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Beside the Rising Tide: Hey, Where Did Everybody Go?

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.

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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?

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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.”

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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.

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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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14 thoughts on “Beside the Rising Tide: Hey, Where Did Everybody Go?”

  1. I think there are a myriad number of reasons Nascar ratings have declined beginning with the inevitable deaths of many of the older fans of the sport who would tune in and watch the entirety of races. Add to that the fact that attention spans are much shorter in today’s world (which is quantifiable by a simple Google search). Young people are also not tied to “cars” or having one as much as in the past. In NC, 16 used to be a special number for getting your license and having a souped up machine in highschool was a big deal, however, laws changed and now you can’t even get a full license until 18, so why would a young person, who is impressionable, even worry about a car with Uber, Lyft etc. By the time they ARE old enough college looms and other means of transport have been uncovered.
    Nascar ratings have also declined with the slow destruction of print media. My local papers used to always have 3 or 4 stories on Nascar each day…now you’re hard pressed to find one a week, usually Sunday mornings. Also, of course, we lost Dale Earnhardt and many fans were just HIS and stopped watching once it became apparent that Dale Jr. was never going to seriously contend for a championship. How ironic that you pointed out the peak of ratings, which was 3 years after the Chase/playoffs whatever Nascar implemented to try and be football or baseball…
    Nascar fans NEVER wanted our sport to be like those. I began watching because we had an 8 month season with qualifying and practices and cool long time sponsors that I became acclimated too–and a year long champ. Each week I wanted to watch the points change and watch my favorite driver and whether or not he could retain that lead by leading laps or winning. It wasn’t win at all costs and most people aren’t in situations where they can win at all costs in life, financially or personally. So Nascar lost its relatibility to many fans when leaving it’s traditional season long format. If I want to see playoffs I have stick and ball sports–I want to see a Nascar with a tough, 8 month champ, who has ground it out and survived, not 1 of a group of 16 surviving over 10 races. If the champ is crowned that way, why have the other 26 regular races or an All Star race or a Busch Clash? Heck, just finish 11th every race in the regular season and then win one in each playoff round and outlast your opponent in the final race. Champion my butt. Also, the availability of merchandise has changed–back in the 90s you couls find Racing Champions everywhere and kids ate those things up. Now, it’s rare to even see a diecast race car at Wal-mart so no more young fans are introduced that way.
    There are many more variables to the merchandise issue as well, but finally, let’s explore the rise of the world’s new God: the internet.
    I can get EVERYTHING I want when I want it and how I want it almost immediately today…so instead of a cable tv service with local channels airing nascar, I have 80 shows on Hulu, Netflix, etc etc etc. The internet and instant everything has killed print media and the ability of content to be controlled. Now I, you, Joe-blow and Mary Sue control what we see, how we see it and when we see it and with that decline and the lower numbers of youth in car culture has came a decline in fans. Take into mind the limits tracks impose on “good times” like beer and food in the grandstands and who wants that $100 ticket anyway if you can’t enjoy yourself freely? Companies are investing their extra money in internet ads these days, not race cars that young people aren’t flocking to drive. In the end, there are many reasons why Nascar has declined in popularity, however, if you’re a fan of the sport and aren’t a fairweather fan, you still watch faithfully, as I have since 1988 and will until I die.

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  2. To paraphrase James Carville, “It’s the races stupid” and the races aren’t very good. That is 99% of the problem. Other things like start times, idiotic/unprofessional/screaming broadcasts, etc. are just the last straw. If the racing was compelling, fans would put up with the start times, etc. Having a 1pm start time would slow the hemorrhaging but it won’t solve the problem.

    There are multiple reasons why the racing is bad & I don’t think NASCAR can overcome them or even has the will power to try to address the problems. They are going to milk the cow until it is dry & then retire.

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  3. Yeah, there are a lot of reasons for the decline in ratings, but the one that nobody mentioned, the one that still gets my blood pressure to spike, is the incompetence of Brian France. He thought he was a visionary, but he was an arrogant fool who couldn’t manage a hot dog stand, much less a multi-million dollar sport. Thankfully, he has been unceremoniously banished from NASCAR’s management, but the sport will likely never recover from the damage he inflicted on it.

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  4. The NASCAR playoffs, Win and your in, Stage Racing and the dopey point system that goes with it, not to mention the yellow flags that go with stage racing, All of this stuff sucks and is a dirrect reason why the fans have left, NASCAR thinks they control everything but guess what NASCAR you have no power over the money in my pocket and you will get none of it as long as you keep NASCAR in current stupid form, It is you NASCAR who have driven the fans away

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  5. It’s the same old stale and sterile racing. Cars are too aero sensitive and nobody can pass. So, you watch them drive around in packs until the end and then everybody tries to pass and it winds up with a big wreck. Predictable. Stale. Now, NASCAR is trying gimmicks like spreading dirt on the track at Bristol and dirt racing. Bristol is fine the way it was! You want to race on dirt? Then, go to Eldora or some place like that! The racing needs to go back to an acceptable set of parameters for teams to tweak their cars with mechanical advantage versus aero. I miss watching people like Dale Earnhardt being three laps down and coming back to run up front. It added drama without wrecking. The parameters are too strict; lighten up a bit.

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  6. when i saw the ratings i wondered how long fox would tolerate them. by time the race started i was sick of the never ending pre-race lead up show(s). by time 3 pm rolls around, i know i’m either doing something else, taking a nap or have forgotten about the race. i know it’s about entertainment, but dang. i kept waiting for the grid walk this past weekend.

    here comes those 4 words….back in the day…..my weekend/sunday was planned around racing. flew in the door from church, made a sandwich, caught the prayer, anthem and fly over and they were off.

    this coming weekend whoever gets out front will fly away cause of “clean air”. isn’t the cup race starting at 3:30 sunday?

    i know it’s near impossible, but it would be wonderful if one of the first time winners were in the “final 4”.

    i figured Eldora didn’t get dirt race cause stewart has started that other series with evernham. every time i hear about torrential rains i think of all that dirt running down the tack into the pit lane area.

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    • I guess the Dirt Track at Charlotte is too close to the teams to be considered a viable choice compared to Bristol. Makes cents to them.

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  7. Stage racing. Announcers screaming hyperbole. “It’s going to get exciting,” which it emphatically does not. Wrecking. More wrecking. Stupid driving leading to more wrecking. Blocking leading to more wrecking. Announcers praising blocking that leads to more wrecking. My favorite driver dominating the race until somebody wrecks him.

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  8. Too many wrecks. Cars unable to pass due to aero issues. I am so old I remember drafting when PASSES were made for the lead. Blocking is acceptable. Tracks are faster than the cars. Limit the tires or the downforce so the drivers have to back off for the turns.

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  9. I am really concerned about 2022 and the introduction of those plastic-bodied, Step-Son-of-COT’s that NASCAR has decided will keep the poor millionaire (and even billionaire) team owners from going broke. I guess sending hundreds of body fabricators to the NC State unemployment website is the best way to “grow the sport”?

    But what we will see are essentially identical cars only differentiated with “manufacturer” decals. Of course the large teams that build and distribute the motors to the smaller teams will still reserve the “picks of the litters” for their own organizations. So we will still see pretty much the same drivers winning in ’22 who are winning today.

    But like the disastrous COT years that lubricated the TV ratings “skids” and convinced Dodge to bolt after their championship season, will fans quickly grow bored watching these clone cars cutting laps and tune out in force, once again?

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  10. I decided to give the sport a chance again, especially in light of MLB’s recent disgusting behavior…players not showing up for work and disrespecting their country with their owners’ support, nearly cancelling a season because born rich owners and millionaire players couldn’t decide how to divide up revenue when millions of people were out of work, and killing minor league teams because small towns won’t build them new facilities with local tax dollars. Whatever sins NASCAR committed against their core fan base (and I don’t deny that they are legion), the sport was never that greedy or elitist.

    That said, I did not stay awake to watch the 500. I have to get up for work. They need to start the damn race earlier, period. Whatever they lose in west coast audience is better than the ratings this year because of Fox’s insistence on a late start. Heck, I’d happily watch a race that starts at 10:00 myself so long as I’m confident I’ll be awake for the conclusion.

    I enjoyed moments of the road course race, there were some good battles, but I was not happy with the late caution putting the best drivers behind a gaggle of cars with old tires. That is a disaster waiting to happen, especially since many of the drivers, even the veterans, are going three and four wide into a first turn that’s barely two cars wide.

    I like the idea of seven road course races, two events at Darlington including Labor Day, a race at Nashville, and a dirt race on the schedule. The sport will be WAY better when drivers learn road course patience and the schedule isn’t dominated by speedways. I still don’t like playoffs in racing, but the current format is light years better than the Chase was. At least it had some thought put into it; it rewards winning and a strong regular season.

    So yeah, I groaned at the mess that was the 500, and I was annoyed at the late race caution last Sunday and the disasters it caused for some of my favorite drivers. But we’ve seen two surprise winners this year, and I’ll gladly take the road course racing at Daytona over anything with restrictor plates.

    And Matt, it’s great to know you’re still around offering up racing coverage like nobody else can. If NASCAR had listened to you, they might be in a lot better shape today.

    Reply

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