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2-Headed Monster: Will F1 Overtake NASCAR as America’s No. 1 Motorsport?

Since the late 1990s, when you ask race fans which motorsport series is America’s favorite, there’s been one clear answer: NASCAR.

During that time, TV ratings, attendance and Fortune 500 companies have gravitated to stock car racing. From Dale Earnhardt to Jimmie Johnson, NASCAR has maintained its presence at the forefront of American motorsports, peaking in the mid-2000s with an audience that rivaled any sport outside the NFL.

Recently, though the gap has closed as an unexpected rival has appeared. While NASCAR still edges ahead in total TV viewership, Formula 1 is gaining momentum in the United States. Last season’s United States Grand Prix at Circuit of the Americas drew nearly 400,000 fans for the weekend and recently, the ratings for Formula 1 races have improved greatly in the U.S. Last weekend’s Miami F1 race, held head-to-head against NASCAR at Darlington Raceway, produced a larger audience in the 18-49 demographic and nearly edged NASCAR in total viewership.

What does the future hold for each series in America? Michael Finley and Luken Glover debate if Formula 1 is on the verge of overtaking NASCAR as America’s favorite motorsport.

F1 is Coming

So there do need to be some caveats on the idea of F1 potentially being the king of motorsports in America. Really, it would be more like the government of Canada in that the Queen of England is still the queen of the country – she just doesn’t visit that often. Only two F1 races on the schedule (less than 10 percent) are run inside the United States.

I do think NASCAR will remain the day-to-day industry leader in America for at least the new few years. Tradition still matters, handed down from generation to generation, and the sport maintains a core base of fans. They are still in line for a major TV rights increase beginning in 2025 because of how solid their numbers are to most other sports, and especially to other TV programs in general. NASCAR has been stagnant, but being stagnant today as thousands of people cut the cord on cable every month is a net win.

That being said, F1 has definitely eclipsed the older brand in a few areas.

Easily the biggest has been just how loyal the 18-49 audience has been to F1. I can promise that if NASCAR cannot outdraw them at that demo at 3:30 p.m. ET, they’ll soon struggle to beat them at 9 a.m. ET. The F1 rating for Imola a couple of weeks ago drew 503k in the demo at 9 a.m. ET. That’s an insane number right there, only about 30k off of what NASCAR accomplished in the demo on Sunday afternoon at Darlington (May 8). Even on that Saturday, F1 qualifying ranked second to merely an NHL playoff game for the day on cable.

When’s the last time non-Daytona 500 or Indianapolis 500 qualifying did something like that? The times, they are a-changin’, and the younger generation has itself hooked on F1.

In fact, the reality is that no show on cable, with the exception of the news in a major event, the NFL and maybe an NBA playoff game, could get half a million people under 50 to watch on a Sunday morning in 2022, except for F1. Every single week, because cable is ranked by the demo, F1 is right up there with prime time programming like WWE, AEW, and 90 Day Fiancé in spite of these races starting early in the morning on the west coast.

F1 is also way ahead when it comes to affordable technology. F1 TV Pro, for $80 a season, gets you the Sky broadcast, another in-house English broadcast, a data channel, and live on boards of all 20 drivers. All live sessions are included in that package.

$80 a season for NASCAR is going to pay for what, one month’s cable bill so that you can watch the NASCAR on Fox people yammer on about hot dogs or whatever? There’s no more RaceView for NASCAR, a virtual way in which you can watch the event. It’s either get your local cable package, find a streaming service that includes FOX Sports 1/USA Network or… you’re out of luck for many weekends all year long.

Meanwhile, the F1 train keeps surging forward. I don’t personally buy into the idea that all of this is because of Netflix’s Drive to Survive, for the record, F1’s reality show that’s wildly popular in America. DtS is a great breakthrough point for new fans, but that alone can’t keep people tuning in like they have been. The reality is that they have a good product, with a good presentation, and have been able to siphon viewers from DtS because of that. It’s why the Bubba Wallace documentary hit Netflix and everybody forgot about it the next week; that stuff alone isn’t going to draw people in.

The depressing part of it, really, is that this racing rivalry should not be a battle. The F1 fans don’t really see NASCAR fans as some enemy to defeat, the series an obstacle to overcome. And I’m sure F1’s ownership group, Liberty Media, thinks the same way. NASCAR fans could have a dramatically better quality of life by looking at what Liberty has done and advocating specifically for the way in which the series has been branded.

Instead, it’s excuse after excuse as NASCAR marketing continues to stay the course, one that’s left them stagnant and incapable of growing their fan base while F1 continues to explode.

That’s a mistake. The smart learn from the mistakes of others, the normal learn from the mistakes of themselves, and the foolish never learn. Let’s hope I don’t win this argument long-term and two healthy racing series can co-exist in America. – Michael Finley

NASCAR Isn’t Going Anywhere

There are two aspects I’d like to discuss in this part: the advantage NASCAR has currently over F1 and what needs to be fixed in order to stay there. 

For starters, F1 is peaking in interest as NASCAR is recovering from a “recession” in their popularity. Every sport faces it at some point or another, and this is not the last time you will hear about it. As times change, sports have to be on their toes to make the right adjustments while maintaining the traditions that made them who they are. NASCAR did not do an excellent job at that over the past decade, arguably making major changes that either didn’t reflect what the fan base wanted or came at too rapid a pace. 

However, NASCAR decision-making is starting to turn the corner. The buzz and luster that NASCAR carried in the 2000s, when it became the country’s second-most popular sport, is slowly starting to return in some ways. While several tracks cut seating during the downturn, they are beginning to host their largest crowds in several years. Viewership has stabilized and even improved in some races.

Think about this – the F1 race had about 2.58 million viewers for the inaugural Miami Grand Prix. While those are great numbers, they are average for NASCAR. In 2021, NASCAR averaged about 2.93 million viewers across the season. That includes rainouts, races on cable channels such as FOX Sports 1 and NBC Sports Network, and several events held head-to-head with major competition: the Olympics, NCAA Tournament, NBA Finals, etc. 

One thing that also helps F1 is the fact they only have two races in America a year, expanding to three in 2022. NASCAR has 38 weeks a year, so fans aren’t worried about missing races here and there. 

Another thing that helps NASCAR is its American roots. F1 has to reach out to a global market. NASCAR is domestic, so while they want global eyes, American ones are the primary target because all the races are inside the U.S. Americans like close-quarter, edge-of-your-seat racing. As has been voiced before in NASCAR, tracks that feature strung out racing with little passing tend to get bad reviews. In an F1 race, you typically know who emerges as the leading candidates to win after the first few laps. The same can’t be said for NASCAR. There has been parity this year, and even when parity wasn’t as prevalent, several drivers could still win the race. 

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Being relatable helps NASCAR in this spot as well. The one thing that does hurt F1 is the fact that they don’t have any American drivers. And the last couple of Americans they’ve had? None of them have been successful and gone on to challenge for the season championship. Fans in America can relate to drivers in several ways, be it by home state, hometown, personality, or brand recognition, which leads to my next point.

NASCAR arguably has more brand loyalty than any other sport. Manufacturers don’t hold the same stock they once did, considering there are only three of them, and cars aren’t “stock” as much anymore. But sponsor products still carry a lot of weight. If a driver is backed by a company like Coca-Cola, more than likely that driver’s fans will buy Coca-Cola. F1 features more of a global market, so the domestic market for NASCAR helps them a ton. 

The opportunity for fans to see a NASCAR driver is more likely than seeing an F1 driver due in part to F1 coming to America only twice.

Fans don’t just see their favorite driver at a NASCAR race, too. They can also find them at local short tracks, another area NASCAR has an advantage over F1. Grassroots making is crucial to the American motorsports continued success, a connection they’ve refocused on in recent years. The Hendrick Motorsports drivers, Christopher Bell, Kyle Busch, Tyler Reddick, Chase Briscoe and many more race at local short tracks several times a year, giving fans more opportunities to watch and potentially meet them. That fan-driver relationship can only help NASCAR as long as they promote it properly. 

NASCAR already has an established fan base, and now they are just beginning to tap into new markets. Nashville, Austin, Texas, Los Angeles and St. Louis are recent examples of new places on the NASCAR schedule. New teams with owners such as Michael Jordan and Pitbull have brought new eyes to the sport. Trackhouse Racing Team has done an excellent job of not only excelling on the track but reaching out to fans off it.

That’s not to say NASCAR is free of problems. The F1 broadcasts tend to be much cleaner as the coverage from Fox and NBC can often be a bit of a rollercoaster. Over in NASCAR-land, start times have been controversial, the playoffs have gotten mixed opinions and they don’t have clear faces of the sport. Compare that to F1 where Sky Sports has great analysis, right moments for exaggeration, and stick to the point.

While F1 has established faces such as Lewis Hamilton, Max Verstappen and Charles LeClerc, NASCAR is still looking for their next Earnhardt vs. Gordon movement. The series points leader, Chase Elliott, is NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver, yet there is little being attributed to it because the regular season isn’t as important anymore.

F1 has the momentum currently and their Drive to Survive series has worked wonders. NASCAR’s documentaries and series lately portray as only left turns and don’t expose all of the behind-the-scenes action that helps create their quality competition. The sport needs to find a way to compete against F1 in that space.

However, as we look ahead to 2023 and beyond NASCAR has an established base in America with renewed interest. The challenge F1 poses is one that can be easily beaten back by a few small adjustments – adjustments I expect this sport to make. – Luken Glover

About the author

Michael has watched NASCAR for 20 years and regularly covered the sport from 2013-2021. He moved on to Formula 1, IndyCar, and SRX coverage for the site, while still putting a toe in the water from time-to-time back into the NASCAR pool.

Luken Glover arrived on the Frontstretch scene in 2020. He has been an avid NASCAR fan for the majority of his life, following in the footsteps of his grandfather, who used to help former team owner Junie Donlavey in his garage. Glover covers news for the site and took over "The Underdog House" column in 2021. In addition to being a college junior, his hobbies include volunteering at church, playing basketball and tennis, racing go-karts, and helping at his high school alma mater.

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WJW Motorsports

Of course it will – right after Soccer does.

John

Something you did not discuss is the gross differences in technology between the two series. One tries to minimize technology and mute any discussion of the car’s features above a 6th grader’s comprehension level. The other openly and knowledgably discusses technical advances and teams rising to technical challenges. One is “Roller Derby” the other “Kentucky Derby.”

Christopher

“One tries to minimize technology and mute any discussion of the car’s features above a 6th grader’s comprehension level.” That is one of the most frustrating things for me. And Fox, NBC and supposed journalists covering the sport play right along. To this day I’ve never seen or heard anything describing how the Next Gen windshield air flow opening and rear window ventilation strakes, which just mysteriously appeared over the off season, were developed and how much it brought down temps in the cockpit. Likewise, have never seen or heard any explanation as to why some teams run louvered hood openings whiile others run a type of NACA duct hood opening and what the difference is. There is no technical discussion whatsoever of the new cars fragility when it comes to the toe links breaking when they hit the wall or are hit by another car. Minuscule discussion of the digital rear view (and to date have still never seen an actual image while in use). One of the reasons I like watching F1 broadcasts and reading F1 articles is the open close-up display of components and the discussion and debate over the highly technical aspects of the car design.

Jeremy

NASCAR has spent the better part of the last 20 years ripping apart and/or trying to ignore their roots, history, and traditional fan base. They’ve tried to “re-brand” away from where they came from in favor of becoming “trendy”. As such, they flail around now because they have 1) alienated their most loyal, traditional core fan group, and 2) they have failed to maintain the attention of the trendy people who are now on to new, more exciting things. So NASCAR is stuck – hard to go back to tradition when you’ve abandoned it. To my recollection, F1 is still pretty much what it has always been.

Also, NASCAR is low budget, comparatively speaking, for fans. Have you looked at the cost to attend an F1 race? I have, and it’s eye-popping, especially if you want seats within 10 miles of the track. Again, appealing to trendy people with money. I can’t explain the psychology, but there’s a reason Nike and Michael Jordan sell a lot more shoes than New Balance for a lot more money. Sure, both shoes cover your feet and are comfortable to wear, but one of them sells a few pair every year for $39.99 while the other sells MILLIONS of pairs every year at $150 or more. That in a nutshell is F1 vs NASCAR; Nike/Jordan vs New Balance.

Last edited 6 months ago by Jeremy
Kurt Smith

It is my firm conviction that had NASCAR not instituted the Chase, a completely idiotic championship system that was the ultimate in phony gimmickry, we wouldn’t even dream of discussing other series closing in on NASCAR’s ratings today.

Charlie

There is room for both, I just read the below about soccer. Apples and oranges.
F1 will make strides for several reasons. One, the race has zero commercials. Two, the star-power. Locations such as Spa, Monaco, and now at least two venues in the US. Technology, speed, and think of the sponsors. UPS is still active in F1, Haas, Red Bull. Two of those three are no longer involved in NASCAR.
World-wide exposure for F1.

Now, I am a NASCAR fan from the early 60s. The current group running the sport could easily show up for an extras cast-call for a remake of “Revenge of the Nerds.” The appearance of NASCAR’s thumb on the scales hurts, dwarfs trying to fight and the goons from the crews jumping in. Not that F1 doesn’t do the same, but they instantly rule on issues.

Is it possible to like both? I think so. Can you appreciate both? Absolutely. NASCAR should realize it is a regional sport with some national appeal. Not as much as the mental lightweights that run the sport and they need to realize that it does not appeal to the west coast. The moving of races, talk of shortening, driver behavior, favoritism to certain makes, hurts.

I do like both, but I also enjoy NHRA, and sports car racing. Big world, big country, lots of people moving to the US so there is room for all.

Iceman202290

We dropped cable, too expensive and wasnt worth the extra 80$ a month to watch a couple Thursday night football games and the NASCAR races held on NBCSN, FS1 and NFLN. All said after taxes+fees we get over 1k$ back in our pockets each year. So if F1 is on ABC and NASCAR is on FS1, I’ll be watching F1. I enjoy almost all forms of racing but paying over 1k a year just to watch one form of racing has lost its appeal.

Never will understand why NASCAR has to view other forms of racing as competition rather than cooperation. Hosting F1 and NASCAR events at the same track would imo be a win for race fans, improve ticket sales for that track, improve TV ratings, etc.

Last edited 6 months ago by Iceman202290
Jeremy

I think they have tried some partnership with IRL (Texas comes to mind), but NASCAR used that PJ1 compound on the surface and it really affects the open wheel cars (negatively). Thus, I can’t really say it’s been a good or worthwhile effort. Would prefer the track be left alone without specific prep to benefit one race to the detriment of the other.

I too like a lot of different racing series (if there is a contraption with wheels, a motor, a track, and 2 or more guys trying to go faster than the others, I’ll probably be interested), and agree that motorsports as a whole could use more cooperation to drive fan interest, growth, and profitability for ALL series.

Iceman202290

I hope with the next gen car we can make that pj1, sticky stuff, or whatever other names it’s gone by a thing of the past.

A single grove race track is not always a bad thing either, so long as aero doesnt prohibit passing. So far with this new car it appears a faster car catches a slower one, the faster car can get by. Unlike the old gen car where the faster car would stall. So I’d love to see them never apply PJ1 again.

johndawgchapman

The short attention span I phone generation is notoriously fickle. Getting them is one thing, keeping them may be another thing.

I was an Auto Week subscriber for years, & a big part of the reason was their racing coverage. It let me follow Rallying, F1, Moto GP, & other series that don’t get much coverage. I’ve watched & followed F1 for many years, but I used to refer to it as “technology on parade”. It’s way more about bring an “event” rather than competition. I expect this newfound popularity, will be more of a blip on the radar, than a long-term commitment.

Another American team might help if they were actually competitive. But they seem to have closed ranks against that.

Jeremy

Was it Andretti Autosport that was thinking about launching an F1 team recently? Is that off the table now? I haven’t heard an update on that for a while. If so, would that be considered an American or Italian team?

Last edited 6 months ago by Jeremy
john dawg chapman

It was, & is Andretti. Michael was at Miami trying to whip up support from Liberty Media, & the existing teams. But with little success.

gbvette

People seem to forget that for many years, especially before cable, open wheel racing, in particular Indy Cars, was the the most popular form of racing in the US. NASCAR was a regional series, with just a small following outside the south. Two things led to NASCAR’s growth. First was Indy car racing’s USAC CART split, which left many fans turned off and looking for something else to watch. Second was the advent of cable, and channels like ESPN, TNT, and Speed desperate for some kind of content to broadcast. NASCAR was lucky enough to be picked as that content.

US interest in F1 is not new. F1 was once quite popular here. The F1 races at Watkins Glen in the 70’s regularly drew 125,000+ fans. I was there and the crowds were every bit as big as later Glen NASCAR races. I also went to Detroit for the F1 races in the 80’s, and they too were very well attended.

Much of NASCAR’s original popularity was driven by brand loyalty, but far fewer people today have the brand loyalty that people did 20-30 or more years ago. This is especially true of those under 40. Half the people watching Indy Car may not even know or care which cars are Chevy powered and which are Honda. Other than maybe Ferrari fans, most F1 fans watch F1 for the drivers and racing, not because cars are badged as Mercedes, Aston Martin or Red Bull.

I’m sure much of the growth of F1 in the US, and the resurgence of Indy Car too, can be contributed to the races and broadcasts. Both of those series offer pure racing, with quality broadcasts hosted by professional announcers, supported by well produced coverage. Meanwhile NASCAR continually dumbs down their races and broadcasts, to the point that the product often seems amateurish, childish and cartoonish.

NASCAR has chased away many of their fans with their never ending succession of unpopular and unsuccessful gimmicks. While at the same time they’ve failed to realize that the gimmicks haven’t appealed to new fans either.

Kicks

I wonder how long F1 will be popular once people realize that the races usually become a follow the leader parade. Other than pit stop cycles there are few on track lead changes or much passing in the field. There are probably more passes in some Cup Races than an entire season of F1.

gbvette

Have you been watching NASCAR the last 4 or 5 years? While there are more lead changes in NASCAR, very few take place on track anymore. It seems that like F1, most NASCAR lead changes take place either in the pits or on restarts. At many tracks, once in clean air the leader can’t be passed, and it becomes a NASCAR parade. The only reason NASCAR has more lead changes is because the races are longer, with more pit stops.

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