NASCAR Race Weekend Central

2-Headed Monster: Has NASCAR Lost Its Stranglehold on American Motorsports?

Unless you were under a rock this weekend, you couldn’t have missed the buzz of the Formula One race at Circuit of the Americas. The event, which spanned across four days, had a reported 400,000 people in attendance, including 150,000 people on raceday.

It was an eye-opening experience for many in the motorsports world. NASCAR racing’s attendance has dwindled over the years, so much so that racetracks are tearing down grandstands in an effort the sport has termed “right-sizing.” NASCAR still won the ratings game, but Formula 1 did better than it has in recent years, with many thinking that the momentum from the event could help close that gap even tighter in the years to come.

See also
Dropping the Hammer: NASCAR Still King on Sunday Despite F1 Gains

For years, NASCAR has been considered the No. 1 motorsports in America and there really hasn’t been a challenge to that. Was this past weekend a sign that NASCAR may not be as strong with American motorsports fans as it once was? Michael Finley and Ava Ladner see it different ways and debate the topic in this week’s 2-Headed Monster.

Cracks Appearing for NASCAR Compared to Other Series

For years, NASCAR essentially had a monopoly on the racing scene in America.

Outside of the Indianapolis 500, most forms of motorsport broadcasted in the states were either owned by NASCAR or stuck on very small/niche cable channels such as Versus and SPEED. And since 1950, when NASCAR sprang ahead of every other stock car series with the running of the first Southern 500, there was no major stock car series completely unaffiliated with NASCAR for 70 years. The biggest organizations in that category besides NASCAR in that time, IROC and ARCA, were at most subservient to the France family.

Then came the Superstar Racing Experience this past summer.

SRX has been clear that it is not out to go to war with NASCAR. But the mission purpose of the series focuses on big personalities and exciting racing on short tracks, variables long deemed missing by lapsed NASCAR fans.

See also
No Burning Questions: SRX, CBS Superior to NASCAR, FOX

By all accounts, the first season was a success, and it fared very well rating wise.

Unlike other new sports properties in the last few years, it did not dramatically drop in viewership, and some of the races put on by the group- in particular the events at the Nashville Fairgrounds and Slinger Super Speedway- felt like major deals.

And then there’s the rise of Formula One.

When discussing TV ratings, it is imperative to factor in the 18-49 demo. Ages 18-49 is more important than overall viewership, because that is what the advertisers look at when selecting what shows to throw their weight behind. The Nielsen generated charts provided every single day by ShowBuzz Daily have all cable shows ranked by 18-49 for that reason.

The F1 ratings have been up all year, and it has been much more impressive than the steady ratings NASCAR has had because the vast majority of F1 races are starting between 8-10 a.m. ET, which also kills the live west coast numbers.

The first real big shot between F1 and NASCAR was the third week in May, where F1 almost beat NASCAR in the demo 0.33-0.31. NASCAR had a lot of handicaps that day, with F1 being at Monaco and NASCAR having a soggy race at COTA. But it was close.

The second was last month, when F1 at Monza beat the Richmond Cup race that weekend in the demo. And the third came this past weekend, where F1 defeated NASCAR in 18-49 head-to-head in spite of NASCAR running two hours later than F1 and thus having much more crossover potential between the two audiences. NASCAR’s rating head-to-head with F1 from the invocation to the rain delay had two-thirds of the demo audience it would have for later on in the day.

More than anything, this past weekend at COTA really felt like a big event. Like Miami next year. Something that NASCAR has at Daytona, Charlotte, and really no where else. Like Nashville and Slinger for SRX, and Indianapolis for IndyCar. That did not used to be the case even just 15 years ago, when those type of events would take up 30 or so NASCAR races every year.

I wrote about NASCAR vs F1 last week, and rereading it now is interesting knowing what happened. I don’t know if NASCAR will be surpassed in a few years by any series, but they definitely do not have the stranglehold they once had on the industry. I think above everything, NASCAR and its broadcast partners do not know how to connect with millennials and below, while F1 does. – Michael Finley

NASCAR is Still Number 1

Stranglehold? Stranglehold may be a bit of an overstatement but let’s just say that NASCAR has lorded over the American motorsport landscape ever since IndyCar muffed its chance by committing social suicide and splitting itself in two.

Even though the Indianapolis 500 can pull 300,000 fans for their marquee event on the IndyCar schedule, the series never really rivals NASCAR as far as attention – be it fan or media. The thing is, that immense attention placed on the 500 never translates to a full season of noticeable coverage.

The series hosts a spectacular event once a year but viewership patterns indicate that fans do not stick around for the whole season. For IndyCar, such an issue is disappointing, as many fo the races are great theater. In comparison, NASCAR has found a way to keep a pretty consistent number of fans that positions it as the behemoth of the American motorsport experience.

That the Daytona 500 does not draw as well as it has previously can be argued to be a recognition that the series is doing pretty OK. The viewership numbers for the ‘Super Bowl’ of NASCAR are all over the place owing to the fact that many of race’s iterations have been beset by rain delays, making it hard to gauge actual interest.

That races in the wake of the 500 average around 3 million is nothing to ignore. The sporting landscape is fractured and confounding, will so many choices of what to watch in conjunction with so many ways to choose how to watch. However, NASCAR still does pretty well – except when football season comes around.

The argument here is not that NASCAR is perfect and that nothing is wrong. There are a frustratingly large number of issues with the sport. The reasons that fans have tuned out are lengthy: the playoffs, the 550-hp package, the lack of a diverse schedule, lack of driver engagement with the fans, but perhaps one of the overlooked aspects is how NASCAR sells itself.

Reigning Cup champion Chase Elliott noted that one of the things that the Drive to Survive series on Netflix did was portray the series with gravitas. His comments to Jeff Gluck of The Athletic showed both a recognition of the positive treatment F1 gained from the streaming giant compared to the asininity given NASCAR.

Elliot recognized, “It’s like, ‘This isn’t funny; this is legit.’ And then the next thing was a comedy skit that came out for NASCAR (the Netflix comedy series “The Crew”) that just kind of further confirmed the outside opinion that we just turn left for fun and there’s nothing else to it.”

Elliott’s despondency is one of the overall marketing issues with NASCAR. Rather than selling NASCAR as a serious product that celebrates driver skill and the hard work of the pit crew and engineers, and the lives of all involved, it frequently downsells itself. Aiming for more of a lowest common denominator than a solid middle ground.

There is a concept in teaching that the students will respond to how you teach them. If the teacher thinks the students are dumb, and teaches that way, even the smartest students will face challenges overcoming the environment. In correlation, when a teacher believes that the students are intelligent and treats them that way, even the most challenged tend to fight to do better. This same kind of idea might be the best one to apply to NASCAR marketing, and something they could thank F1 for showing them how to do.

Formula One put on a spectacular showing this past weekend when it visited COTA in Texas. It, no doubt, provided a beautiful event that showcased how the sport has become more popular. The thing is, however, that the COTA response was the confluence of a brilliant title race between Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton, two teams at their peak – Red Bull and Mercedes, the hype from DtS which capitalized on people looking for content while locked in during the pandemic, and a feeling that something special might be happening.  That’s not a recipe that can be maintained every single year.

NASCAR still rules.

It has lost its way with far too many changes over too short of a time and that kind of disruption not only leaves many fans puzzled but brings questions as to just what the ^&$# the sport is doing. Incremental changes are a much better way to maintain and grow.

The sport of NASCAR has not lost its position as King in the US, rather many fans are thinking that the King has no clothes. The King is not naked, rather he is just in the process of changing clothes.

The culmination of all the changes in NASCAR will manifest itself next year, and maybe, finally, everyone will stop tinkering with the on-track product and instead focus on re-engaging with the fans. There’s no reason that the sport can’t once again fill its tracks. – Ava Hutson Ladner

Share this article

Sign up for the Frontstretch Newsletter

A daily email update (Monday through Friday) providing racing news, commentary, features, and information from Frontstretch.com
We hate spam. Your email address will not be sold or shared with anyone else.

16 Comments
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
John

Interesting way to look at it…and well written.

John Cooke

I still think being a long time race fan that the attendance at race tracks has been affected by the start time of races more than anything else. There are way more fans that travel several hours to get to the track than are local. A race that is over at 4-4:30 still gives a fan time to get home and get ready for work the next day. 1:00 P.M. for day races and 6:00 P.M. for night races would work much better!

Echo

I definitely agree with you on start times affecting the attendance. But Nascar sold it’s soul to the devil networks. Nascar hasn’t had a smart leader in a long time. Wait till the new IROC car disappoints people again next year.

Steve R

Playoffs, stage racing and the needless yellow flags that come with stage racing, stage points, and the worst thing in all of sports not just NASCAR the very stupid win and your in all SUCK and have driven the fans away from NASCAR, F-1 races are real races run the right way, that is why fans are flocking to F-1 and running away NASCAR, Also not looking forward to NASCAR becoming a spec series next year, with there new spec, car

Jeremy

Not sure I totally agree, but at least F1 has stayed true to what it is and has been. I think F1 is getting a bump from that Netflix series (I don’t have Netflix so haven’t seen it, heard it’s good) – time will tell if they are able to hook and hold onto these new American fans, or if like NASCAR, these fans go away when the next big thing comes along.

IMO Indycar has been putting on a better show than F1 or NASCAR the last few years.

Jack Hayes

I would add 10+ laps under caution for debris which could be picked up in one. A large percent of the races are under caution. Screens are dominated by ads: make the races on the large split screen, ads on small.

Bruce wallace

There is a distinct bias. NASCAR promotes their favorite driver (chase Elliott), favorite manufacture (Chevy), and rules that favor them.

Justan American

And we have forgotten about the Toyota driver who was injured, missed a number of races, but then was given special compensation from the family who owns the series and allowed to participate in the playoffs and eventually won the championship? If they were biased for Chevy’s then why does RCR suck? It’s the drivers idiot not the cars.

Ken D.

Agreed, NHRA USED TO HAVE Pro stock, now it’s Pro Chevy!

Al Torney

Number one, attendance started going down way before the start times were changed. Number two, the IRL tv ratings are on the rise. Number three, if NASCAR listened to the fans there would be no stage racing and playoffs. Number four, there is a total disconnect between fans and drivers. Number five, NASCAR fans have grown old and are not being replaced by young fans. Number six, the current crop of drivers are just plain boring. I could go on and on.
NASCAR is now grasping at straws hoping to hit on something that will re-ignite the excitement that used to come with attending a race.

OV Mike

The Kansas race was no surprise. It was ho hum. But aren’t most of them anymore? Having said that. If you tuned into the F1 race, it wasn’t even ho hum. More exotic cars, drivers, and gorgeous wife/girlfriends for sure. And a lubed up liberal college town crowd. But the racing was get in a line and stay there to the finish. One pass for the lead made when Hamilton was in the pits. Not thrilling for sure.

John R

I do agree that the stage racing is one of the main reasons I’ve lost interest in nascar. The whole play off thing is just not interesting to me. Look no further that IMSA to see that races run from start to finish are exciting. After 12 or 24 hours the possibility of multiple different winners in several different classes show how well that can work. All but one of witch will come down to a final endurance race to decide the champions. F1 is the tightest run to the crown in a good while. All very exciting.

Denny Dunn

NASCAR just isn’t racing anymore. It may look like it on the surface to the ignorant masses but the low HP high down force just takes away from any of the drivers actually having to drive the car. It is also exceptionally hard to follow a race with the money hungry American networks covering it due to the ridiculous amount of commercial breaks. It’s obvious NASCAR racing isn’t about the fan experience and more about the network’s lining their pockets. They have lost their core audience trying to pander to pop culture. NASCAR is the last thing I watch out of all motorsport and I was once obsessed with it.

Richard Steinke

Too many road courses, need to get back to short tracks .

Mdsmith

Thanks to Toyota’s bottomless bank account and Joe Gibbs/France family greed, they have ruined true North American Stock Car Racing forever. There is no turning back. Dodge was smart enough to leave and they proved they don’t need NASCAR to sell performance cars. And after the honestly painful comments from Denny Hamlin’s wife, why isn’t NASCAR taking any action concerning narcissism and domestic intimidation? Oh Toyota dollars.
SAD!

Thomas Tangredi

I have bin a nascar fan when I was 17years old I started driving finger 8 at Islip speedway when’s to Pocono in 1983 got my face for big cars going for wood nascar has gone down hill when you changed the format to the side of the tv you can’t watch the race and look at the scoreboard and know you stop the cars for sagment that is so dum bad 16 cars to race for the prize what about the other cars you guy took the race out of racing

Sign up for the Frontstretch Newsletter

A daily email update (Monday through Friday) providing racing news, commentary, features, and information from Frontstretch.com

Frontstretch