There’s an element of grim curiosity to it over the last few years, but I still search out the TV ratings for each week’s Cup race. Those rating numbers have been trending down over the last few years, and in fact, last few decades. To borrow a line from the inestimable Donald Fagen, “The time of our time has come and gone, I fear we’ve been waiting too long … ”
Yeah, the ratings haven’t been great for stock car racing, especially in the later parts of the season when NBC wages its quixotic battle against the all singing, all dancing NFL — which has some ratings issues of its own, but nothing like NASCAR, Yep, last week the Cup broadcast took one below the water-line and the “dive” klaxon has been bleating at a deafening volume ever since. The Daytona 500 drew 4.83 million fans and earned just a 2.8 Nielsen rating number. (As in 2.8 percent of TV’s in use as late last Sunday night gave way to the opening hours of Monday morning.)
Forgive a bit of punnery, but last Sunday night’s 500 ended up as a perfect storm for NASCAR. They got the race started pretty much on time, but only 15 laps into the contest an early version of the “Big One” decimated the field. Before they could get that mess straightened out, not only did Biblical rains hit, lightning struck within an eight-mile radius of the track, triggering the stand-down of all outdoors activity. That wasn’t long enough for many people to get invested in the race, though if your favorite driver wrecked out in that early incident, it might have served as a disincentive to tune back in later.
My late friend Ben Blake, who taught me some of the tricks of the trade back when I first started writing about NASCAR, taught me that the only thing worse than rain at a race track is rain at a race track with lights. After all, you knew for a fact all attempts at racing would have to cease at sunset if the track didn’t have lights. At a track with lights, you could be stuck there until the sadistic bastards that owned and ran that track decided to pull the plug for the evening.
While they said they hoped to get the race in at its full distance, given the weather, they couldn’t even hazard a guess as to what time the racing might resume. Thus, a fan determined to see the conclusion could only keep checking back or searching for information online. As far as coverage during the rain delay, another old truism comes to mind: There’s nothing more boring than someone with little to say and a great deal of time to say it. You could almost see the jet dryer drivers scanning the area to be sure Juan Pablo Montoya hadn’t shown up.
I didn’t figure the 500 ratings were going to be pretty and they weren’t. The race drew a terrible 2.8 rating. Last year’s weather for the 500 was almost equally bad, with the conclusion of the race postponed until Monday evening. A total of 10.943 million viewers tuned in to the 2000 Daytona 500. By my math, that’s 6,113,000 fewer fans who watched this year. Where did everybody go? Yes, most sports struggle a bit with ratings these days, but not to NASCAR’s degree. This is supposed to be the biggest race of the year. Well, last year the March race in Las Vegas drew 5.5 million fans and a 3.24 rating. You can argue that only a limited amount of fans were allowed to attend the Daytona 500 because of the pandemic, but it couldn’t keep them from watching on TV. Last year’s Fontana race 4,781,000 viewers and a 2.9 TV ratings number.
In the FOX/NBC era of NASCAR TV (since 2001), Daytona 500 ratings peaked in 2006 on NBC with 19.4 million viewers and an 11.3 rating. Since earning a 7.7 rating and 13. 4 million viewers in 2015, both ratings and viewership have declined steadily.
Prior to the modern era TV deal (a.k.a. “The Good Old Days”) of the 1980s and 1990s, the Daytona 500 was usually on CBS, and it typically earned a Nielsen rating in the mid to upper 9s or 8s with an occasional upper 7s or low 10s. As a lot of folks have been pointing out this week, those races started between noon and 1 p.m. ET, not mid to late afternoons, and weather was rarely an issue back then. Why? Blame the Florida climate with cooler air inland and warmer air over the ocean. But as Bob Dylan once wrote, “you don’t have to be a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.” It worked. Why did someone go ahead and change it?
Some folks have blamed the later start times on FOX trying to cater to fans in the western time zones. FOX would like the races to conclude just in time to use them to promote their Sunday night “Animation Domination” prime time lineup. Oddly enough, I have had many west coast readers who really enjoyed having the races end in early afternoon local time, with one of them almost a zealot on the topic. She loved having Sunday afternoons off to go ride her big two-wheeler, hit the beach, hike the foothills or avail herself of some other outdoors activity available to residents of the Golden State.
In the end, it didn’t matter what time zone potential viewers were in during the rain delay. Everybody was thinking the same thing: This is stupid. Why are they doing this? I’m not enjoying this at all. I’m not sure how many NASCAR fans there are in Newfoundland, but even in their unique time zone a half hour ahead of Eastern Standard time, there was probably a great deal of grumbling and gnashing of teeth as Newfies called FOX TV executives whatever they call people they are really angry with.
I realize not all Left Coasters felt the same. A couple weeks back, someone in the comments section was enraged that the qualifying races started so early. He said by the time he got home from work they’d be almost over. I thought to myself, “Dude-man if you still have a job to go to and you’re working enough hours and earning enough money to pay the mortgage or rent and put hot meals on the table for you and your family, get down on knees and give thanks. A lot of people aren’t so blessed during this pandemic that has crippled many families financially. Give your cable company a ring and sign up for DVR service or go to an antique store and see if they have some VCRs.”
Over the last decade, some drivers like Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Carl Edwards and Jimmie Johnson have decided to retire from NASCAR racing. Losing some of your big name drivers and most prolific winners can’t help with those TV numbers, but at the same time you have an extremely popular young driver who actually won last year’s title, Chase Elliott. As Kenny Mayne of RPM Tonight was fond of saying, “he remains popular.” NASCAR has been through these generational shifts before and done just fine. But looking over an increasingly barren landscape, I find myself wondering, “Hey, where did everybody go?”
Editor’s note: Of course late in this past Sunday’s race on Daytona’s infield road course a brief, unexpected bout of wet weather threw a wrench in the works, scrambling the finishing order measurably. With seven road courses now on the Cup schedule, it will likely do so again. We’ll take a look at the special challenges that go with officiating road course races next week. Because there’s nothing like four-minute laps at pace car speed to drive away the fans that are remaining. For the record, nine of the first 15 race weekends last year involved some sort of rain delay or postponement.