Race Weekend Central

NASCAR Has a Marketing Problem

From the mid-1990s to the early 2000s, NASCAR exploded in popularity.

Aided in part by the CART-IRL split of 1996 and a split broadcasting deal with FOX and NBC in 2001, NASCAR went from a predominantly niche, regional sport to one with national recognition.

But somewhere along the way, all of its fortunes went in the wrong direction. The ratings peaked 18 years ago in 2005, and they’ve been on a long, downward slide since.

See also
Dropping the Hammer: After Rough 2023 Start, NASCAR Needs a Win

There’s not one event to pinpoint when NASCAR began its skid. Perhaps the introduction of the playoff format in 2004 was jumping the shark. Maybe it was the removal of historic tracks like North Wilkesboro Speedway and Rockingham Speedway, even if they had outdated infrastructure and were on the brink financially. What about the criticized Car of Tomorrow implemented in 2007, or the Great Recession in 2008?

What if NASCAR’s sudden boom in popularity was simply a fad and wasn’t sustainable long term?

Whatever the reason may be, it has shown in race attendance, TV ratings and media coverage. And in the south — the heart of NASCAR for its entire history — a lot of the interest seems to have fallen by the wayside as well.

Faced with a shrinking fanbase, NASCAR needs to find ways to reinvent itself without dramatically altering races any further than what has been done already. And to its credit, the sanctioning body has tried new ideas. The 2021 and 2022 seasons saw a huge schedule shakeup with a stadium exhibition race, a dirt race, two new ovals, a handful of new road courses and a brand new car.

Some things may not work out, but that is still better than keeping the status quo. But once it becomes clear that something doesn’t work, it needs to be cut. The relative lack of change (aside from stages in 2017 and the elimination format in 2014) from 2005 to 2020 didn’t help.

But while NASCAR needs to focus on keeping its current fanbase entertained, it also needs to look outward without alienating fans that are already watching.

The sanctioning body has struggled in attracting the age 18-49 demographic, which is concerning when looking at things long-term; that demographic is the future. But as previously mentioned, NASCAR can’t chase a new demographic if it risks running off its current audience. What’s the middle ground?

Perhaps it lies in the way the sport is advertised. While Formula 1 has yet to overtake NASCAR in total audience in the United States, it is starting to equal, if not beat NASCAR in the 18-49 demographic. One of the catalysts? Formula 1: Drive to Survive.

A Netflix documentary series that gives a behind-the-scenes look at F1 teams and races, it has become a sensation beyond the racing world. And as a 23-year-old a year removed from college, I’ve seen F1 and the series brought up more in casual conversation and in my social circles that aren’t a part of Frontstretch or NASCAR.

The series has clearly hit on something without fundamentally changing what F1 is.

NASCAR and NBC took notice, and a documentary series titled Race for the Championship was released during the 2022 Cup Series playoffs.

And that’s where NASCAR’s problems with marketing come in.

DTS is on Netflix, a streaming service with almost a universal reach. When was Race for the Championship aired? (Late) Thursday nights on USA Network. You can imagine how poor the ratings were.

It’s not that the series fell flat, it’s just it wasn’t readily available for people to watch, nor was it advertised enough. NBC stepped in to add the series to its Peacock streaming service, but again, it hasn’t been big enough to cast a wide net.

In order to be a hit, the series should’ve been made available on mainline NBC. It should’ve been heavily advertised outside of NBC, and it also should’ve been on more streaming services than just Peacock.

More expensive to do? Yes, but DTS captivated people who didn’t watch F1. Race for the Championship was never going to attract people who didn’t watch NASCAR when new episodes were aired late at night once a week on USA.

And that’s another problem. NASCAR needs to expand its advertisements to networks and shows outside of NASCAR. Outside of a Daytona 500 ad for Super Bowl LVII (which was also on FOX), I cannot recall the last time I saw an ad for NASCAR that wasn’t during a race itself.

Airing NASCAR ads during the races themselves also appears a bit peculiar to outsiders. Unlike other sports, NASCAR cannot pause a race in order to complete an ad break. So why are there so many adverts for NASCAR’s own product in the middle of the action? A couple sprinkled here and there are important, especially to tell viewers when and where the next race will be, but those ads only need to be used when absolutely necessary.

The structure of the ads also needs an update. For as long as I have been watching, NASCAR advertisements have primarily consisted of four things: spectators, action shots, crashes and driver celebrations.

See also
NASCAR 101: 2023's Biggest Storylines So Far

Like traditional TV shows, NASCAR has a season. And each ‘episode’ provides a new twist and turn. Heading into Martinsville Speedway this weekend, there should be ads covering the feud between Kyle Larson and Ryan Preece. There should be ads covering Hendrick’s dominant start and the victories and near misses of its competitors. There should be ads covering Christopher Bell’s win and Tyler Reddick’s sudden surge of speed after a horrendous start to the year. There should be ads covering Chase Elliott’s highly anticipated return.

The drivers, teams, and the races themselves have stories. NASCAR needs to use that to its advantage. Paint a picture of what has happened and keep fans excited for new twists and turns that lie ahead. And these ads should not just be plastered on FOX/NBC, but as many major channels as possible. Use the stories of a season to paint a compelling picture of NASCAR to people who don’t know a single thing about NASCAR.

Of course, qualms with the broadcasts, the racing product, etc. are an entirely different scenario, and those should be dealt with accordingly.

But making improvements in-house is the opposite side of the same coin, as NASCAR also needs to look outward and grow its fanbase, not just try and break even. When it comes to expanding reach, the current methods of promotion don’t provide many opportunities to do so.

Advertise in new places. Advertise in new ways. Advertise the story of NASCAR that changes week by week. Because one of those new formulas will have to hit, and that will be the catalyst for bringing in new fans who may eventually stick around for the long haul.

About the author

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Stephen Stumpf is the NASCAR Content Director for Frontstretch and is a three-year veteran of the site. His weekly columns include “Stat Sheet” and “4 Burning Questions.” He also writes commentary, contributes to podcasts, edits articles and is frequently at the track for on-site coverage.

Can find on Twitter @stephen_stumpf.

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Brandon

You go WOKE, you go BROKE

Ken Pearson

What the heck does WOKE mean? English would be good, with adjectives, adverbs, subjects and predicates?

Kurt Smith

“Perhaps the introduction of the playoff format in 2004 was jumping the shark.”

BINGO. Brian France’s first act as CEO of NASCAR showed the millions of fans that a) he didn’t give a crap what they thought of his moronic idea (the fans were polled about it and responded 75-25% saying NO, DON’T DO IT!) and b) that he was a marketing person who obviously didn’t appreciate racing. Brian inherited a license to print money and immediately sabotaged it.

Since that dramatic altering of the sport’s method of determining a champion, the ratings and attendance have been steadily dropping, and instead of realizing that the Chase was NASCAR’s New Coke and sending it to the trash heap where it belonged, they have doubled down on big rule changes, continuously thinking that their marketing will save the sport. Nothing convinced me what big trouble the sport was in more than their seriously believing that Danica was going to save them.

Adding the Chase was the beginning of the saturation of the sport with endless gimmicks designed to “create excitement”. In other words, NASCAR’s leadership thinks their own sport is too boring to hold an audience. What is the audience supposed to think?

NASCAR doesn’t have a marketing problem. Their problem for the last 20 years has been marketing people making all the decisions regarding the rules.

Last edited 1 year ago by Kurt Smith
HaRRy Clark

Not to mention why stop a perfectly running race so everyone can catch up…. Oh and if I want to see a dirt track race I will go to one on a Saturday night…. NOT ON SUNDAY!! HOW DUMB!!!

And give up on the Nascar cars and give manufacturers enough notice that they are going back to stock cars….. There, Nascar is fixed.

DoninAjax

NA$CAR has a leadership problem!

John

Its hard to tell. Its either that or the TV “tail” is wagging the dog. Trading off the integrity of the sport for the sake of entertainment has been the general cause of the decline. Right now if TV asked Nascar to castrate a bull during the National Anthem they would do it. The belief appears to be that TV knows best…and Nascar follows.
And while there is the belief that expanding into new markets was necessary to further grow the sport, that appears to have killed the golden goose…along with, like other sports, raising ticket prices to be able to pay the bills. Auto racing in general makes way more sense on TV after you have seen a race in person…and these 3:30 Sunday starts keeps me from buying a ticket even for a race that’s only 2 hours from home.

DoninAjax

To me the problem started when Brian in his infinite wisdom decided to create his “product” based on his idea of “entertainment.” He wanted game 7 moments at the end of each event. It also seems his sycophants have endeavoured to maintain all his ideas to the point where it seems Brian still has his hand in destroying his inherited toy.

D.Griffin

SO NICE to find a REAL ARTICLE about NASCAR, not written by some goodball from MUMBAI or DEHLI !!!

Bill B

“There’s not one event to pinpoint when NASCAR began its skid. Perhaps the introduction of the playoff format in 2004 was jumping the shark. Maybe it was the removal of historic tracks like North Wilkesboro Speedway and Rockingham Speedway, even if they had outdated infrastructure and were on the brink financially. What about the criticized Car of Tomorrow implemented in 2007, or the Great Recession in 2008?”

Bingo. You pretty much covered it all in that one paragraph. Just one bad decision after another.

You could have added the tire issues at Charlotte (Oct 2005) and Indy (2008) that made a joke out of those races. Also changing the track at Bristol, taking away a Darlington race, etc, etc, etc.

Last edited 1 year ago by Bill B
Kurt Smith

You are being remiss in failing to add the first race at Kentucky, which was so horribly managed that thousands of fans were unable to see the race because they were stuck in traffic.

Last edited 1 year ago by Kurt Smith
Homer

Bull …the trainwreck at Kentucky occurred because the morons from the area thought they could leave home an hour before the race started and still make it to the race before it started. Anyone who says different is a liar.

Ninerk

Stage racing has ruined strategy. Half the races this year, the first stage is within/shorter than expected tire life. So the strategy is wait until the stage break and change tires. No strategy, no undercut over it.

And for the love of all things good and competitive; don’t count the stage caution laps toward the overall lap count.

Thanks for writing this article, I didn’t realize the peak viewership was 2005.

Brian

“And for the love of all things good and competitive; don’t count the stage caution laps toward the overall lap count.”

This, 💯. We know it can be done, because they do it for the dirt races.

Shayne

Marketing is a sleazy occupation.

I love cars. Muscle cars, sexy exotic sports cars, etc.

I love watching car races. I’ve even watched riding lawn mowers race.

NASCAR was the perfect sport for me. From the late 80’s til the mid 90’s I watched races on TV. Started going to Rockingham every spring and fall in ’96. I was hooked.

It’s a niche sport. NASCAR is still trying to make it a sport that appeals to all. It doesn’t and never will.

Ya gotta love cars and watching cars race. There’s your marketing 101 lesson of the day.

goblue

it started going downhill after 9/11.no more bringing in you own food & drink .they wanted you to buy $10 hamburgers & $5 waters ror 3 days all day long.i had 2 boys growing up with the sport and getting really interested but i couldnt keep up with the growing cost of everything to go to a race from thursday-monday.i eventually cut the cord with nascar and nascar lost 2 future fans.

Brian

I always take in my own food and drink. Sure, I still buy some at the track, but only food.

Dale

the 18-49 demo that F1 enjoys started with DTS–but they stayed because NO commercials. Simple as that.

Ken D.

Moonshine wasn’t run in Toyotas!

M John

My opinion is, the decline began when they overlooked all the rules and allowed a Japanese car maker to enter an all American race. AND, if you don’t drink a Toyota, you get very little press time.

Christopher

The entire discussion is framed incorrectly by media and NASCAR. ‘Storylines’, ‘narratives’, ‘the show’.
It’s this type of thinking that has led to the ruination of the sport. No amount of marketing can sell a pig wearing lipstick.

Joe Sixpack

NASCAR died with Dale Sr.
It’s amazing he was the glue that held the sport together.

Dave Cowart

David Cowart davecowart77@gmail.com
When you had different manufacturers competing it was more of a Chevy Ford dodge,Toyota fighting. Put cars on display at tracks a week ahead of time. Then folks would identify drivers with different cars.
Have races televised on abc,cbs,NBC regular TV antennas channels
.Hundred of thousands of customers have abandoned cable TV. They will sell you 150 channels and you only watch 10.
Advertise races and drivers on TV channels days prior to event to create interest.
Reduce concession profits to normal
Marke-,up hot dogs $2.00 sodas $3.00.
Hire a marketing organization to sell the sport.
Let folks take a governed spin around the track with news media getting free tickets on race day

Stop this nonsense greed of charging drivers and owner ridiculous fines.
Quit the demolution derby of trying to keep cars together
Make it stock car without spoilers
I attended the last on Daytona sand race and 1st new track race in 1959
Dave cowart 352 260 2384

Christopher

None of that is going to happen. I believe it is more likely that NASCAR as most have known it will no longer exist within 10 years. I believe GM is quietly preparing to exit the sport. I believe it will either become a much smaller spec-series with generic bodies, Ilmor engines and no factory support whatsoever or it will cease to exist altogether as we are all frog-marched by government edict into the ‘glorious EV future’.

Last edited 1 year ago by Christopher
Kurt Smith

If your first scenario happens, the second will soon follow.

Mike Martin

Was a long time fan and things stated getting to Hollywood or polished up. That is not NASCAR. I also think things started changing when Jimmy Johnson won 4 straight championship and announcers keep talking about how competitive it was. Hard for the average fan to believe.

NASCAR is not dirt track, poor decision. All new tracks were cookie cutter tracks. Why where no new short tracks added, only taken away.

I did watch 2 races this year. Fox use to be the best to watch a race, but what happen. Terrible broadcasting. Good drivers do not make good broadcasters. The two used this year are terrible. NASCAR lost their vision and their old and new fan base.

Greg Kirkendall

Nascar greed, stopped my 15 year run.

Timothy Adams

Another issue that is horrendous for patrons, is the constant shuffle from the tv coverage. From FOX to FS1 and FS2 ? NBC, Paramount USA network ? NASCAR is not THE priority for these networks. WHERE CAN I WATCH NASCAR THIS WEEKEND? …WHO KNOWS?

Robert Reilly

They took the NASCAR out of Racing with Stage 3 and letting the Insurance company’s run the show. Maybe it’s time for the elderly to step aside and let them RACE.

Mike

I don’t like:
Dirt tracks
Stage racing
Restrictor places
The chase
WWE style intros
Over regulated options on the cars i.e. give the spoilers, tires, shocks etc. back to the crew chiefs
One lug wheels
Things I would like to see:
The old points system back
The driver that causes a caution goes to the back
Qualifying
Affordable concessions
…..really at times I don’t know why I watch or go .

Bill B

If you run for president, you got my vote.

Val

Go back to original point system and take away the stages. I watched nascar 53 years. After Harvicks retirement I’m done. Dirt tracks,road course races.what r u people thinking?

Randy

Just go back to the real races, stop trying to draw the group that will never be longtime fans

Mikie

If your asking fans of NASCAR, then you have to look at how they don’t want the true fans of nascar. They are going for the woke crowd and they are not fans. Also they have taken away all the development of the teams and don’t let them figure how to go faster then the others teams. Let them innovate and compete. I can remember when Kaslowsky was behind Jimmie Johnson and was looking at his car tracking and asking what he did to make his car turn like that. Stop the woke BS and bring the true fans back.

Myxylplyx

The problem began @ 2001. Nascar forgot it’s fans and tried to erase it’s roots. Only a few drivers were pushed on media and none of them represented actual Nascar fans.

R.sweezy

Rick, from Union S.C. How about stopping the Green, White,Checkered show, If you have a crash, Red Flag the Race,Get the Junk off the track, and If these Cars are torn up so Bad that they have to run the Apron then they need to take that Car out. I think a lot of these Crashes are intentional with so many teams out there they are playing the system for a team Win when they Green,White Check, to help a team member win, rather than Red flagging the race to get an honest shot to win the Race.Bring the Dodges,Buicks, Pontiacs Back. Politics has gotten right in the middle of this great Sport, The Clash,and adding a Chicago Street Race, Hell the teams will have to rent Riggs to haul their Race Cars from Chicago with all the looting and stealing going on, if they survive the gunshot wounds.

R Lanier

What the heck is a ROVAL? It’s a good waste of track! If I wanted a road course on east coast….I’d buy in the hobby store.
In years past (several yrs past) we had just one IROC RACE per season…..now it’s every Sunday.
Where is Junior Johnson? The real Richard Petty? Don’t think they ran moonshine in Sonoma.
Where the heck is Dodge? Oh I forgot.
The Great “American Race”? Pun lntended.
Why can’t you get out of a car while under caution? Sterling was checking his tires!!!
Humpey….to tell the truth I liked concrete seating with chicken bones flying over my head and the 12 hrs getting out of the parking lot really wasn’t that bad….
Childress. Woods, let’s all stop and eat a Moon Pie and a pack of nabs along with a ice cold beer……while we sit in the pits and make sure that 1 lug nut is good and tight!

Oh…..what network do I have to turn to so I can sit in my recliner and not miss them 30 minutes of commercials before the Go flag drops. Hey Honey..how bout goin out and turn that antenna till I holler stop!!

An you wanna know what happened to “RACIN”??

Oh. Forgot. Don’t those Andretti boys run in Indianapolis?

Paul O'Tarsus

There way to many yellow flags. It’s called RACING not a parade or the freeway. I drive in slow traffic to much to watch it on tv or pay hundreds to attend.

Thayne Daniels

The real reason ratings are in the toilet is because nascar was built by diehard great racers who didn’t give a dam about diversity or gender or equality! They cared about racing! Just keep catering to the socially disadvantaged and all us old timers will go back to drag racing where you have to earn respect not whine until you get it!

CT Ryan

Maybe they could try a trans spokesperson seeing how well it worked out for Budweiser. But in all seriousness, I was done when they allowed the whole Bubba Wallace “noose” act to go on for days instead of just investigating it on the low down. Had to make a spectacle of it you know to show how racist America is

Vernon

Nailed it. NASCAR insulted its loyal fans to appease a small group of folks who will never be fans. Just like Bud Light just did

Louis Duquette

NASCAR has jumped the shark so to speak by taking “racing” out of the hands if the teams. NASCAR has always been a controlling, demanding organization. But over the last 15 years it so it gotten out of hand . I crewed on a car out of Bakersfield, CA. back in the late 70s. We ran Ontario and Riverside twice a year. NASCAR was strict then. Today its out of control “woke” rules, both for the teams and in the stands has destroyed the spirit and the great history of NASCAR.

Steven Sinnett

The death of Dale Earnhardt Sr. was the end of the NASCAR boom. plain and simple. We’re back to attendance as it was before he came on the scene.

Eric Hollister

The problem as I see it is how hard it is to find a race.
first four races were broadcast on fox .it’s hard to get into nascar when I know after that first few races it going to be hard to find who is broadcasting this week’s race.and you got to have subscriptions to all the premium sports channels to follow raceing for a whole season
Gone are the days when you could plan every Sunday to have the race on have friends over and BBQ and watch the race. I’m surprised sponsors are not gripping about this as they loose lots of exposure .that costs them millions
If nascar can’t figure this out it’s too bad for racing. Because the way its going we well loose them altogether

Ken Pearson

I think has infact done it self in. NASCAR was who could build the fastest car. Now, they are all the same. Safety feature are all great and should be there to protect drivers. Flaps are good to keep cars on the ground. Etc.
But this new playoff format is crap. Pack consept sucks. Penalty points are bad..
Racing is who can build the baddest machine, not.the me too machine.
And TV coverage is bad. You never know where it’s going to be? NBC, FOX, CBS ,sports networks. Who knows???

Jeff

It started with the drivers. We had rednecks who got out of their cars and told you what was on their mind. Corporations wanted polite spokesman. NASCAR strated getting rid of the rednecks. Each manufacturer was unique. People enjoyed brand rivalry. NASCAR made everybody drive the same car. Points races were sometimes runways, but there were good battles down the stretch too. NASCAR made the playoffs to manufacturer drama. I could go on with their their failures, but the bottom line is they turned their back on their base fan, and this is the result. I was a diehard fan, I could care less now. I tune in every once in a while, but it just isn’t the same. They have lost me.

Al

The problem started way long ago. My friends and my family attended many a race then in the late 80’s we were pushed aside so the yuppies could attend their latest distraction. People showed up at races because it was a place to be seen not to watch a race. NASCAR tried to keep these new supposed fans at tell the rest of us to pound salt. The TV schedule is a mess to find the channel and time and then the Bubba thing. I quit watching the NFL over taking a knee, the NBA just sucks so there you have it. If it’s raining out or I’m bored I’ll look for a race but the lack of real racing except the last 20 laps has just turned it into background noise. By the way whiney drivers always complaining doesn’t help, it was just Gordon and Waltrip now it’s most of them.

Curious

There’s no longer a car race. The cars are all basically the same. Why not get back stock and let the teams do what ever it takes to make the best performing car no restrictions.

PrimeTimeChuck

When you turn your playoffs and championship into a gimmick and a show, youve devalued your championship and turned it into sports entertainment. I think the point system and the stages have done more to destroy the sports credibility than anything else…
Also this endless quest for safer cars has become a negative in and of itself. Truthfully, there was nothing done to the cot or the next two generations of cars that couldn’t have been done on the 2000 to 2006 version of the
Cup cars. Taking away the team’s building the cars has taken some creativity and mechanical interest out of the sport as well. I think those two things alone are enough to sink the ship

Bill

saturation – Jeff Gordon was interviewed on SXM Morning Drive this week. A takeaway from that: a “less is more” approach is needed to shake things up – there are too many races for modern consumers, who hold so many diverse options and other interests in the palm of their hand. If the scheduled WAS reduced, it creates an issue of sustainability for current race tracks that have come to rely largely on multiple visits by the Cup series in order to have successful year, financially.  NASCAR chose to merge ISC into the main part of the business–not clear if that was a smart thing to do. That small but real bit of independence between Sanctioning Body and Track Owner took away a tool to work with. 

Of course, SMI & NASCAR will stand toe-to-toe and both refuse to blink or concede….what is telling is NASCAR shutting down the Joliet track and selling it off to re-use for commercial use – same is true in Fontana. Easy to look at the history of how many races in a season and what made for a good balance. As TV was given more influence, the number of races increased. NASCAR is no longer compelling, but it could be again.

marketing – NASCAR, now operating without a series sponsor for Cup, has not shown the same willingness to truly “PROMOTE” Cup racing as it was done back in the days of RJ Reynolds. Ralph Seagraves had a team & approach to the task that delivered. Granted, information consumption has changed considerably since the days of Winston Cup racing, but there was a synergy of effort that seems lacking or lackluster today. 

When NASCAR is having to use it’s own money for promotion, it’s much more stingy in it’s efforts compared to having a truly dedicated sponsorship team as RJR brought to the sport. Laws regarding tobacco advertising aside, there are bigger issues – the cost for EVERYTHING is higher, and people will make decisions about what has to give as the cost of just living continues to escalate.

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