(Photo: Zach Catanzareti)

Beside the Rising Tide: Only On a Need to Know Basis

There are some statistics and numbers NASCAR types prefer to keep to themselves. Starting in 2014, NASCAR information services stopped giving out attendance figures for the races. Suspiciously, those numbers had been declining at an alarming rate in the seasons leading up to the decision to withhold the information. The attendance numbers that used to be released were highly inaccurate anyway, inflated almost as grotesquely as the Enemy Killed In Action figures the U.S. military used to release weekly during the war in ‘Nam. Some NASCAR writers of the era liked to take NASCAR to task over their outrageously optimistic attendance numbers. Sometimes they’d even take some photos of their own showing vast swathes of empty seats in the grandstands during reportedly sold-out races. Providing a more accurate crowd size stat became almost a cottage industry in the NASCAR writing community. To be honest I never had anyone, writer nor official, tell me “there’s 59,971 people here today for the race.” Or “there were, but Barney got a phone call from Betty and some of their neighbors. She’s leaving him and right now is in the process of throwing all his stuff off a second-story balcony as the Concrete Condo Complex. He had to leave right before the green flag waved.”

To give a snapshot of what was going on with attendance back in the day, the very first Brickyard 400 run in 1994 (and won by adoptive Hoosier native Jeff Gordon) was said to be a sellout with 350,000 tickets sold. By and large, the NASCAR community embraced the race at the time almost as much as the open-wheel racing community despised the idea of “taxi-cabs” running on their sacred turf. For decades, the Indy 500 was the only event held at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway annually, and some folks liked that just fine. (Naturally, they weren’t paying taxes on the property or even cutting the lawns.) Nowadays, they’ve gone a bit overboard with the amount of events at the track. I may be wrong here, but I think they have a 10-lap race for morbidly obese toddlers riding Big Wheels. It starts on Halloween and ends sometime in the days leading up to Christmas. 

The last published attendance figure for the Brickyard 400 I could find was for the 2013 event won by Ryan Newman, another Hoosier from South Bend. The attendance figure was 70,000, an alarmingly round number that was about 20% of the sellout crowd announced for the first few Brickyards. 

The Brickyard is a good case study in what not to do when hosting a sporting event for paying customers. Personally I never thought much of the racing at the Brickyard, at least not in the stock car races. But there was racing, and not every race is going to be an instant classic. 

And then came the 2008 Brickyard 400. NASCAR had introduced their new “Car of Tomorrow” (now known as the “Car of Horror”) that season with substantially increased downforce. The weather that year was notably hotter than normal. Goodyear bought a tire to the event that was completely not up to the task. First day tire wear during a typical Brickyard weekend had always been heavy. Usually on the second day of practice (and qualifying), the track started “rubbering up” (the track surface would go from white to black, or at least a seriously deep shade of gray). Tire wear would become more manageable. But that year rather than rubbering up the track as the tires wore, they produced a gray dust which made the track even more slippery. 

They knew race morning they had a potential disaster on their hands. All of them did; NASCAR, Tony George the track’s owner, and the presenting network which continued to hype the event as the biggest and greatest race that would be run that century. The longest green-flag run of the race was 12 laps. Tires were failing with alarming frequency. Jimmie Johnson won the final seven-lap shootout, and the fans were vocal and heated in booing. It wasn’t that they didn’t like Johnson; it was just they’d seen a very bad race in exchange for their hard-earned dollars. Many of them wanted or demanded their money back hich is how you turn an event that draws 300,000-plus fans into one that is lucky to sell 70,000 seats. 

Perhaps they were born under a bad sign. Prior to the NASCAR tire fiasco at the track, they’d suffered an epic failure of a Formula 1 race, also due to tire issues. Michelin provided tires to seven of the circuit’s 10 teams. Bridgestone supplied the other three teams. The Michelins were failing left and right. The FIA and track refused to make some overnight changes to the track intended to allow the Michelins to last a short fuel run. As the race started, 14 cars headed to the pits and quit. Only six cars contested the actual race. Angry fans wanted their money back, and I’m told some of them got it. But throw in a cross-Atlantic flight, hotel rooms and meals and it was still a very expensive way to spend a thoroughly horrible day watching a very bad race. Hell, I watched it on TV and I wanted my cable provider to refund me my monthly service charge.  

While NASCAR hasn’t released attendance figures for years now, there will be an increased focus on ticket sales to the races next year. As part of the sanctioning agreement that NASCAR makes with a track to host a Cup race NASCAR now expects track promoters to make “best effort” attempts to sell at least 70% of available seats. While “best effort” isn’t defined, the clear implication is that if a track doesn’t make its sales goal, there likely will not be another sanctioning agreement signed the following year. But here’s the bizarre part of the story: Available seats are those a fan could sit in. If the track instead chooses to block off vast sections of seats with those huge advertising banners we see over sections of the grandstand seating area at a lot of tracks, those seats no longer count towards the 70% goal. NASCAR just doesn’t want the optics of huge amounts of empty seats at their events that call into question the current and future health of the sport. Apparently all those brightly painted seats in varying hues meant to make a casual observer think those seats are filled at many tracks aren’t fooling anyone. 

Another secret NASCAR likes to keep to itself is the purse money for individual races. That information had always been readily available until 2016, when all of a sudden it just disappeared for the most part. Prior to that, the size of paychecks cut to the winner of individual races was oft discussed. The 1994 Daytona 500, the biggest race of the season, paid $2,703,400. The inaugural Brickyard 400, which NASCAR was determined was going to the “next big thing,” paid $2,858,000. I mean, you don’t think Tony George made a conscious decision to outdo the France family, which was the de facto owner of Daytona (through the ISC) in a game of one-upsmanship, do you? There’s nothing more dangerous than rich men drunk on power and prestige waving around a checkbook with some serious ammunition behind it. When the discrepancy was discussed, Bill France asked Tony George to lower the prize money available to keep the pecking order of the events clear. The next year, Indy upped the prize money to over $4 million. By 1999, Indy paid over $5 million. From 2005 to 2015, the Brickyard announced a race purse of over $8 million. Then NASCAR decided discussing prize money was a bit unseemly. The 2015 Daytona 500 had the prize money listed as just over $18 million. By then, George had bailed on trying to outgun NASCAR, when he discovered the IRL was a 10-acre bonfire burning dump trucks full of his cash daily to keep the venture afloat.

Over the years, NASCAR grabbed a lot of headlines based on huge payouts offered for winning races or a combination of races. The Winston Million bonus program (offered to any driver who could win three out of four events that included the Daytona 500, the Winston 500 at Talladega, the World 600 and the Southern 500) was a huge deal at the time that grabbed NASCAR a lot of headlines. Bill Elliott claimed the prize in 1985, the first year the bonus was available. Gordon was the only other driver to claim that big prize, having won the 1997 Daytona 500, World 600 and Southern 500. Davey Allison lost his chance at the million in heartbreaking fashion. He had won that year’s Daytona 500 and Winston 500, but when rain shortened the Southern 500 (a race in which Allison had been the dominant car), Darrell Waltrip stayed out when the caution fell for rain banking on the race not getting re-started. And in fact the race ended under that caution. Had it resumed for even a few laps, DW would have run out of gas. When asked how much gas he had left in his tank, Waltrip quipped, “Oh, about a million dollars’ worth.” 

Over the years, other drivers including Waltrip (1989) and Dale Earnhardt (1990) claimed $100,000 bonuses for winning two of the four events in the Winston Million program. 

To be honest, there’s always been some confusion amidst the fans as to what the purse money was and how it was paid out. The fact Joey Logano won the 2015 Daytona 500 doesn’t mean on his ride to the airport he pulled over at an ATM to deposit an $18 million check. That was the total purse money to be distributed among the entire field. Logano’s winnings for that 2015 Great American race are listed at $1,586,503. In his autobiography, Elliott said only around $100,000 went into his personal bank account, and Elliott drove for a family-owned team. 

The actual percentage of the prize money an individual driver earns is determined in the contract he signs with the team owner he (or she …or it since I want to be inclusive). In a perfect world, the team owner signs on a sponsor and runs his team and turns a profit on that sponsorship amount, while the driver collects the big checks for wins and good finishes in the individual races. If the driver attracts a big-dollar sponsor to the team, he’ll likely get a cut of that as well. But if reality has taught us nothing else over the last few months, the world is far from perfect. 

I’m told one of the reasons the purse money totals are no longer available is because different amounts are paid to charter and non-charter teams. Still, NASCAR doesn’t mind throwing around some big-dollar figures time to time to attract a little attention. You may have heard over last weekend that a $100,000 bonus was available to four drivers in the NXS race. AJ Allmendinger didn’t win the race, but did claim the check for being the best finisher among that four. Which is kind of nice, because Allmendinger is one of those few professional race car drivers who might actually clip coupons before a run to the grocery store to help stretch his dollars. 

The latest figures that are getting harder to come by in a timely fashion (as in before my Monday night deadline) are the Nielsen TV ratings for NASCAR events. I don’t claim to be a scholar on TV ratings, having never been in the TV side of this business, but it’s a figure that I’ve kept track of over many years. The folks at Nielsen have the thankless task of counting how many TV sets are in operation in the U.S. (Did that figure surge during last month’s rioting?) They then survey “Nielsen households” to get a count on how many of them watched various programming, including NASCAR races. The number you’re used to seeing, like a 2.5 rating, gives an estimate of how many folks watched that program. There’s also a figure called Nielsen share, say for instance an 8.0 (that would be very high), meaning that 8% of all TVs that were on in the country were tuned to that particular program. I’m used to the regular number.

It used to be that figure was generally available by mid-day Monday, but nowadays it’s released later and later. Oftentimes instead of getting a ratings number, what’s being released is an estimated amount of viewers that watched an event or show. When you hear that 1.7 million fans tuned into the midweek Martinsville race, that sounds like a whole bunch of people. Add in the fact that number is 104% higher than last year’s race, and it’s “whiskey for men and beer for my horses” time to celebrate. Then you read that the combined rating for the three midweek Cup races NASCAR have run this season are among the 11th least-watched Cup races in over two decades. Well, it’s harder to get happy about that, ain’t it? And as we discussed last week, keep in mind that right now NASCAR is almost the only big-league sport presenting live events on TV, so as the competition heats up with the return of MLB, the NHL and NBA, look for ratings to further decrease. Truthfully, a 1.7 isn’t a great jumping-off rating for our sport as the barbarians get ready to re-enter the Coliseum.  

Yes, the Nielsen ratings are imperfect. Somewhere out there in middle America, someone’s Aunt Mildred is still handwriting what TV shows she watched each week and mailing the list to Nielsen corporate headquarters. Far and away most of the tabulating is done by computer nowadays. But that still can’t tabulate how many folks are actually tuned in to the race. Someone might be hosting a watch party with 30 people paying rapt attention to the race. In other Nielsen households, someone else might have the race on as background noise waiting for the local news to come on. More and more fans are recording TV programming on DVRs to watch at a later date, which is said to skew the numbers somewhat. Advertisers are hesitant to include those numbers, knowing a whole lot of fans watching the race at a later date are just going to fast forward through the commercials.

(That’s actually a good strategy to watch racing these days. You can view a typical three-and-a-half hour race in under two hours. Or if you get bored and fast forward to the last 20 laps like some of my friends do, you can watch the race in even less time. And you know what? The same guy who won the race on live TV wins it on your DVR recording too, though you’ll likely be left baffled as to why that beer ad guy is tossing a brew to someone camouflaged to look like a rock if you fast forward through the ads.)

While the Nielsen ratings are flawed, those same numbers are used by higher-ups at huge companies to make decisions on whether their advertising dollars are being spent wisely. And in time, I am sure those same numbers will be used by network executives to decide whether the amounts they spend to buy broadcast rights to NASCAR events are being spent wisely. I don’t think I’m raining on anyone’s parade here to state that stock car racing’s TV ratings are down significantly since the so-called “Golden Era,” which reached its peak somewhere around 2006 (in 2005, the average NASCAR race was still earning an average of a 5.0 rating).

So please, Adam, Jay, Bob, Phil or whoever else is going to release the rating numbers each week, just give me the raw ratings numbers. Yes, I suppose I could research how many TVs Nielsen says are in operation in America and do the math myself. But math has never been my strong point despite the fact my first name is Matthew. Ever since that long, dark four years that were my time in high school, I’ve been less than fastidious about solving math problems, and I will flee the room usually at a high rate of speed if anyone even uses the word algebra.

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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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12 comments

  1. Avatar

    Lies, damned lies and statistics.

    Great article Matt.

  2. Avatar

    you want something more baffling….go to talladega’s websit and read how they’re going to permit 5,000 people into the race this weeke.d i got confused after ticket purchase and camping spot purchase.

    at least, it appears, that the track is not charging the customary $120+ for the tower seats in the 2 towers that will be opened.

    reading about arriving at the track also got me a bit confused.

    just think, nascar/tracks are talking about letting 25,000 people into a race in july. don’t want to think about entrance logistics for that many people.

    • Avatar

      As much as I was for NASCAR starting back up with no fans in the stand, I can’t condone 25,000, yet.

      On the other hand, as long as so many people are gathering in large, closely packed groups for all these protests, what the hell does it matter? Might as well open everything back up.

      BTW, it doesn’t seem that the same people that spoke so decisively about not gathering in large groups have been quite as loud and persistent delivering that message with those gathering for protests. Funny how that works. Also peculiar how we are hearing about spikes about two weeks after the protest started but no one seems to be linking the two even though it seems kind of obvious to me.

      • Avatar

        well captain obvious, i got yelled at for even thinking what may be causing the spike now. just like after memorial day holiday and people going to the florida and georiga beaches.

        well duh!! but hey what do i know.

        all i know is where i work everyone had to be back in office on 6/1 and 6/3 there was someone positive. from mid-march to 6/1 no one.

        • Avatar

          Janice – same here at our place. It’s a good thing that the decisions are being made by people far more intelligent than we are! (dripping with sarcasm).

  3. Avatar
    David Russell Edwards

    As long as we are talking about crowd size – it doesn’t appear that Nascar suffered by not having butt one in the stands for multiple weeks of racing. Perhaps that puts it in perspective when somebody says “I’m never going to watch Nascar again!”.

    Seems like the band played on just fine without us.

    • Avatar

      I guess if you only look at the last 6 weeks but, whatever you do, don’t look back 20 years.

      • Avatar
        David Russell Edwards

        Yes, but twenty years ago is…. well, in the past. No longer matters other than a fond memory.

        • Avatar

          Yes, a fond memory of Nascar before Brian France had his fingerprints on it.

        • Avatar

          I don’t know, I kind of look at it like one long continuous downturn. Every year they do something to piss off another group of fans (chase, car of tomorrow, Brickyard 2008, charters, playoffs, stage racing, etc.). I don’t think it’s been long enough to gauge the fallout for this year.
          Wait for it… wait for it… wait for it….

  4. Avatar

    2020 2.775 million
    2019 2.24 3.737 million
    2018 2.52 4.154 million
    2017 2.83 4.662 million

    These are the Homestead numbers direct from FS ratings tab.
    I would say in the short term this cannot be good news when they are 2 million less in only three years….

    These stats don’t lie!

  5. Avatar

    I see Matt has finally changed his profile pic. Bowed to pressure or is he now officially “woke”?