After years of flat to falling television ratings, NASCAR had looked like it finally stabilized its viewership numbers – until Saturday.
The overnight TV ratings from the NRA 500 at Texas Motor Speedway earned a 3.5 rating. That was the by far the lowest rating for a race this season, and it was also the lowest ever for a spring race at Texas.
The lowest overnight rating of the season before Texas was 4.0, which happened the previous week at Martinsville. For Texas, specifically, Saturday’s overnight ratings were down from 3.6 last year, and they were a 5-percent drop from the 3.7 rating the spring Texas race got in 2011.
In fact, Saturday’s race was one of the least-watched races in the 12 years FOX has broadcast NASCAR races.
And that had to be shocking to Texas Motor Speedway President Eddie Gossage, who boasted the benefits of a primetime race March 3 during the track’s Media Day sessions.
“There’s that feel that’s special about a Saturday night under the lights,” Gossage said. “The cars look better at night, they’re faster, they bottom out with a full load of fuel and when they bang together and whatnot you see sparks. It’s just a different look at night. It’s cool stuff.”
Unfortunately, a relatively small television crowd saw all of that cool stuff.
Granted, there wasn’t much beating and banging throughout the race, but notable drivers Kyle Busch and Jeff Gordon ran up front most of the night, and the race had one of the most controversial title sponsors in years with the NRA putting its name on the race.
Gossage admitted there was a possibility NASCAR could over-saturate the market with too many night races, but he brushed off concerns a night race would be any kind of a problem at Texas.
“When you draw the biggest crowd of the season, it ain’t you that’s oversaturating,” he said.
NASCAR tracks no longer announce attendance totals, but the grandstands looked to be 80- to 90-percent full. So people still showed up for the race, but maybe racing under the lights isn’t the saving grace NASCAR and many of the racetracks thought.
Night races have certainly become more common throughout the last decade. Darlington’s only race is now at night, both Charlotte races are under the lights, the Labor Day race at Atlanta is at night and Texas moved the April race to Saturday night in 2008.
The spring Texas raced reached an all-time high with a 5.4 rating in 2007, but that race was still on a Sunday afternoon. Historically, Sunday afternoon races generally garner better ratings during the day than at night.
But many people, including Gossage, try to paint Saturday-night races as a return to the roots of auto racing.
“All of us that are in this business started at a Saturday-night short track somewhere,” he said. “As a fan, as a racer of some sort, and it takes you back to that. There’s that feel that’s special about a Saturday night under the lights.”
Perhaps that’s true at local short tracks across the country, but this is big-league auto racing. The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series was built on Sunday afternoon races, not Saturday nights.
People don’t remember Richard Petty, David Pearson or Cale Yarborough racing at night. They remember the good ‘ol days as Sunday afternoons watching their heroes race.
Sure, the August night race at Bristol is a special event each year, but it has built a reputation as a fun night of close, hard racing. Many of these other tracks have no such traditions.
Texas moved its April race to Saturday night in 2012, and the race turned out to be one of the more boring races of the season, and this year’s race wasn’t a whole heck of a lot better.
That’s not to say moving the race back to Sunday would automatically fix those problems, but maybe the overnight ratings from Saturday’s race will cause Gossage to at least consider the possibility that the market may have been a bit oversaturated when he jumped in last season.