Unless you were under a rock this weekend, you couldn’t have missed the buzz of the Formula One race at Circuit of the Americas. The event, which spanned across four days, had a reported 400,000 people in attendance, including 150,000 people on raceday.
It was an eye-opening experience for many in the motorsports world. NASCAR racing’s attendance has dwindled over the years, so much so that racetracks are tearing down grandstands in an effort the sport has termed “right-sizing.” NASCAR still won the ratings game, but Formula 1 did better than it has in recent years, with many thinking that the momentum from the event could help close that gap even tighter in the years to come.
For years, NASCAR has been considered the No. 1 motorsports in America and there really hasn’t been a challenge to that. Was this past weekend a sign that NASCAR may not be as strong with American motorsports fans as it once was? Michael Finley and Ava Ladner see it different ways and debate the topic in this week’s 2-Headed Monster.
Cracks Appearing for NASCAR Compared to Other Series
For years, NASCAR essentially had a monopoly on the racing scene in America.
Outside of the Indianapolis 500, most forms of motorsport broadcasted in the states were either owned by NASCAR or stuck on very small/niche cable channels such as Versus and SPEED. And since 1950, when NASCAR sprang ahead of every other stock car series with the running of the first Southern 500, there was no major stock car series completely unaffiliated with NASCAR for 70 years. The biggest organizations in that category besides NASCAR in that time, IROC and ARCA, were at most subservient to the France family.
Then came the Superstar Racing Experience this past summer.
SRX has been clear that it is not out to go to war with NASCAR. But the mission purpose of the series focuses on big personalities and exciting racing on short tracks, variables long deemed missing by lapsed NASCAR fans.
By all accounts, the first season was a success, and it fared very well rating wise.
Unlike other new sports properties in the last few years, it did not dramatically drop in viewership, and some of the races put on by the group- in particular the events at the Nashville Fairgrounds and Slinger Super Speedway- felt like major deals.
And then there’s the rise of Formula One.
When discussing TV ratings, it is imperative to factor in the 18-49 demo. Ages 18-49 is more important than overall viewership, because that is what the advertisers look at when selecting what shows to throw their weight behind. The Nielsen generated charts provided every single day by ShowBuzz Daily have all cable shows ranked by 18-49 for that reason.
The F1 ratings have been up all year, and it has been much more impressive than the steady ratings NASCAR has had because the vast majority of F1 races are starting between 8-10 a.m. ET, which also kills the live west coast numbers.
The first real big shot between F1 and NASCAR was the third week in May, where F1 almost beat NASCAR in the demo 0.33-0.31. NASCAR had a lot of handicaps that day, with F1 being at Monaco and NASCAR having a soggy race at COTA. But it was close.
The second was last month, when F1 at Monza beat the Richmond Cup race that weekend in the demo. And the third came this past weekend, where F1 defeated NASCAR in 18-49 head-to-head in spite of NASCAR running two hours later than F1 and thus having much more crossover potential between the two audiences. NASCAR’s rating head-to-head with F1 from the invocation to the rain delay had two-thirds of the demo audience it would have for later on in the day.
More than anything, this past weekend at COTA really felt like a big event. Like Miami next year. Something that NASCAR has at Daytona, Charlotte, and really no where else. Like Nashville and Slinger for SRX, and Indianapolis for IndyCar. That did not used to be the case even just 15 years ago, when those type of events would take up 30 or so NASCAR races every year.
I wrote about NASCAR vs F1 last week, and rereading it now is interesting knowing what happened. I don’t know if NASCAR will be surpassed in a few years by any series, but they definitely do not have the stranglehold they once had on the industry. I think above everything, NASCAR and its broadcast partners do not know how to connect with millennials and below, while F1 does. – Michael Finley
NASCAR is Still Number 1
Stranglehold? Stranglehold may be a bit of an overstatement but let’s just say that NASCAR has lorded over the American motorsport landscape ever since IndyCar muffed its chance by committing social suicide and splitting itself in two.
Even though the Indianapolis 500 can pull 300,000 fans for their marquee event on the IndyCar schedule, the series never really rivals NASCAR as far as attention – be it fan or media. The thing is, that immense attention placed on the 500 never translates to a full season of noticeable coverage.
The series hosts a spectacular event once a year but viewership patterns indicate that fans do not stick around for the whole season. For IndyCar, such an issue is disappointing, as many fo the races are great theater. In comparison, NASCAR has found a way to keep a pretty consistent number of fans that positions it as the behemoth of the American motorsport experience.
That the Daytona 500 does not draw as well as it has previously can be argued to be a recognition that the series is doing pretty OK. The viewership numbers for the ‘Super Bowl’ of NASCAR are all over the place owing to the fact that many of race’s iterations have been beset by rain delays, making it hard to gauge actual interest.
That races in the wake of the 500 average around 3 million is nothing to ignore. The sporting landscape is fractured and confounding, will so many choices of what to watch in conjunction with so many ways to choose how to watch. However, NASCAR still does pretty well – except when football season comes around.
The argument here is not that NASCAR is perfect and that nothing is wrong. There are a frustratingly large number of issues with the sport. The reasons that fans have tuned out are lengthy: the playoffs, the 550-hp package, the lack of a diverse schedule, lack of driver engagement with the fans, but perhaps one of the overlooked aspects is how NASCAR sells itself.
Reigning Cup champion Chase Elliott noted that one of the things that the Drive to Survive series on Netflix did was portray the series with gravitas. His comments to Jeff Gluck of The Athletic showed both a recognition of the positive treatment F1 gained from the streaming giant compared to the asininity given NASCAR.
Elliot recognized, “It’s like, ‘This isn’t funny; this is legit.’ And then the next thing was a comedy skit that came out for NASCAR (the Netflix comedy series “The Crew”) that just kind of further confirmed the outside opinion that we just turn left for fun and there’s nothing else to it.”
Elliott’s despondency is one of the overall marketing issues with NASCAR. Rather than selling NASCAR as a serious product that celebrates driver skill and the hard work of the pit crew and engineers, and the lives of all involved, it frequently downsells itself. Aiming for more of a lowest common denominator than a solid middle ground.
There is a concept in teaching that the students will respond to how you teach them. If the teacher thinks the students are dumb, and teaches that way, even the smartest students will face challenges overcoming the environment. In correlation, when a teacher believes that the students are intelligent and treats them that way, even the most challenged tend to fight to do better. This same kind of idea might be the best one to apply to NASCAR marketing, and something they could thank F1 for showing them how to do.
Formula One put on a spectacular showing this past weekend when it visited COTA in Texas. It, no doubt, provided a beautiful event that showcased how the sport has become more popular. The thing is, however, that the COTA response was the confluence of a brilliant title race between Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton, two teams at their peak – Red Bull and Mercedes, the hype from DtS which capitalized on people looking for content while locked in during the pandemic, and a feeling that something special might be happening. That’s not a recipe that can be maintained every single year.
NASCAR still rules.
It has lost its way with far too many changes over too short of a time and that kind of disruption not only leaves many fans puzzled but brings questions as to just what the ^&$# the sport is doing. Incremental changes are a much better way to maintain and grow.
The sport of NASCAR has not lost its position as King in the US, rather many fans are thinking that the King has no clothes. The King is not naked, rather he is just in the process of changing clothes.
The culmination of all the changes in NASCAR will manifest itself next year, and maybe, finally, everyone will stop tinkering with the on-track product and instead focus on re-engaging with the fans. There’s no reason that the sport can’t once again fill its tracks. – Ava Hutson Ladner
About the author
Clayton has been writing NASCAR for the last seven years and has followed the sport for as long as he can remember. He's a Jersey boy with dreams of hoping one day to take his style south and adding a different kind of perspective to auto racing.
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