Danica revs up interest in NASCARWritten by Matt 'Shaggy' Culbreath | | firstname.lastname@example.org
The NASCAR racing season gets underway this weekend, and Danica Patrick isn’t the only person thrilled that she’s sitting on the pole for the Daytona 500. Indeed, NASCAR officials are counting on that little extra oomph to drive eyeballs to the TV screen as they try to turn around another down year on the ratings scale.
After what was one heck of a start to the century for stock car racing, their sport has seen a decline of sorts. The past three years of TV ratings have resembled a roller coaster: dipping, then rising, then dipping again. It’s a downward trend, but it hasn’t exactly fallen off the table. In the past 4 years, Daytona has failed to register a double-digit share in the Nielsen ratings, after going 10 or higher in 7 of the last 8. (In their defense, last year’s race suffered from a weather delay that pushed it to a Monday.)
The news this year is already positive: Patrick’s winning run in the Budweiser Shootout gave Fox a pretty little 2.0 share, already up from last year’s qualifier. There’s a reason NASCAR put a lot of effort into wooing her over from open-wheeled racing, even though it hasn’t paid out in checkered flags yet. I’ll put money on the Daytona cracking a 10 share this year.
While it does seem like NASCAR isn’t the rising star and darling of sports entertainment anymore (for the record, that would be MMA), the crowds are still strong. All 3 television networks that carry the races, Fox, ESPN, and TNT, have made statements that they are confident in the motor sports fanbase to be tuned in every Sunday. It’s not as if the fanbase has deteriorated back to Hoyt in the trailer park, either. It was just a couple of years ago when my dentist had to push an appointment back because he was going to Daytona… right after going to the Super Bowl, no less. It’s no wonder why I suddenly needed a root canal that year
So, why the stagnation? I’d lay the blame on some of the meddling NASCAR made while the sport was on the rise. Take, for instance, the Car of Tomorrow: it was a standardized body shape that was supposed to improve driver safety and save money. However, it took the individuality away from each manufacturer. Who was driving Ford or Chevy? Which was a Dodge or Toyota? Didn’t matter, they were all out of the same cookie cutter. NASCAR finally ditched the body type for this year, and you can finally start to see the “stock cars” resemble… well, stock cars
Also taking some flack for NASCAR losing it’s momentum: Jimmie Johnson completely owning the Sprint Cup for 5 years. Utter domination is cool, but Johnson is no Tony Stewart in the personality department. Racing has always fed off guys who had a wild streak about them, and those guys are winning again.
I’ll even give NASCAR credit in some of the more subtle changes they’ve made. This year, they’re premiering a new method of drying the track after rainfall: instead of running massive heat blowers over the track for hours in order to dry a surface, they’ve developed a system of pushing the water off the track and vacuuming it up on the apron. What it means for us is that races can get back on track in a matter of minutes instead of hours.
NASCAR knows where they stand in the sports entertainment world, and they’re making the smart tweaks to regain their footing. Spreading the media partnerships around certainly doesn’t hurt on that front: the more organizations touting your product, the better (Did you hear that, NHL?) The good news for stock car racing is that their fanbase is massive and they’re passionate: they’re not going anywhere. NASCAR’s job is to get Joe Average Sports Fan to tune back in, and they’re all going to be there when Danica Patrick starts on the pole this Sunday. How they keep the fans tuned in is up to them.