Saturday nights have long been the bastion of local short-track racing just as Friday nights have been the stronghold of high school football. As the Cup Series has faltered over the last few years and searches to try and regain its popularity, they have been invading Saturday nights more and more to the detriment of local racing.
Bristol at night and then the All-Star Race showed track promoters that night racing was not only possible but highly successful in the Cup Series. Now, at least half of the oval tracks on the schedule have lights and more and more races are being moved to the nighttime hours to try and take advantage of the popularity.
The first night races on the modern Cup schedule were held at Bristol and Nashville (no longer on the schedule), but it wasn’t because the tracks were trying to hook fans with a gimmick it was out of necessity. Both tracks’ summer events were held during unsavory times of the year where, like most everywhere else in the country outside of Hawaii, Alaska and San Diego, the temperature was extremely high which made things uncomfortable for fans. In Bristol’s case, the track owners decided to run the August race at night starting in 1978 and the seed was planted.
1992 was the year when things really changed as Bruton Smith and Humpy Wheeler decided to prove that what others thought was impossible could be done. Always the master promoter, Wheeler decided to run the All-Star Race under the lights like local short tracks ran on Saturday nights and proceeded to put lights around the 1.5-mile racing surface at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
The result was that the race, which was struggling to gain footing with the fans, became a huge event that was one of the highlights of the season schedule. Another benefit was that the 600-mile race the following weekend could be moved to Sunday night from its traditional Memorial Day slot, giving fans the opportunity to travel back home on the holiday and increasing attendance for that race as well.
With Bruton and his SMI group reaping benefits from night racing at the national touring series level, the folks at ISC decided to take advantage of the advances in technology and lit the 2.5-mile oval at Daytona International Speedway, which allowed them to move the July race to a nighttime start which allowed fans to avoid the summer heat in Florida. An unintended consequence was that the race now falls in the primetime of rain showers in the Florida peninsula, so there are always weather concerns for the July race.
While the benefits are certainly there for fans of the Cup Series, they are detrimental to all of the short tracks across America that host their races on Saturday nights. The fans who attend local-track races are generally fans of the Cup Series as well, so when the Cup Series runs on the same night as the local shows, the fans have to decide which to attend.
Unfortunately, the loser is often the local track. The result is lower purses, lower car counts and ultimately tougher times for the local promoters trying to get their attendance numbers to increase. They can certainly move their races to a Sunday but that makes things harder on the competitors who often travel to the tracks to race and have to get back home to work their day jobs on Mondays.
While night races obviously are beneficial as the temperatures rise in the summer time there is no reason for a race in April in the state of Texas to be taking place on a Saturday night. The season is just beginning for most of the local short tracks around the country and many of them have historically run their big season opening races on the first Saturday night in April. Now the folks at NASCAR, and especially the gang at Texas have infringed on that night by running the first race at Texas on a Saturday night. There’s no reason other than chasing ratings to host that race on Saturday night.
Saturday night might be alright for fighting, but it should be reserved for local short-track racing, not the boys of the Cup Series. Bristol obviously has a history and the All-Star Race is a special event, but Atlanta, Texas, Kentucky, Daytona, Richmond, even Homestead and Phoenix that run from the day into the night need to leave the nights alone and run their races during the daytime on Sundays.
Local tracks are where tomorrow’s stars are born and in order for those tracks to attract fans and to keep the racing going they need to be free of competition from the big leagues. Let’s hope that the folks in NASCAR realize where their bread is buttered and will leave Saturday nights alone.
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