Shorter NASCAR Race Benefits: a Commentary

The inspiration for writing about shorter NASCAR race benefits comes from a recent Hot Topics Sound Off discussion on Fan4Racing Radio (at 121:11).
INDIANAPOLIS, INDIANA – SEPTEMBER 08: Martin Truex Jr, driver of the #19 AOI Toyota, leads a pack of cars during the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Big Machine Vodka 400 at the Brickyard at Indianapolis Motor Speedway on September 08, 2019, in Indianapolis, Indiana. Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images

The inspiration for writing about shorter NASCAR race benefits comes from a recent Hot Topics Sound Off discussion on Fan4Racing Radio (at 121:11). The following commentary is one point of view with other views shared on the radio show. The topic certainly makes for some interesting conversation. So, please share your thoughts by commenting below.

Now is the time to consider shorter races on the NASCAR Cup Series schedule. The idea may come across as sacrilege to some long-time NASCAR fans, but there is a strong case for shorter NASCAR race benefits. Shortening the races could give both new and long-term fans a better on-track product.

Based on a highly scientific data-gathering mission from social media comments, the races frequently criticized as ‘too long’ are the 500-mile races at Atlanta Motor Speedway and Texas Motor Speedway, as well as the 400-mile races at Pocono Raceway and Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Shorter races have the potential to improve the attraction of these tracks.

So, What’s the Problem?

Up until recent years, the longer NASCAR races provided an element of endurance to their events.  While not as long as some of the IMSA sports car counterpart events, the long NASCAR races provide a chance to test equipment. Teams are now more adept at building cars, and as a result, mechanical failures are quite rare, especially in top-level teams.  Mechanical failures do still happen from time to time, but they seldom have a major impact on the final result of the race.

Given the reliability of the cars, this has led to the unpleasant trend of drivers spending large parts of the race running conservatively to keep the car safe for the end of the race. This practice is known as lap burning.  NASCAR took a major step to address this mid-race slump by introducing stage racing in the 2017 season. The idea was to inject more interest in the middle parts of the race.  The stage racing did produce some of the desired results, but there are still long stretches in some races where lap burning is a problem.

Keeping Fans Engaged

Another point to consider is TV time.  This year’s COVID-19 related attendance notwithstanding, it’s no secret that attendance is down for the majority of NASCAR races over the past few years when compared to the highs of the early 2000s.  Race length is not the only reason for the drop, but given there are fewer fans in the stands, it is even more important to create a compelling reason to keep TV viewer’s attention for the entire race. 

Other sports are looking at the length of their game time. For instance, the NFL took steps in 2018 to shorten their broadcast time by looking at ways to shorten the game. One recent NASCAR Cup Series race, the Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway, had a race time just short of four hours.  Adding pre- and post-race coverage increases the broadcast length to four and a half hours. That time does not cover expanded pre-race content such as NASCAR Race Hub. The potential for a rain delay can extend a broadcast even further and risk losing people’s attention.  The recent Coca Cola 600 was nearly an eight-hour broadcast because of an already long race and a delay for the weather. 

So, What Should be Done?

NASCAR could set a target time for a race by studying the typical fans’ attention span.  By establishing the time first, the race distance is easy. There is a wealth of data about average lap time for a track that can help to decide the length of a race. 

NASCAR already does this to some degree by working with tracks and TV broadcasters to help determine race length based on their designated TV window. Perhaps reducing the TV window for the targeted tracks should receive more priority.

Shortening races isn’t a new idea. In 1997 NASCAR cut the Dover races to 400 miles from the former 500-mile race.  In 2011 the same 100-mile cut was made at Pocono.  It is doubtful many fans missed the extra 100 miles of racing.  The Darlington spring race also had a similar cut a few years before that race moved to a later date on the schedule.

NASCAR’s return from the COVID-19 hiatus is a case study on the effect of shortening races.  According to Jeff Gluck’s unofficial “was it a good race” Twitter poll, both Darlington and Charlotte saw substantially higher marks for their shorter races in comparison to the longer events held a few days before, particularly those with rain delays.  The shorter races compressed the on-track action into a smaller window, providing a show that many fans seem to find more appealing.

Taking Health and Safety into Consideration

Another major consideration for race length is the health and safety of drivers.  Safety has been a major focus for NASCAR with an admirable effort to make tracks less dangerous by adding SAFER barriers, paving grassy areas, and changing potential impact angles to inside walls.  The cars are also more protected when crashing into a wall or another car. 

What hasn’t received as much attention is the potential health consequences for the drivers.  Following the recent Atlanta race, many drivers appeared physically exhausted. Bubba Wallace even fainted twice after the race due to dehydration.  Kasey Kahne’s Cup Series career came to an abrupt end after a 2018 heat-related injury in the Southern 500 aggravated some existing health conditions. 

While several races in 2020 are at tracks during vastly different times of the year than usual, there are some long races on the ‘regular’ schedule running during the heat of the day. This year, the Brickyard 400 in Indianapolis is moving to the July 4th weekend. The 400-mile race is taking place in the heart of a hot July day in a region where the heat and humidity can be overwhelming. NASCAR drivers are world-class athletes in outstanding physical condition, but every human body has its limits. Exceeding those limits benefits no one.

Reducing the Cost

Another area NASCAR has put their focus on in recent years is in reducing the cost of racing.  Shorter races give immediate savings to teams. One set of Goodyear race tires cost approximately $2500.  Each 12-gallon can of Sunoco Green E15 racing fuel costs $72 at a modest estimate of $6 per gallon.  While these examples of savings may have less significance to the mega teams such as Joe Gibbs Racing or Hendrick Motorsports, saving a few thousand dollars in the budget of smaller teams may allow them to spend elsewhere to improve their on-track performance.

NASCAR is still hard at work on the 2021 schedule.  In typical NASCAR fashion, they are relatively tight-lipped on potential changes.  Hopefully, they will consider the shorter NASCAR race benefits, as by doing so, there are substantial advantages for all.