mistake. That’s infomercial level, or a rating that could be attributed to a bunch of bored house cats accidentally stepping on the remote and turning on the race. 

It would seem when you’re the only game in town and those alleged new fans just waiting to storm the gate (as soon as the gates reopen) and millions upon millions of ex-NASCAR fans won’t even sample your wares on free TV, it is indeed time to downsize expectations for the future of our sport. 

Footnote: The most viewed NASCAR race ever was the 2006 Daytona 500. 19,355,000 viewers watched Jimmie Johnson win. Many folks still think that the first flag-to-flag coverage of the Daytona 500 in 1979 won by Richard Petty was the most watched 500. 15,140,000 fans watched that epic finish after Cale Yarborough and Donnie Allison got to squabbling over the same bit of real estate. (That race earned a 10.5 rating compared to a 11.3 rating for 2006.) As far as percentage of the US population with TVs tuned into a race, that 1979 500 is and likely always be the top-rated race. Recall in that era viewers had only CBS, ABC and NBC to choose from, not the gazillion channels on your cable box these days, and that the day of the ’79 Daytona 500 a lot of the United States was hit with an equally epic blizzard that had most folks stranded at home anyway. 

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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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26 comments

  1. Avatar

    i’ll admit i forget about mid-week races. i get up early to get ready to go to work, so a 3-4 hr block of time is a big commitment from me during the week, well during any day.

    i’m back to watching racing as i did prior to covid shut down. watch beginning and flip to when i think end is coming.

  2. Avatar
    David Russell Edwards

    If you are the only sports event and you have these kinds of ratings it sure takes away a lot of alibis . So what will the smart people come up with?

  3. Avatar

    The days of people who have to work the next morning losing sleep to watch NASCAR are long gone. If the races aren’t over by 10:00 EST then ratings will suffer. So, while the idea of mid-week races may sound good, they aren’t practical in reality. Or maybe it’s just that the Brian France years successfully turned diehard fans into casual fans (or less).

    • Avatar

      Bill,
      I agree. BZF definitely soured a lot of us with all of his gimmicks and changing the race times every week. I think a lot of us do what Janice is doing – watch the beginning of the race, go outside and do yardwork or wash the cars, then check back in near the end of the race. Up here in the Boston area, I can’t spend all Sunday afternoon inside. Gotta get outside and enjoy the summer weather.

    • Avatar

      “Or maybe it’s just that the Brian France years successfully turned diehard fans into casual fans (or less).“

      Yep. And it’s gonna take a long time and a lot of exciting racing to get them back. Instead, we have stage racing, wave-arounds, and virtue-signaling. I’m not holding my breath.

      • Avatar

        The commentary from the experts in the booth turn a lot of viewers off. I dream of the days of Dizzy Dean and Pee Wee Reese.

    • Avatar

      Bill B – you win the prize! i can’t remember the last time i watched a race from lap 1 til the end. if i’m not lulled to sleep then i have other commitments to my time. sad but true. and how i used to schedule my weekends around race broadcasts. i’ve said it for years, it just the same, too vanilla. if someone tries to break out and have some fire and passion, then the kabosh is put on them by tv, media, sponsors, society, you name it.

      • Avatar

        Although I am ashamed to admit it, just to be clear, I still do watch the entire race, usually in real time. The only difference, I’m not glued to the TV. If I miss a bit, oh, well. If I have something better to do, oh, well. If I am tired, oh, well. I can record and watch it later at warp speed if it’s a sleeper. I also realize that I am still more of a diehard than most but I understand everyone that no longer can watch an entire race. Believe me, it’s hard some weeks. I no longer care that much about who wins and who loses but I like watching sports (NFL, NHL MLB) and NASCAR is still at the top of the list compared to the others.

  4. Avatar

    Just thought I’d throw this out there regarding the George Floyd deal. For another viewpoint google:

    “youtube candace owens I do not support george floyd”

    • Avatar

      She and her Brit hubby look like a couple of phonies. Not sure how she ties to the NASCAR discussion either…..

      • Avatar

        Well for one every article on this NASCAR site that has covered Sunday’s race has devoted a paragraph or more to this issue. I figure a one sentence comment from me wasn’t out of line.

        So Reggie, I see you are quick to cast doubt on her but you didn’t actually address anything she said as being false. Hmmm.

    • Avatar

      Saw the Candice Owen video the other day. She’s good. Also try “Is it me or does George Floyd death looks very similar to this?” by a young gentlemen with a channel called Modern Renaissance Man.

      I don’t want to endure politics in every facet of my life but it’s been forced upon me. To paraphrase the Babylon Bee satire article, let bubba et al show solidarity with the “protestors” by burning their own homes to the ground.

  5. Avatar
    wildcatsfan2016

    Yep BZF’s “great” ideas made many fans walk away or at least change their viewing habits. Like Janice and Johnny Cuda, I am not going to waste a good day of weather to stay inside and watch 3 or 4 hours of racing especially not with the forced interruptions, i.e. stages. Having been trapped inside for months with first winter and then stay at home restrictions from the virus, if it is good weather, I’m going to be outside in the yard. Once upon a time, I would have known EXACTLY what day and time they were racing and where and I would have changed my schedule around to match up to it but that doesn’t happen any more.

  6. Avatar

    It’s “third rate romance, low rent rendezvous.” I have it on 45.

    • Matt

      Indeed it is. But that wouldn’t work for the title in an article about TV ratings. I’d also the Calliope that collapesed to the ground with a very displeasing wheezing and sneezing not NASCAR.

  7. Avatar

    Matt,

    As for the paltry Xfinity number. Now I don’t know the female demographic percentage is for Xfinity, but and entire cross section of females from all walks are watching the “Bachelor” which seems to draw more than MNF ever did. I don’t understand why, but that probably wiped out that sector.

    NASCAR as well a the networks are not promoting well. You have the first night race at Martinsville coming up tomorrow night and the only thing I have seen about it is either race hub or NASCAR websites. Outside of that you don’t hear boo. They should be promoting the hell out if it. Buy ads on ESPN and it’s website. Make a large investment in marketing certain races and maybe people will know.
    Casual NASCAR fans I know who like to watch the races I have to remind them. The big sports sites are still all in to their sports.
    Today’s Washington Post’s sports section is MLB, Basketball and Olympics. Do an add buy there. Buy an article at ESPN or SI for goodness sake.

    If NASCAR doesn’t market the mid week races better, the number of viewers is going to weak. Now Martinsville under the lights is cool sounding, but we have no idea what the race is going to be like. There aren’t notes from past races will not work. It could be very cool or very boring.

    Either way, the promotion department at NASCAR needs to think outside the box right now.

    • Avatar

      KU – i NEVER watched the bachelor! i’d rather watch reruns of the andy griffith show than that dribble. again the xfinity race started and was still going when i went to bed.

      • Avatar

        I did not mean to imply or say all. I should have been more clear when I really meant to write is ” that I know”. I have been taken by surprised the cross section that I know watch it. No group is “all”. Apologies for word choice because it is always wrong to say or imply “all”.

  8. Avatar

    just saw that the tv ratings for sunday’s race at ams earned 3.957 million viewers sunday and that was down from 5.1 million from 2019 race. yes this past sunday’s race was not ran after daytona.

  9. Matt

    Apparently Mother Nature has issues with Martinsville under the lights. There’s a chance of rain most of the day but the real storms are forecast to start right at 7…..the same time the race is set to start. If I recall the Martinsville parking lots are dirt and grass and hilly. They can be a bit of a challenge if you don’t have all wheel drive.

    • Avatar

      I always joke that if you want to bust a drought, just schedule a NASCAR race. Even at places like Vegas and Phoenix.
      Not surprising at all.

    • Avatar

      but only people there will be nascar and the crews. no one else allowed. and isn’t martinsville considered a home track for those guys…..but then don’t they have to be in homestead for the weekend?

      mother nature has not been a race fan at all this year.

  10. Avatar

    Been there, done that. Rain tends to follow me to whatever track I visit. I can honestly say that Martinsville is usually worth waiting out the rain for. At least it used to be; haven’t been since Andretti won in 1999.

  11. Avatar
    wildcatsfan2016

    well that will be a shame if Martinsville gets rained out. My favorite track. We had tickets in the grandstands for many years and yes, they park people (when fans are allowed to attend) in a field that is very hilly and gets very muddy and slick if you wind up down in the hole in the field. We took a look at that the first time we went there and quickly went back and parked on the road. Better to walk a couple of miles than be stuck OR have to wait 3 hours (as we did the one and only time I let my brother convince me to go to a race at Pocono) before we even got out to the road, let alone back to the highway.