By: Bryce Zimmerman and Jake Bartecki
A hot summer night in Nebraska. The roar of the engines and smell of burnt rubber resonate in the air. While the on-going COVID-19 pandemic hit professional sports tracks hard, Eagle Raceway in Eagle, Nebraska, was able to get back to racing.
“Fans back at our track have been great. It’s just been great to see fans wanting to see racing,” Roger Hadan, owner of Eagle Raceway, said. “Because of the pandemic, we lost about seven or eight weeks of our season.”
Labor Day weekend, thousands of race fans from across The Cornhusker State and greater Midwest packed the Eagle Raceway grandstands on an utterly gorgeous Sunday evening to kick back and take-in one of the first opportunities to get out of the house to watch some racing.
Local race tracks like Eagle Raceway in Eagle, Nebraska, population 1,086, can attract over 140,000 fans every six-month season.
And that’s in a state where there’s not even a NASCAR-sanctioned racetrack. However, there’s a combination of roughly 20 dirt, clay and asphalt tracks scattered across the state.
At the same time fans are beginning to seek out more in-person experiences, TV ratings for NASCAR, one of America’s oldest pastimes, are experiencing a decline.
Nationwide, the audience viewing the NASCAR Cup Series championship race has dropped by 51% since 2015, and multiple outlets report a decline in NASCAR TV ratings and record-low broadcasts dating back to the early 2000s. When reached via email, Matt Humphrey, NASCAR’s director of communications, would not comment on these declines.
Despite these declines, experts say local tracks play a vital role in growing the sport and gaining new fans, especially in states without a NASCAR-sanctioned track like Nebraska.
Television ratings could be declining for multiple reasons: retiring superstars, the changing face of drivers, a lack of NASCAR presence at local tracks — while NASCAR experts strategize how new viewers can be attracted to the sport.
One reason for NASCAR’s decline in ratings is that people are busier than ever, said Jeff Burton, former driver and current NASCAR on NBC analyst, and consumers have an unprecedented number of available entertainment options.
“Sports and entertainment are under increased pressure,” he said. “There are so many choices for viewers to pick from and that has made it difficult for all venues.”
Tommy Etherton, a Denton, Nebraska native and former I-80 Speedway Rookie of the Year, said the decline in viewership has to do with the current era.
“With Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr. recently hanging it up, those were the last true members of the ‘good ol’ boys’ era of NASCAR,” Etherton said, adding that NASCAR excelled with local drivers earning their way up the ranks to rise up through NASCAR’s national series.
“Today, kids have to be pumped up with millions of dollars before the age of 10 to even get the opportunity to be on that stage,” he said. “NASCAR needs to get back to its blue collar roots.”
This era coincides with the retirements of four legendary drivers: Jeff Gordon (2016), Tony Stewart (2016) and Dale Earnhardt Jr. (2017) — widely considered to be the last from NASCAR’s peak fandom from 1990s to the early 2000s. Following the conclusion of the 2020 season, seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson also plans to retire from full-time racing.
Another reason for the ratings decline could be the lack of NASCAR presence at local tracks like Eagle Raceway.
Bob Pockrass, a FOX Sports reporter, remembers when drivers used to race at their local tracks for at least a few years before moving to the NASCAR national series and brought their fan bases with them.
“The NASCAR Xfinity Series used to go to several short tracks where the locals could battle the Xfinity stars and, if they were successful, potentially get full-time rides,” Pockrass said.
Now, drivers don’t spend much time racing locally, Pockrass added.
“So no one says, ‘I used to watch that guy race every week,’ when they watch racing today — much like they would watch their local high school hero or college hero in the pros in other sports.”
Others, like Darian Gilliam, owner of the popular NASCAR YouTube channel, “Black Flags Matter”, blame the drop in ratings on the censoring of personalities by corporate sponsors and “NASCAR wanting to market itself as a family-friendly sport.”
“In reality, NASCAR is sort of far from being a family-friendly sport,” Gilliam said. “Let the drivers say what’s on their minds rather than pleasing corporate America.”
Dale Earnhardt Jr., recent NASCAR Hall of Fame inductee, questioned if fewer people truly aren’t watching NASCAR.
“All sports have experienced a drop as fans find other avenues like streaming to consume the content,” Earnhardt Jr. said via direct message. “So, have the numbers declined? Or are people experiencing the events in unique ways that are currently difficult to measure.”
Lenny Batycki of Performance Racing Network said the rise of other viewing platforms has opened up options for all television viewers.
“Consumers are still watching NASCAR, they just don’t do so now from a single source,” Batycki said.
Perhaps the biggest reason for NASCAR’s decline is the decline in TV viewership as a whole, according to Nielsen, with American cable TV subscriptions dropping 3.8 million from 2018 to 2019. However, those ratings don’t account for people viewing events via social media and other streaming platforms like Netflix, Hulu, Apple TV, Amazon and Twitter.
In a constantly changing world of sports and entertainment, NASCAR analysts like Burton try attracting more fans to the sport by making it easier for the average consumer to understand and relate to racing.
“The path forward not only has to be focused on the most competitive racing possible but to also find ways to introduce our athletes and the sport in general to new viewers,” he said. “Almost everyone can pick up a ball and find a court or a field, but very few understand what it’s like to drive a car competitively. Once it’s understood the amount of skill that’s required, there is a new respect that is given to the sport.”
But it’s not always easy to show fans why what a driver does is incredible.
“Hitting the same mark on the track lap after lap at 190 mph is an incredible feat,” said Rick Allen, current NASCAR play-by-play analyst and University of Nebraska-Lincoln alumnus. “The heart rate of drivers for over three hours straight is over 150 beats per minute and sometimes pushes 180 beats per minute. No other athletes see this kind of duration.”
To reach new fans, Earnhardt Jr. suggested the sport’s young crop of talented drivers task themselves to engage on social media — something veteran drivers aren’t tapping in or relating to. He also mentioned a continued focus on providing content to viewers in multiple formats.
“We can continue our focus on the network broadcasts while also enriching the other outlets where viewing the race is available like online streaming to phones and tablets,” Earnhardt Jr. said.
The potential to grow NASCAR viewership in Nebraska could extend to Eagle Raceway if the importance of local racers grows. Pockrass said NASCAR needs to get its top teams involved in driver development and suggested creating an easier path from local tracks to nationals with an incentive program to put local track champions — and diverse drivers — in cars.
Local tracks often introduce young people to motorsports, according to Batycki, and allow drivers to build a core base of fans, acting as “incubators” for developing lifelong racing fans.
“The surest path to develop a NASCAR fan is to have them experience, at a young age, racing at their nearby track.” he said. “Once the thrill and excitement of racing gets in their young minds, it keeps them interested for life.”
Hailie Deegan, 19, a current ARCA Menards Series driver and one of the only females in professional competition, has built an Instagram following of over 1 million, bringing her fanbase from junior kart racing before her transition to asphalt.
“(Local tracks are) where you build that fanbase of people who buy your merchandise, and support you and your social media,” she said in a recent Zoom call with members of the NASCAR media. “Those people come along with you and they start ending up at the big series races. I think if every driver can bring their fanbase from a local track to the NASCAR world, it’s just going to keep building the sport.”
Local tracks are where, Deegan said, young drivers gain their core fan base and start following their new favorite driver throughout the ranks of their career.
This year marked a rise in social activism and conversations around police brutality after the death of George Floyd, a Minneapolis, Minnesota, man, killed by a Minneapolis police officer in May. Among others, Floyd’s death sparked an increased level of activism across sport, including NASCAR and at the forefront Bubba Wallace, the Cup Series’ only Black driver.
Jesse Iwuji, a current Gander & RV Truck Series driver, said Wallace used his platform to bring positive change to the sport.
“I am also doing the same myself,” Iwuji said. “I have been promoting unity among all people because divided we fall, but united we all rise. I would say the next step would be when more fans are allowed to come to races, build an outreach program that gives 100 free tickets to inner city minorities to give them a chance to come to the races.”