Driving Changes

Last week NASCAR made big news when it took a mundane stop on the UAW-GM media tour and turned it into one of the biggest stories of racing in 2003. There were no grand press releases with “synergy” repeated 19 times to trumpet the announcement, as Bill France Jr. simply took the microphone from son Brian and launched into a meaty discourse on “Realignment 2004 and Beyond.”

In short, Mr. France said that NASCAR wants more races in better markets and fewer races in smaller and less successful markets, track owners could possibly move races from one track to another, and more tracks should put in lights because NASCAR wants to move some race start times to later in the day. The tracks specifically named with the possibility of losing a race were Darlington, Rockingham, Charlotte, and Atlanta.

The reaction was as might be expected. Brian France and George Pyne have weighed in with their thoughts on R2004AB. ISC says it will look at moving races. As for Bruton and SMI, he says he ain’t movin’ nothin’ and he still wants his second date at Texas. The Bernie Federko lawsuit is moving forward.

Clearly, one of the main drivers behind all of this is NASCAR’s TV partners. Mike Mulhern of the Winston-Salem Journal quotes Mike Helton, "The broadcast relationship has become a critical stakeholder in our sport, and our future decisions will be based a lot on that relationship. What it brings is exposure. And in 2002 another critical stakeholder, car sponsors, received nearly $5 billion of TV exposure."

Bigger markets means more fans, more money, and more viewers. It means that NASCAR’s grand plan of reaching new fans is being taken to the next level. Two clear ways to reach these new fans is to move the starting times of races until later on Sunday and move some races to Saturday night. This year sees two races (the Bud Shootout and the fall Charlotte race) move to prime time Saturday night on an over-the-air network.

The logic is simple and it’s part of conventional wisdom in sports television. As it gets later in the day on the weekend, more people have returned home from their activities that day and are therefore home to turn on the television. The most recent example of this is the NFL playoffs being moved back three hours from the traditional start times so they have a later afternoon game and prime time game instead of two afternoon games. Ratings were up almost 10 percent as a result. Bill France Jr. even cited this in his comments to the media.

If NASCAR moves the starting time for its races to later in the day, there will almost certainly be a bump in the ratings. That means more advertising dollars for the networks and new fans for NASCAR. One of the big areas of potential growth for NASCAR is on the West Coast, and later start times would mean a lot more fans watching races that start at noon instead of 9 or 10 in the morning.

Currently, it’s unclear how much of the push for lights and later start times is directed at later start times on Sunday or wholesale moves to Saturday night. If it’s Saturday night, the competitors will surely like it because it means one extra day off. Fans will probably like it too because it allows for a built-in opportunity to move the race to Sunday in case of rain. The people who don’t like it are the short track operators around the country who count on fans to walk through the gates on Saturday nights.

Later start times on Sunday are not without potential pitfalls, and rain is the biggest worry for television. In the last few years we’ve seen at least a few races hit by major rain on Sunday afternoons, but the race went past halfway so it was able to be called a complete race. A later start time on Sunday leaves almost no cushion for rain. Those same races that were complete in 2001 or 2002 would have been put off until Monday under R2004AB. That’s not good for the fans or TV.

Another likely scenario is a brief rain shower that pushes back the start time of the race by two or three hours. If it’s already on cable TV, that’s usually not a problem because TNT or FX will probably just stick with the race and show it in its entirety. But if the race is on FOX or NBC, it’s unlikely that an over-the-air network would give up or significantly push back its prime time schedule to show NASCAR. Jeff Zucker is not going to give Dick Ebersol his “Boomtown” or “Kingpin” time slots. So, with later start times and rain, it’s likely that the races intended for NBC or FOX would get moved at the last minute to their cable counterparts at TNT or FX.

Times certainly have changed. It wasn’t too long ago that 75 percent of the Winston Cup races were on cable TV. Now NASCAR is so hot that it has over-the-air networks asking for better start times so even more fans can tune in. What a nice “problem” to have.

THIS WEEK’S NOTES: The Travel Channel will air “NASCAR’s Thunder Road” and “Ultimate NASCAR” on Sunday night, February 9 . . . “Totally NASCAR” will start their engines on February 10 and go for 201 shows through November 17 . . . “NASCAR This Morning” cranks up the morning of the Daytona 500 and will air 31 shows this year . . . This weekend Speed Channel will air the Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona from 12:30 p.m. ET on Saturday through 1:30 p.m. on Sunday, with a break in coverage from 9:00 p.m. to 6:00 a.m. . . . The Lingner Group has become a much more visible and powerful part of CART with some of the CART restructuring announced this week . . . There will be some added telemetry and graphics in Winston Cup qualifying coverage this year.

Related Topics:

NASCAR Sprint Cup, 2003

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