Why NASCAR Should Add Heat Races to Spice Up Boring On-Track Product
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NASCAR's 20th trip to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway was not the most exciting race of the season. As has become a trend for Sprint Cup races in recent years, the Brickyard 400 was decided on pit road, not the track.
In an effort to better the on-track product, NASCAR has changed the cars, introduced double-file restarts and implemented green-white-checker finishes with varying results. But there is one thing that NASCAR hasn't changed: the races.
All one needs to do is look at the success of the Camping World Truck Series event at Eldora to see that answer.
The inaugural Mudsummer Classic featured heat races, a last-chance qualifier and a short feature race broken into three segments. It was a huge success and would be just as successful in the Sprint Cup Series.
Better for Paying Customer
It's hard not to notice the empty grandstands on a weekly basis. The Brickyard 400 was run in front of a lot of empty seats. Bob Pockrass of Sporting News estimated that fewer than 90,000 fans were in attendance, a poor number for a track that holds well over 200,000 fans.
Cutting the distance to 200 miles, adding a pair of 50-mile heat races and a 25-mile last-chance qualifier would help give the fans more of what they want: actual racing.
One of the most exciting moments of the year was the battle between Norm Benning and Clay Greenfield for the final transfer spot during the Eldora LCQ.
Fewer laps means less time for drivers to pace themselves, increasing the sense of urgency as drivers are forced to push their car from the drop of the green.
The five-minute intermissions also give fans a scheduled break while adding excitement by bunching up the field for more restarts.
If the paying customer is entertained and treated well, attendance would again begin to climb.
Better for TV
According to Jayski.com, the Brickyard 400 had an average audience of 5.4 million viewers, down nearly one million viewers since 2011.
The most exciting parts of the race have always been the start and the finish. With single-file parades, like the one at Indianapolis, there is very little reason for fans to stay tuned in for all 200 laps.
NASCAR's television contracts are a big reason that the races are still as long as they are. Longer races mean more commercials and more advertising dollars. But with the right format, NASCAR can still run all of the Sprint Cup races within the same three-hour window.
It also adds more “must-see” moments. All of a sudden, the race is just 80 laps with 20-lap heat races and a 10-lap LCQ. Every lap becomes more important, making it harder to change the channel.
The change would also alleviate the pain of commercial breaks. Auto racing is one of a few sports where commercials are shown during the action. Cawsnjaws.com, which provides weekly commercial breakdowns for Sprint Cup races, reports that ESPN aired just 126 of 177 minutes of racing during the Brickyard 400. Nearly 30 percent of the race was missed during commercial breaks.
By splitting the feature race with intermissions, networks can better plan their advertisement breaks. That means more race coverage and less action missed during commercials.
De-Emphasizing Pit Stops
One of the reasons the race at Eldora was so good was that pit stops did not determine the outcome of the race. The drivers did.
Should NASCAR start using heat races in Sprint Cup?
During the five-minute intermissions, teams had an opportunity to make all the necessary changes to their cars without sacrificing or gaining track position.
This is the same format that should be used in Sprint Cup.
Racing should be about the drivers and cars, not pit crews. Fans don't watch racing to see 13-second pit stops. They don't go to the track to watch a driver win a race on fuel mileage. They watch to see their heroes racing door-to-door.
Already in Use
This is not a new idea. Qualifying races are as old as the sport, and NASCAR already uses them every year to set the field for the Daytona 500. Expanding their use to the rest of the schedule makes perfect sense.
Following the success of the Mudsummer Classic, NASCAR on Fox play-by-play announcer Mike Joy tweeted that the use of heat races should be expanded.
The Eldora format was perfect, not only for the Truck Series but for Sprint Cup as well. Heat races are the perfect way to spice up the show and give the paying customers more for their money.
Races are won because of drivers and cars, not pit stops. And it's made for television, designed to give networks added commercial breaks while showing more on-track action.
Changing the race format is the best way to get fans excited about the racing once again.
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