Race Weekend Central

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

“Absolutely unacceptable.”

According to Denny Hamlin, that’s how NASCAR president Steve Phelps described the glaringly sparse grandstands at Texas Motor Speedway earlier this month.

The grandstands, once packed to the rafters in the track’s first decade of existence, now had entire sections (including where I sat during the inaugural race in 1997) blocked off for the NASCAR Cup Series’ playoff race.

Phelps made his observation in a meeting that included Hamlin the Wednesday before Kansas Speedway’s playoff race (Oct. 24).

Unfortunately for NASCAR, a week after its visit to the Lone Star State, another motorsports series made a Texas trek and was greeted in an entirely different way.

Two years after its last event in the United States, Formula 1 returned to Austin, Texas, for the U.S. Grand Prix at the Circuit of the Americas.

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Maybe it was because COVID-19 kept F1 from visiting in 2020. Or perhaps it’s the increased awareness of the series provided by Netflix’s Drive to Survive series that’s three seasons strong. Or the close championship battle between two drivers who have combined to win 12 of 17 races this season.

Whatever the reasons, the stands in Austin were jam-packed.

Meanwhile, in Kansas City …

Maybe it was the 550-horsepower package, which was used for the final time with the current car.

Or the fact rain was in the forecast all week.

Maybe it was because Kansas Speedway hosts two points races a year.

Or possibly it was because there’s nothing to do at or around Kansas Speedway in your down time except visit the casino next door that sponsors the race.

Whatever the reasons, just before the start of the Hollywood Casino 400, this was the scene at Kansas Speedway.

Combine the proximity of each series’ Texas race on the calendar and the frustrating decision by NBC to have the race start within a half-hour of the U.S. Grand Prix, and you couldn’t ask for a more worst-case scenario optics-wise.

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This comparison isn’t a problem every weekend, though. NASCAR is guaranteed to be bested twice a year as far as receiving attention: on Memorial Day weekend with the Indianapolis 500 and when F1 visits.

“Whenever they do come to United States, it naturally ramps up,” Brad Keselowski said before Sunday’s race. “I think that’ll always be the case. But I do think we should always be mindful of other sports or sports properties.”

Big events like the Daytona 500, the championship race at Phoenix Raceway, Watkins Glen International and the inaugural race at Nashville Superspeedway (which featured traffic jams from the amount of people trying to get in) are among the Cup events that sold out this year or in recent non-COVID-19 influenced seasons.

Road America reportedly hosted around 100,000 people for Cup’s return there on July 4, the Wisconsin track’s highest attendance since the mid-20th century.

But that didn’t get nearly the attention or praise of Sunday’s COTA event.

Earlier this year, NASCAR Chief Marketing Officer Pete Jung told me more than half of the people who bought tickets to the inaugural Cup race at COTA were bought by people who’d never been to a race at Texas Motor Speedway.

Aside from Watkins Glen, all of those were events, new races or held at smaller venues.

Aside from potentially having dates taken away, what do you do about tracks like Texas and Kansas that don’t host marquee races and are clearly hurting?

“Whether we got to work with them or audit them, whatever it might be, we’ve got to fix the promotion side of things,” Hamlin said. “And certainly, I think that everyone could be held to a higher standard, especially the tracks, given the revenue they have.”

Kyle Busch had a more succinct way of putting it.

“‘Make promoters great again’ is kind of our go-to,” Busch said Sunday. “Why are people at COTA for Formula 1? Is it because they only come here once a year and we’ve got 38 shows and so we’re a little redundant maybe? It’s not really an event (anymore).  […] I had a friend of mine who I’ve been friends with for 10 or so years reach out to me last weekend and said ‘I had no idea you guys were in town for the Texas race. I live six minutes from the speedway.'”

But what about when the marketing works?

What needs to be done to make the whole race weekend valuable for those fans who’ve made the effort and investment to show up at the track?

For Keselowski, he wants to see the return of a more lively fan midway outside tracks.

“I think when I first started coming to the races, before the broadcast was so important, and it was more about the events. (What) stood out the most to me is you could go to the midway and it felt like you’re at a fair,” Keselowski said. “It doesn’t feel that way now. That’s changed so much, right? And not that that’s good or bad. But I think there’s a lot of ways that we could spice it up.”

Keselowski’s “No. 1 contention” around the midway is “simple things like driver interaction.”

But according to Keselowski, those interactions come at a price … to the driver.

“I would love to interact more with the fans. Anytime I go to do it, I get charged,” Keselowski said. “If I want to go to an event somewhere or if I want to just even park a souvenir trailer outside and sign autographs for fans (the tracks says) ‘Oh, that’ll cost you $20 grand.’ ‘I’m doing this for the fans.’ ‘No, we want our $20 grand. In fact, this week, it’s $40 grand.’

“I’m not going to pay $40 grand to sign autographs for you to collect the ticket money. That makes no sense. So until those things change, there’s at least from my side a complete deep motivation to not do those things.”

This might be the one subject Keselowski and rival Busch see eye-to-eye on.

“$30,000 a spot out in the Midway,” Busch said. “Every track is different. They have their own pricing. But yeah, it’s way too high. That’s why the Midway is dead. So you don’t have a Midway, you don’t have any fan interaction. You don’t have fans coming out.”

In the end, Sunday was an optics battle that F1 won. That’s important for the perception of any sport. As noted, before the last two weekends, NASCAR had its fair share of great optics this year.

On Tuesday, everyone got a dose of reality.

NASCAR didn’t play second fiddle to F1. Despite its clear gains, the international series was actually the third fiddle to Cup and the NASCAR Xfinity Series.

Keselowski spoke to the dynamic that now hovers over TV viewing of sports vs. event attendance.

“Every sport, at least for the United States, [seems to] be more interested in events than broadcasts, where we seem to be the opposite and more interested in broadcast than an event,” Keselowski said. “And that’s flipped over the years, 20 years ago, I would have said we were probably the opposite, we were where they [F1] are. So generally speaking, when you can’t get the broadcast money, you go after the amount of money, the broadcast money [which] is much bigger, much larger pot. So in that sense, I would say we are ahead, undoubtably [sic] compared to them here in the United States.

“But there’s no reason why we can’t have both. I think that’s something that we should certainly aspire to.”

and check out and subscribe to his podcast “Dropping The Hammer with Daniel McFadin” on YouTube and in podcast form.

About the author

Daniel McFadin is a 10-year veteran of the NASCAR media corp. He wrote for NBC Sports from 2015 to October 2020. He currently works full time for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and is lead reporter and an editor for Frontstretch. He is also host of the NASCAR podcast "Dropping the Hammer with Daniel McFadin" presented by Democrat-Gazette.

You can email him at danielmcfadin@gmail.com.

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Brad K is spot on with his comments regarding the midway. The Big Tent was a loser to vend souvenirs. Nascar and the speedways killed the midway with greed. The midway and the trailers are vital to the fan interaction which has always been a declared benefit of Nascar. If you don’t work for a sponsor, or have a hot pass you will never interact with a driver today. As noted in the article, the tracks don’t understand what their audience wants. If I wanted to go to a concert, I’d go to a concert…plus I have to even know there is a concert for it to be an attraction.
Figuring out how to advertise to a generation that doesn’t drive past billboards to work, records TV and skips commercials, and doesn’t even know print media exists is the challenge for Nascar and the speedways.
And the start times need to be more ‘fan friendly’ if you expect to get anyone in the east coast to step up and go to the track. Imagine an 8 hour drive to get to work on Monday after a 3:30 start time.
At this point, Nascar has become a well paid ‘call girl’ for the networks…and so have the drivers. Doing things “for the fans” has a short term price, but insures the survival of the sport. This new generation of drivers will have to pay that price.
Ben Kennedy has already shown he understands the concept of long range planning. I hope that figuring out how to run an all electric Daytona 500 is somewhere in that long range plan…it needs to be.

WJW Motorsports

I’m also putting some hope in Ben Kennedy. And while I’m not in denial ( I know they will all be “racing” golf carts with big tires eventually), considering my current age, I hope your “long range” plan for an electric D500 is in about 30-40 years. That ought to do it.

Bill B

The midway is dead because of the internet. Pre-2000 the only place you could really get NASCAR gear is at the tracks. There may have been some brick and mortar stores sprinkled throughout the country but selection was limited, so a trip to the track was the only way to get a lot of things. Once the internet got huge I rarely even wasted my time at the midway. There was nothing there that I hadn’t already seen and purchased on the internet.
However, if they are still charging $30,000 a spot, that is just plain stupid.

Last edited 2 years ago by Bill B
JW Farmer

I agree with you, Bill, but as the ratings show in the last picture, people ARE STILL watching NASCAR and it is more popular than many news articles say so. These people are just not paying $100 for a ticket because they have a cellphone bill to pay. The racing product itself, honestly, and having attended hundreds of races, is much better than it was in the “glory days” of NASCAR. But a lack of big-name drivers (minus Elliott and Harvick) such as Gordon, Stewart, Jr and others, also hurts attendance. Personally, NASCAR, by killing the merchandise trailers (I remember when all the teams had one of their own) also kills attendance. The fact that the younger drivers just sit in their motorcoach and play video games hurts too. Drivers like Darrell Wallace Jr and Corey Lajoie, who come out to throw footballs with the fans is good for the sport. I think I’ve said it here once before–I was never a Dale Sr fan until one day at his dealership. He literally sat for 4-5 hours and talked to me for 10 minutes when I finally got his autograph, from then on I rooted for #3 on Sundays and before he passed, his protege’, Kevin Harvick (going on 24 years now since 1997). Richard Petty is the KING and he was the KING of signing autographs and treating fans, too. I once read of where he spent a good 8-9 hours signing autographs. Good marketing and good promotion.

Bill B

Well I agree, it is hard to get people to want to go to the track given the costs, distance and time it takes, not to mention the whole day may collapse due to weather. I just don’t think the merchandise trailers (or lack of) was what drew people to the track. The trailers were a bonus when you got there but not the magnet. I was actually relieved when I had no need to go to the trailers because I had already bought anything I possibly wanted on the internet. It gave me more time to tailgate and relax and I didn’t have to carry all that crap around at the track (or make a special 2 mile round trip back to the car to dump it off).

Al Torney

While Cup kicked F1’s tail in overall tv viewership what is important is that F1 drew the larger young viewer number. Cup’s fans have grown old and are not being replaced by younger fans.
Hey Brad! Did you ever think of just going out on the parking lot on Saturday and signing autographs?
NASCAR feeds us the bs line that they listen to the fans. What a crock. From everything I read the fans do not like, or support the playoffs. Attendance and tv ratings support this. Please remember that the playoffs were created to increase fan interest. Didn’t work did it?

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