Race Weekend Central

Up to Speed: NASCAR Still Chasing the Casual Sports Fan

NASCAR’s 2022 season began this weekend with a new twist on a familiar event. Instead of hosting the exhibition race currently known as The Clash at its customary home, Daytona International Speedway, the chartered teams of the NASCAR Cup Series packed up and headed west to Los Angeles. The site of this year’s race was a temporary quarter-mile track set up within the L.A. Memorial Coliseum. While not run for points, the Sunday evening event (Feb. 6) marked the first time in the sport’s modern era that the Cup Series raced on such a small track.

A year ago, the idea NASCAR would pursue such a race would have sounded improbable, even when considered against other recent schedule changes. In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic forced NASCAR to experiment with mid-week races and a few more doubleheader weekends than what the sanctioning body originally planned.

The 2021 schedule expanded the Cup Series’ slate of road course events, along with adding a dirt race at Bristol Motor Speedway. All these alterations came after NASCAR had taken criticism throughout the 2010s for an unwillingness to change up the Cup Series schedule. Considering the minor adjustments of years past, the version planned for 2022 feels like something concocted after a night of too many brews in the Talladega Superspeedway infield.

Ideas like an event at the L.A. Coliseum may sound outlandish at first, but NASCAR should get credit for what could be a game-changing race. If they can replicate similar stadium tracks at other sports venues in the United States, or even abroad, it will have a new avenue to introduce stock car racing to brand-new audiences.

For most of its history, NASCAR’s style of racing has resonated most strongly with rural Americans. Many of the sport’s most storied tracks do not have direct ties to a major urban market. Charlotte has become the business, technological and cultural hub of the sport. Other cities, like Atlanta and Nashville, have functioned as significant centers for driver development and local racing.

But most race tracks, by design, need more space than what a typical stadium uses. NASCAR has never found a reliable way to put stock car racing directly in front of an urban audience. It has always been dependent on fans making arrangements to go to the track. Perhaps Sunday’s race launched a new era of NASCAR bringing the track to the fans.

The Busch Light Clash at the Coliseum may be brand new, but it’s really NASCAR’s latest attempt to fix an old problem: engaging the casual sports fan. It’s a quest the sanctioning body has sought ever since the sport got its first taste of mainstream success in the 1990s.

Think about all the major changes in the sport over the last 20 years: the introduction of the original Chase in 2004, the revision of the points system in 2011, the debut of the playoffs in 2014 and the implementation of stage racing in 2017. All were done in the name of making NASCAR more accessible to the idea of a sport-entertainment seeker who may not watch every race but would lift stock car racing from a niche sport into something more on the level of the NFL.

Unfortunately, none of those changes really worked in NASCAR’s favor. Beginning around 2006, the sport began to see TV ratings and at-track attendance decline year over year. In the 2010s, many of the most recognizable sponsors from the previous decade cut back their involvement in NASCAR or left the sport altogether.

Additionally, NASCAR’s mission to cater to the casual fan started an ideological battle between the sanctioning body and “core” fans, the weekly followers who began watching mostly before the introduction of the Chase. Finding that the sport they were familiar with had changed too much, many of those core fans left for good. As a result, NASCAR got hit with the double whammy of losing some of its mainstream fan base while failing to appeal to a type of casual fan that may not have existed in the first place.

Nevertheless, NASCAR’s leadership has never stopped chasing the casual fan. It feels like the recent schedule changes, particularly The Clash, is their latest attempt to get the sport in front of any new audience it can. The timing of this experiment went well, with the introduction of the new car and attention focused on next weekend’s Super Bowl at SoFi Stadium. What is not good is NASCAR’s track record in attempting to sell the sport to audiences in southern California.

Yet there is reason to be optimistic. The race itself felt fresh and entertaining. The drivers were clearly having fun throughout the weekend, even if there were a few heated tempers. Sunday’s events had a runaway leader at times, but there was almost always a compelling battle somewhere on the track. And even though the second last chance qualifier descended into chaos, none of the other races were wreckfests. The fans who attended in person got a good taste of NASCAR competition in an event that went off without any major hiccups.

See also
Joey Logano Wins NASCAR's Inaugural Busch Light Clash at L.A. Coliseum

It’s also important to remember NASCAR’s biggest growth period was preceded by better accessibility to races. Beginning with the excitement of the 1979 Daytona 500 and continuing through the 1980s, NASCAR benefitted enormously from fully televised events. Watching on TV may never be the same experience as attending a race in person, but TV did give NASCAR the exposure it sought to enjoy its explosive growth in the 1990s.

The Clash at the Coliseum could work out the same way. Instead of fundamentally altering how the sport operates, this event was geared toward putting NASCAR’s brand of racing in front of new faces. Even better, the race was not on a 1.5-mile intermediate track clone but on a quarter-mile bullring, featuring a more visceral style of racing.

Not everyone will give Sunday’s race a positive review, but the idea of stadium racing should have more popular appeal than playoffs or stages ever will. Perhaps the solution to the casual versus core battle is to bring an old style of competition to new venues.

In the end, all that are left are simply fans.

See also
Up to Speed: Time for NASCAR to Rethink Stage Racing

RACE WEEKEND CENTRAL: L.A.

About the author

Bryan began writing for Frontstretch in 2016. He has penned Up to Speed for the past six years. A lifelong fan of racing, Bryan is a published author and aspiring motorsports historian. He is a native of Columbus, Ohio and currently resides in Southwest Florida.

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Shayne

I’ve been a fan since the 70’s. The past 20 years or so have seen a lot of changes. I won’t bore anyone with the particulars.

Yesterday’s race showed: A race can be held anywhere. Stadium racing isn’t anything new.

The broadcast was terrible. Creative writers (the same ilk that pen storylines for wrestling and politicians) make NASCAR look so fake with their little sideshow skits. SNL anyone? Joy, Stewart, and Bowyer have become NASCAR stooges. Terrible scripts and poor acting won’t sell a thing. NASCAR believes if you say something enough, it must be true.

Professional karaoke with sideshow dancers isn’t my thing musically. NACAR could have put the stage on the track (trailer stage) or the infield. Fans could have actually seen the performers. I guess highlighting the torch was more important.

Casual fans vs. the other fans. Who cares? Creative writing at its finest.

DoninAjax

The fact that Mikey showed up says everything about the telecast.

JT

The LA Clash was OK. Not great, but not bad either and better than the last few Daytona Clashes. NASCAR achieved its goal of having an entertaining exhibition and it may tease up some more casual fans from La-La Land into attending the upcoming California Speedway race.

As for the racing, it gave drivers a chance to knock some off-season rust. And more importantly, no “Next Gen” cars seemed to be permanently harmed in the running of this exhibition. That said, Brad K must have had his car owner’s hat on during the heat races because he drove like a 70-year-old man making his weekly trip to Wal-Mart.

As for TV, I kept the Fox broadcast on “mute”, but could see their “clown prince”, Mikey Waltrip was doing his goofy routine in the lux boxes. The half-time rapper was a strange touch and probably kept Fox’s standards & practices agents on their toes waiting to hit the “bleep button”. I missed the kickoff concert by that short, bald-headed guy who took the name of a dog breed. There was a DJ, too…

Last edited 4 months ago by JT
Vicq Ruiz

Mikey, rappers, concerts are why God invented that “skip forward” button on the VCR, which formerly used to be good only for commercials and yellow flags which last more than three laps.

I don’t think I have watched a race in real time in fifteen years.

Last edited 4 months ago by Vicq Ruiz
SCOTT RICHARDSON

The problem with working so hard to catch the “casual fan” is that these people will not stay with the sport for 20-30 years or more like all of the long-time fans like myself NASCAR has run off. They will stay with the sport only as long as it is considered “hot.”

Once that “hotness” has worn off then they will head to whatever the new fad is.

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