Just weeks ahead of the 2017 season, NASCAR is, yet again, changing its race format, continuing to move further away from the simple rules the sport was built on.
As NASCAR continuously makes their product more complicated, their popularity continues to statistically decline, begging the question of how strong a correlation may exist between NASCAR’s format changes and its falling ratings and attendance.
The “enhancements,” as NASCAR has branded them, concern dividing races up into segments, something NASCAR hopes will create more exciting racing throughout the entire distance, alleviating the so-called “mid-race lull.” The enhancements are the end result of a lengthy collaboration between NASCAR executives, teams, drivers, and racetracks in an effort to fix some of the complaints that have been heard within the industry.
Each race will now be divided into three “stages.” After the first two stages, the top 10 are awarded points (10 for 1st, nine for 2nd, and so on). Points will continue to be awarded to the full field (1st through 40th) at race’s end. Points will no longer be awarded for leading a lap, or for leading the most laps.
Stage wins will earn a driver one bonus point for the “playoffs”–no longer called “The Chase”–and race winners will earn five bonus points.
The playoff format is mostly the same (four rounds of 16, 12, eight, and four drivers), with one exception: the bonus points acquired through the season will be added to each driver’s total at the beginning of each round of the playoffs (previously, bonus points only applied to the first round). The playoffs remain a “win and you’re in” format, and the finale at Homestead remains a four-man battle with the highest finisher winning the series championship.
Bonus points will also be awarded in the playoffs for each driver’s placement in the final regular season standings: 15 for 1st place, 10 for 2nd, eight for 3rd, seven for 4th, and so on down to one for 10th.
Pros and Cons
The cons of this system are obvious: fans are going to be confused trying to figure out what in the world is going on.
But like anything else, this system has multiple pros and cons.
Positives include an intermission-like caution period after each stage that will allow competitors and fans alike to catch their breath, while broadcast networks can air more commercials during the break instead of during green-flag racing.
Also, there is now more incentive for drivers who know they are in the playoffs to win more races or stages, since those bonus points now carry over all the way until the Round of Eight in the playoffs. Consistency will be better rewarded, even while a strong emphasis is still on winning races.
Besides the confusing nature of the changes, another major con is that a race winner could hypothetically only earn 40 points (finishing 11th or worse in the first two stages then winning the race), while a driver who wins the first two stages and then finishes second would earn 55 (10 points for Stages 1-2, 35 for second place).
“Wait Until You See It On The Racetrack”
Everyone on stage at Monday’s announcement, naturally, praised the changes as something that would make NASCAR exponentially better.
“Wait until you see it on the racetrack,” said 2012 Cup Series champion Brad Keselowski. “If you are watching right now, please trust us. When you see this on the racetrack, this is going to be the best racing you’ve ever seen.”
And, yes, the media member in me is moderately eager to see the changes in action, as they should theoretically create more exciting moments within each race (i.e. there are now three “finishes” instead of one). But as a lifelong fan, I’m not sold.
Keselowski is probably right about more excitement throughout the entirety of the race, but the complex nature of the format will likely be a problem for a sport that is already in decline.
NASCAR’s popularity, as judged by television ratings and attendance figures, has been in decline since its peak in the mid-2000s. Television ratings, which consistently rose from the 1980’s until the mid-2000s, have consistently dropped gradually since. In 2016, the majority of the races on the schedule either hit all-time ratings lows or their lowest marks in 15-plus years.
Attendance has also plummeted over the last decade, with the International Speedway Corporation (which runs 12 NASCAR tracks) reporting a 49 percent drop from in attendance revenue from its peak in 2007, and Speedway Motorsports, Inc. (which runs eight tracks) dropping 46 percent from its 2008 peak.
While both marks were at their peak just before the economic recession of 2008 and dropped like numbers in most other industries when the recession hit, they have continued to fall ever since.
This Won’t Fix NASCAR’s Problems
While the country slowly recovered from the recession, NASCAR has tried to appeal to a younger demographic with continuous rules and format changes. The changes have resulted in many old-school fans giving up on the sport, and have not drawn enough young fans to the sport to offset the departures.
It’s no secret that NASCAR’s existing fanbase leans conservative, and as a result often resists change.
I’ve met fans over time that aren’t particularly keen on changes like The Chase, green-white-checkered finishes, eliminating the “race back to the caution” (although that one was wholly necessary for safety reasons), and even restrictor-plate racing (though most find it exciting). Some of these have tolerated the changes and continued to watch, while others have left the sport.
Before now, these changes haven’t been overly complicated. The “Chase Grid” format, which eliminates four drivers each round until a four-man winner-take-all finale, was the most complex change before yesterday’s announcement.
But this edition of rules changes is taking complicated to another level. And remember, while I do know some very intelligent people who are diehard NASCAR fans, this isn’t exactly a fanbase known for an abundance of doctors and lawyers.
When fans turn on the Daytona 500 in just one month, many will likely not understand the new format. Some will be patient and try to understand the changes. But others will get frustrated, not recognizing the sport in which they used to watch their heroes like Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt Sr. compete, and turn the race off.
And while these changes are aimed at the casual fan (with the thinking generic sports fans would better understand an event divided into periods, like football/basketball/hockey, and the term “playoffs” instead of “Chase”), I wouldn’t think they would have any more patience than the diehard fans when they turn on a race and get confused. In fact, they may have less patience and change the channel even faster.
If people stop watching the races, it doesn’t matter how exciting the races are, because the sport will fizzle out. NASCAR’s thinking is that more exciting racing is the answer, as it would potentially attract new fans and start to grow the sport once again.
But, at least from my perspective, the racing has always been exciting. Some at Monday’s announcement talked about creating more “moments,” spread out over the three-plus hours of a race, but that has never been necessary in other sports, and isn’t in NASCAR either. The main draw is to see who wins the race, at the end of 500 miles, not who makes it to the one-third mark first.
Furthermore, whether the Falcons or Patriots lead the Super Bowl after a quarter, they will have no advantage (besides the lead with 45 minutes of football left) as far as winning the game.
NASCAR was at its most popular when it was without all the bells and whistles that they will now execute in the running of each race.
Now, with the gimmicks continuing to add up, I’m afraid the number of fans who bid farewell will add up too.
While the “NASCAR as we know it” from the past ceased to exist yesterday, I fear it will result in “NASCAR as we know it” for the future ceasing to exist as well.