NASCAR and the Sunday Schedule: Whatever Happened to Early Afternoon Races?

Rob TiongsonSenior Analyst IApril 1, 2009

MARTINSVILLE, VA - MARCH 29: A general view of cars racing during the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Goody's Fast Pain Relief 500 at the Martinsville Speedway on March 29, 2009 in Martinsville, Virginia.  (Photo by Rusty Jarrett/Getty Images for NASCAR)

As the 2005 song "I Summon You" by Spoon goes, "Remember the weight of the world, it's the sound that we used to buy," I recall the first races that I watched back in the early 1990s that forever changed my life.

I remember a time when NASCAR Sprint Cup races started at 12 PM/ET or 1 PM for most events, with the west coast racing exceptions that saw 3 or 4 PM/ET starts.

If one wanted to see the pre-race analysis and hype, racefans had many choices.

First, they could tune into ESPN2's offerings of RPM2Day, which would air an hour before NASCAR2Day, the network's two hour block devoted to motorsports and the upcoming NASCAR race.

As if that wasn't enough, The Nashville Network (now Spike) had Inside NASCAR at 10 AM and Raceday at 11 AM to rev up the racing fan's motors on features and storylines of the drivers and teams, as well as the exciting event that was to unfold on that Sunday afternoon.

However, if you missed a portion of the pre-race programming, you were probably like many fans who had what I'd dub as "The Sunday Schedule."

What's that, you may ask?

In my case, it was wake up at 7 AM, shower, dress up, head to the 8 AM mass at church, have brunch with my family at 10 AM, and head home at noon where the race to who won the rights to the TV that afternoon would happen.

All too often, I won of course, and thus began the tradition of the Tiongson family watching the NASCAR races on Sunday afternoon.

Things have changed dramatically since those times in the 1990s.

TNN, which no longer covers NASCAR races, is now a channel devoted only to men, as if not many of the television networks do not cater to the male population already.

RPM2Day ended its run of programming in 2003 in a compromise with NASCAR so that ESPN could have rights to show video clips of the races as well as having on-track access.

Fans may recall how ESPN personalities were forced to report from the races outside the track, or in some cases, really obscure locations like a helicopter pad.

Perhaps the biggest change of all is that "The Sunday Schedule" is gone. Current media partners in ABC, ESPN, as well as FOX Sports and TNT dictate the start times of each race.

Unless you're a new fan to the sport or living under a rock, you may have noticed that the race start times are getting later and later.

Seldom does a race actually start on the time advertised by the networks because of the fact that they truly seek for ratings by fans to watch all facets of their content, from the prolonged pre-race show to the finish.

Did I mention how the sport has progressed into one where there are superfluous stream of commercials during the race?

Another story for another time.

My point is that for most fans who preferred earlier start times, their schedule and lifestyles have changed.

Sure one can say get a grip and adjust to it, but is it really necessary for an east coast race to begin at 2:30 or 3 PM/ET just to gain the west coast viewership?

NASCAR has tried to go out of its way in stepping out of the National Football League's shadow in recent years.

As the second most popular sport in terms of attendance and television ratings, the sanctioning body has elected with later race-start times to consistently garner viewership across the country.

At the same time, the NFL has a consistent schedule that has been successful in the past decade. There are usually four to six games that start at 1 PM/ET and four to five games airing at 4 PM/ET, with Sunday Night Football at 8 PM/ET and the venerable Monday night game at 8 PM/ET.

So I ask you, fans or non fans, do the late-race start times benefit you? What's your take on all this? Is NASCAR's current formula working or do you think it's time to go old school?