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.
— Adam Stern (@A_S12) May 11, 2022
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.
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