I’ll be the first to admit that since I no longer work in the television business that I DO NOT consistently watch NASCAR. It’s not that big of an interest for me and never has been although there’s nothing wrong with it if it is your thing. I do however, watch the Daytona 500 because it’s a great event and I like the big tracks and high speeds although I wish NASCAR would take off the horsepower choking restrictor plates from the engines and put some of the skill back into the hands of the drivers on the 2.5 mile tracks. The big tracks are much more about the car than the driver. That’s why average to below average drivers can win the pole and even the race. So, if Danica Patrick ever wins a NASCAR race — and that’s a big if — it’s going to come on a track like Daytona and Talladega and not a place like Martinsville or Bristol.
Tomorrow is the 58th running of the Daytona 500. Yes, we hear every year that it’s NASCAR’s Superbowl. Well, I’m not sure that analogy works. The best team in the NFL wins the Superbowl. The best driver doesn’t always win the 500. In fact the record books for this race are full of one-trick ponies. Granted the titans of the sport like Richard Petty who won the race 7 times, Cale Yarborough, David Pearson, Bobby Allison, Buddy Baker, Darrell Waltrip, Dale Earnhardt and Bill Elliot have all won the 500 at least once. Cross over drivers Mario Andretti and A.J. Foyt have also won the race. But, do you remember Derrick Cope?. He won the 500 in 1990 when Dale Earnhardt ran over a piece of debris heading into the final turn of the race. He did little else in his career. Cope ran in 409 races in 25 years in the sport and other than the 1990 500 he won just one more time that also came in 1990. Sterling Marlin was a relatively non-descript driver from Columbia, Tennessee. He had 10 wins in his career, but two of those were Daytona 500s back to back in 1994 and 1995. He was on his way to winning a 3rd in 2002 when he famously climbed from his car during a red flag and pulled sheet metal from his wheel well. NASCAR said no-no and sent him to the back of the field and he was never a threat again. Ward Burton won just 5 races, but won a 500 in 2002. Michael Waltrip is a clown in my opinion. He has 4 career wins, two Daytona 500s, but hasn’t won a race in 13 years and now is more interested in broadcasting than driving it appears. And in 2011 Trevor Bayne won the 500. He’s never won anything else.
The bottom line is that most often it is the driver who can simply put a well handling car in the right place, stay patient, get lucky and avoid the big accident whose going to win the race. It may not be the sport’s biggest name, but they’ll be forever mentioned as a 500 champion and that’s all that matters.
The Daytona 500 kicks off the NASCAR season and it will be the highest viewed race of the year. Something like 13 million people annually watch the race. For one, it’s a big event and for another it’s easy to find. The same can’t be said for the rest of the season. The 500 was the first race to ever be televised “flag to flag” in 1979. You can make an argument that CBS’s decision to televise the race changed the sport forever. Until then the 500 had been a taped delay, edited feature on ABC’s Wide World of Sports. Credit a young CBS producer named Michael Pearl and a visionary broadcaster named Ken Squier for bringing NASCAR to television. The 1979 broadcast was a ratings hit for several reasons. First, the east coast was iced in as the result of an Ice Storm. In 1979, we had 3 channels, CBS, NBC, and PBS. The ABC station was in Lynchburg and we couldn’t get it. So viewing options were more limited. Hard to believe there were days of television that didn’t include four star productions like “Real Housewives” and “Sex sent me to the ER”. Secondly, the sports biggest star Richard Petty won the race when a last lap crash between Cale Yarborough and Donnie Allison opened the door for Petty to win and those two to engage in a fist fight in the infield. People like watching crashes and fights.
The problem with NASCAR is that it cannot stop getting out of its own way when it comes to television. Prior to 2001, the individual tracks negotiated their own television deals. That meant a mixture of races on CBS, NBC, ABC, ESPN, TNN, TBS, and Raycom. In 2001 NASCAR took control of its television package and signed a lucrative deal with FOX and NBC/Turner. It was a positive as most of the races – minus a couple of all-star races and a a handful of races on TNT – were on a broadcast network and in television make no mistake that makes a difference. Just 6 years later, NASCAR switched horses, staying with FOX, but putting the second half of the season on ESPN/ABC. That meant about 1/2 of the races went back to cable. With ESPN that isn’t such a big deal. Let’s be honest, they are the tail that wags the Sports Television dog. People know where ESPN is and outside of once having some dude named Larry Nuber doing the races, the self proclaimed world wide leader did know how to broadcast the sport.
But in 2015, NASCAR – either on its own or with ESPN just walking away – signed a 10 year 8.2 billion dollar broadcast deal with FOX and NBC. The problem with the deal is that NASCAR is now largely a cable sport on outlets that aren’t ESPN. Fox is keeping 9 of its 15 points races on its main network. However, in order to drive eyeballs to its cable outlet, 6 will appear on Fox Sports 1 which is never going to be confused with ESPN. Poor Martinsville Speedway – one of the oldest tracks on the circuit – is now stuck with FS1 and is the only 1 of the first 9 races stuck on cable.
The bigger problem is the second half of the season. NBC will televise just 7 races with 11 on the NBC Sports Network or NBCSN as they like to call it. Understand that until the network was branded NBCSN, it was previously known as the Outdoor Life Network and then Versus. It’s two big events – if you can even call them that – were the Tour De France (a nice little event for bike enthusiasts) and NHL Hockey. NBCSN still has those sports along with Atlantic 10 basketball, Colonial Athletic Association Basketball and Football and Indy Car racing. Not a powerful lineup. The ratings suffered as a result. NASCAR averaged 5.1 million viewers last year down 4% from 2014 and 12% from 2013. NBC also suffers from a lack of star power in its announcers. I can’t stand Darrell Waltrip on FOX (Shove your “boogity, boogity” up your ass) but he’s a big name and from what I’ve heard so far Jeff Gordon is off to a promising start as a broadcaster, and at least has driven a car in the last 15 years. Main play-by-play announcer Mike Joy is solid and very experienced. NBC’s main race caller Rick Allen is okay although at times he sounds like he’s suffering from constant radio voice syndrome, but I have no idea who analyst Steve Latarde is and Jeff Burton is a smart, articulate former driver but needs to stop saying stuff like “the 44 hits the 22 who hits the 11 and that takes out the 4”. They have names, so use them.
Will the ratings stablize? Maybe, but NASCAR is and forever will be a niche sport with the exception of its big events like Daytona. That means people like me will watch the Dayton 500 and then – because we don’t have to – won’t watch much else.