NASCAR has a problem, whether it wants to admit to it or not. However, it is right there staring anyone in the face who tunes into one of their race broadcasts. Empty seats. Those vacant grandstands are the most visible sign that the sport needs to make changes, and they need to be made soon. The solution seems simple, give the fans what they want, better racing. How that is accomplished is the billion dollar question.
Without admitting it, NASCAR knows it has a problem. Those running the sport must deal with a delicate balance of making their current fans happy, gaining new fans, pleasing current and future sponsors, and maintaining the lucrative television contracts which are vital to it’s future. Those television contracts, long-time sponsors, and loyal fans, have allowed the sport a few years of experimentation towards finding a long term solution. Unfortunately, despite numerous changes the desired results have not arrived.
The biggest problem NASCAR has is the one they cannot change. The size of the tracks they race on. At the height of it’s popularity NASCAR moved toward racing more and more on one and a half mile ovals. The tracks seemed to be the perfect size to spread out 100,000 fans and give them a great view of the race, while still allowing plenty of room inside the speedway for all the race teams, and a wide, safe pit road. However, the action on the track was lacking. The tracks don’t lend themselves to much side-by-side racing, and racers seem content to let a competitor pass rather than battle for a spot until late in the race. They also tend to become fuel mileage strategy events which are just as unpopular with the fans as they are with the competitors.
Many have suggested simply shortening the races. While the urgency of less laps would seem to increase the excitement, and perhaps bring with it more fans, it would negatively affect the amount of television time needed to present the event. Less television time means less commercials, and less air time for sponsors. NASCAR knows this is not the solution, and has tried to address the situation with a number of changes.
NASCAR has changed how it’s champion is determined, they have changed the cars, they have even tried expanding their fan base through appealing to numerous ethnic groups. Their Drive for Diversity program is designed to open doors in the sport to both females and those from other countries to driving opportunities in the sport. While NASCAR would like everyone to believe this program is all about the drivers they would certainly stand to benefit from a fan base of additional female and ethnic groups.
Despite all these changes attendance and viewership has remained stagnant at best. The only solution which seems to have any merit is the theory of shortened races improving the competition, and thus, making the sport of NASCAR more popular. However, shortened races don’t work for NASCAR for several reasons. First of all it would mean less commercials. It would also mean less air time for the sponsors. Teams sell their value on the amount of times a sponsor’s name will appear on television versus the cost of purchasing a commercial. There is also the fact that NASCAR loves to fill up as much television time as possible. Most weekends there is a prerace show on both the Speed Channel, which is then followed by another on the network carrying the race that day.
So what is the solution? One that will satisfy everyone without just tearing down all those one and a half mile ovals and building more tracks like Richmond or Bristol, which the fans love. The secret may lie in the way racing is done at short tracks throughout the nation. Heat races, followed by a feature event.
Heat races could be run early in the day. A full starting field for a NASCAR Sprint Cup race is 43 cars. For discussion sake lets say 45 cars have come to the track hoping to make the race. Three heat races of 15 cars could be run with the top 10 cars moving on to the feature. After a brief break, a nonqualifiers race could determine the starting spots for the balance of the field. A slightly longer break would then allow the teams which qualified through the nonqualifiers race to make adjustments to their cars. The cars which qualified in the heat races would get the added bonus of additional time to work on their machines over those in the nonqualifiers. If wrecks in the heat races resulted in a short field of cars competitors would still earn points through their qualifying efforts.
NASCAR could use the breaks in action for those driver interviews they love. They may even get lucky and have two or more drivers angry at each other, which could lend some potential drama to the feature event. They could show the adjustments being made, and speculate on the favorites to win, all while not losing any of their precious air time.
Finally, a shortened feature event could be run to finish out the event. The fans get what they want, better competition. The drivers get what they want, more meaningful laps, The sponsors continue to get the exposure they desire. The television networks get a product that holds the fans interest, instead of those middle laps of the race which seem to only be filler until the end. And NASCAR not only holds onto the fans they have, but also garners some new ones drawn in by the competitve racing accompanied by some drama. A win for all.
There is certainly no perfect solution to the problems facing NASCAR, however, one which includes a halftime break similar to those of the NFL, the most popular sport in the country would certainly be a step in the right direction. After all, what does NASCAR have to lose? Fans? Sponsors? That is already happening. What they need to avoid is losing those big television contracts which are carrying them right now. Heat races NASCAR. Heat races.