Well, the numbers are in. Last Sunday, (May 8) NASCAR’s Goodyear 400 on FS1 averaged a 1.45 rating with 2.614 million viewers. Formula 1’s Miami Grand Prix, which began at the same time on ABC, averaged a rating of 1.08 and 2.6 million viewers. F1 beat NASCAR in the 18-49 demographic, 735,000 to 517,000.
Yes, the old-school NASCAR types can claim a narrow victory with the outright numbers, and F1’s owners Liberty Media can be satisfied that the Miami Grand Prix set a record for live F1 viewers in the U.S. even while going head-to-head with American motorsports’ 800-pound gorilla.
But F1’s edge in the (highly desirable to advertisers) 18-to-49 demo might be the key figure that speaks to the trend. Formula 1 is growing while NASCAR is in decline.
As a fan of both series (as well as IndyCar, my special child who can do no wrong) I am a firm believer that a rising tide lifts all boats, as Josef Newgarden paraphrased from John F. Kennedy. I watched both races, as I imagine, did a significant portion of the people who will read this article. NASCAR doesn’t necessarily have to fear F1’s greater presence in the American market. To the American layperson, NASCAR is still the default form of auto racing (if it ever was. . . most Americans only know the Indy 500 by name).
So, instead of pitting their respective fanbases against one another on Twitter yet again, (with IndyCar the proverbial NC State in the Duke-Carolina flame war) I’d rather have the more productive conversation: what can NASCAR learn from F1’s success in America?
A lot of NASCAR fans believe that good racing speaks for itself, that once the on-track product is more competitive, the fans who lost interest during years of Jimmie Johnson domination will come back. To this end, the Next Gen car has been an incredible success. Other than die-hard Larson fans, who is less satisfied with 2022 than they were with 2021? Denny Hamlin, maybe.
In the last month, the most boring finish we’ve had is the one where NASCAR’s most popular driver broke his winless streak. There have been 10 different winners in 12 races, and cars can pass in clean air again.
Yet we see ratings at best even with last year’s, when Kyle Larson won pretty much every week.
The Next Gen car has absolutely produced a satisfying on-track product in almost every race, but satisfying the fans who are already watching and getting new eyeballs on the sport are different challenges.
F1’s massive growth came during the most intense and sustained period of dominance by one team and driver in international motorsports history. Mercedes won the World Championship every year between 2014 and 2020. Last year Lewis Hamilton was one lap away from winning his seventh title in eight years. Barring unforeseen circumstances, only two drivers could realistically be expected to contend for the win, and F1’s ratings kept going up. Why?
In 2017, longtime Formula 1 boss and pint-sized autocrat Bernie Ecclestone sold Formula 1 to the American conglomerate Liberty Media. Yes, they did the deal with Netflix that gave the world Drive to Survive, but there was a more immediate and influential change that kicked off this explosion. Liberty Media encouraged teams and drivers to use social media.
The American cultural landscape has shifted since the era of peak NASCAR in the late ‘90s and early aughts. Post-Cold War and eventually post-9/11 America was the perfect audience for NASCAR’s comfortable status-quo nationalism and pop-consumer culture. This was the era when Pepsi pretended to give away a Harrier jump jet in a TV commercial, after all.
But the Great Recession marked the end of NASCAR’s boom years. To some NASCAR fans lamenting the loss of the golden age, the debut of the Car of Tomorrow and Jimmie Johnson’s five consecutive titles overshadow the significance of the major sociopolitical shift of my lifetime.
The twin juggernauts of social media and streaming video, and resulting reorganization of popular culture into insular digital communities obsessed with policing their own boundaries, is fundamentally unsuited to the type of broad appeal NASCAR cultivated during the era of cable television.
NASCAR’s culture is incredibly distinctive. We know its unwritten rules. When is it okay to shove another guy out of the way? Why do you take your helmet off before taking a swing at someone?
NASCAR’s biggest challenge as F1 expands is that NASCAR’s culture was inherently better suited to the cable television era. Formula 1 is incredibly well-suited to social media. I wrote this in my NASCAR Fan’s Guide to F1:
[F1 rivalries] can get nasty, with dirty tricks, bold-faced lies, and simmering resentment that builds up over years – since F1’s more buttoned-up culture discourages the kind of. . . let’s say, physical conflict resolution NASCAR is known for.
NASCAR was founded by moonshine-running outlaws after a good time. Formula 1 was created by European aristocrats who had been trying to kill each other in World War II five years earlier.
Formula 1 rivalries are long-term grudges, sustained by snide remarks and subtweeting, that occasionally bubble to the surface when two cars barely make contact. NASCAR rivalries are usually over after three races, a crash, and a fistfight.
I do honestly think it’s healthier for the drivers to handle things NASCAR’s way: they get everything off their chest and move on. It’s unlikely Chase Elliott thinks that much about Kevin Harvick these days, but the biggest story out of Imola was that Max Verstappen lapped Lewis Hamilton. Verstappen’s dad threw shade on social media, the Orange Army and TeamLH were at each other’s throats, making moral arguments against the drivers they don’t like. F1’s culture doesn’t demand you say your driver’s rival “sucks,” you have to call them evil.
(As an F1 fan, I both can recognize that this is a deeply toxic practice, and also participate in it wholeheartedly. I think that one of F1’s top two stars is evil. I’m sure if you know me, you know who it is, but it would be improper to reveal that now).
So, step one: NASCAR needs its drivers to maintain long-term grudges, and counter-intuitively, the best way to achieve that is an end to “boys, have at it.” The closest thing NASCAR ever had to 2021’s Hamilton-Verstappen rivalry was Dale Sr. and Jeff Gordon in the mid-90s. NASCAR of the era discouraged drivers from extensive on-track contact, believing it made the sport look unprofessional. They never came to blows, it was just racing and name-calling, but Earnhardt versus Gordon is the defining rivalry of modern NASCAR: The Intimidator vs. Wonder Boy, the South vs. the West Coast, the old-school vs. the new.
What Can NASCAR Learn From F1’s American Success and A League Of Their Own?
In this section I’m going to criticize the playoff format. I don’t necessarily think that NASCAR has to get rid of the playoffs to adapt to American motorsports’ British Invasion, but it is a great example of an area NASCAR is underperforming F1.
How was F1 able to make one of the most uncompetitive stretches of its history into must-see racing? This is where the Drive To Survive stuff comes in: F1 has been better able to present itself as a human melodrama.
Here I’ll quote my thesis:
[Racing] fandom is a heightened and hyperbolic interpretation of what happens on the racetrack that extends far beyond its barriers. Fans choose their heroes and villains and invest the result with emotional and moral significance. Their cheers can drown out the sound of the engines when a popular driver takes the lead.
Sports fandom is human melodrama, there is nothing wrong with that. As much, or more, than the action on the track, fans are interested in the stories of its characters. I reject the old-school fan platitude that race car drivers of today have no personality. Usually, this accompanies some kind of tweet about Noah Gragson being the next big thing, as though “love-him-or-hate-him asshole” is the end-all-be-all of personality.
F1 stars have extremely varied personalities: the intense Verstappen, the goofy Russell, reserved Vettel, and world-weary Alonso, who carries the weight of unrealized hopes and dreams on his walnut-cracking shoulders. They don’t all appeal to everybody, but they appeal very strongly to their fans.
NASCAR isn’t different. Tyler Reddick is chill. Chase Briscoe is earnest. Ryan Blaney is cool. Kyle Busch is a love-him-or-hate-him asshole (you still need some of those guys). The most successful NASCAR driver by F1’s popularity metric is Alex Bowman. Putting the mean things other drivers say about him on T-shirts for his fans to buy could go a long way towards engaging fans in long-term rivalries while also demonstrating his character to both old fans and potential new ones: Alex Bowman is snarky.
Where F1 does have the advantage over NASCAR is in suspense.
TV commercials for NASCAR promise a crash every lap and a fistfight at the end of every race. Setting aside whether or not it’s morally okay to advertise based on crashes, (as much as we’d rather not admit it, crashes are part of NASCAR’s appeal) this isn’t authentic to the experience of watching NASCAR. What happens when a race is boring?
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: F1 races are incredible slow-burn drama. In the last three F1 Grands Prix, there has been one on-track pass for the lead, and yet nobody wants F1 to institute stage racing to make it more exciting.
The playoffs (here we go) were specifically instituted to create so-called “Game Seven Moments.” At first, this was an overwhelming success. Many NASCAR fans can remember the inaugural elimination Chase in 2014 moment-by-moment. It was an incredible year for NASCAR. There hasn’t been another playoffs on that level ever since. To paraphrase Syndrome from The Incredibles, when every year is special, none of them are. Not every World Series goes to seven games.
So NASCAR needs something to spice up the stuff in between the big moments. F1 has done this in a way that works with the social media/streaming environment by playing up its political intrigue. F1’s team bosses are now so famous that the Las Vegas Grand Prix will give them the same introductions as the drivers. I can do an impression of Haas F1’s team principal and casual fans will get the jokes. This isn’t only accessible through Drive to Survive, it is a fully-fledged part of the F1 fan experience.
NASCAR has its own unique behind-the-scenes relationships that are primed for this kind of breakout stardom. In my opinion, the driver-crew chief-spotter relationships could be better incorporated into NASCAR’s ongoing melodrama. Sell it to fans as though drivers have a built-in father figure and a built-in best friend, and then exploit the tension in those relationships. Use team radio like F1 does, not just to convey messages about strategy and car performance, but to emphasize the emotional reactions of the team members to what’s going on. Intrigue, sass, celebrations: motorsports can give us this insight into what the athletes are thinking during the event.
One final point about melodrama and Game Seven Moments. Last night I watched A League of Their Own for the first time. I adore Geena Davis, but I had never seen the movie before. I’m not a regular sports fan, I only watch racing. I’m just not able to get interested in any sport that isn’t legally classified as non-sporting entertainment in India (foreshadowing, btw).
I wasn’t expecting to love a baseball movie, but I thought it was fantastic, and if I had only watched the Game Seven scene, I wouldn’t have cared. Game Seven of the Women’s World Series requires the rest of A League of Their Own to work. Memorable moments in sporting history require fans to experience the buildup to feel special. Someone who just tunes in for the playoff finale won’t enjoy it; if the whole movie were just Game Seven moments, it wouldn’t be anything.
NASCAR has spent the last two decades chasing special moments and ignoring the stuff in the middle. It seems like NASCAR only wants us to remember races for their finishes even if a battle for third, an incredible underdog performance, a heartbreaking mechanical failure, or yes, even a big crash, could be the lasting memory of a particular race.
Matt DiBenedetto finished 6th for BK Racing at Bristol in 2016. Who won that race?
What Can NASCAR Learn From F1’s American Success and Bollywood Musicals?
If there is one thing in life I like almost as much as NASCAR, it’s Bollywood movies. Seriously. Om Shanti Om is on Netflix right now, and it is the greatest movie ever made. It tells the story of an aspiring actor in the 1970s Mumbai film industry who falls in love with a star who is secretly married to an evil producer, who murders both of them to advance his career. Then the aspiring actor is reincarnated as the son of an even bigger star and achieves all his dreams, but gets his old memories back and has to take revenge on the evil producer for murdering him and the woman he loved. It is a three-hour-long epic action romantic comedy ghost story revenge musical, full of references, quotes, and cameos from the golden era of Hindi-language cinema in the 1970s.
The reason I love Bollywood movies is that they present their over-the-top emotional melodrama completely seriously. Yes, Om Shanti Om, is full of pop-culture references, but the characters aren’t the ones making them. The hero doesn’t say “Oh, this is just like Star Wars” in the middle of saving the world. Om Shanti Om isn’t Deadpool. Nobody quips in this movie. There isn’t the modern American blockbuster uncomfortability with strong emotional beats. It is still hilarious, by the way. Shah Rukh Khan, the star, is an incredibly gifted comedian, but he plays the romantic and action scenes completely straightforward.
Yes, Bollywood movies are relevant to this conversation. They are melodramatic, intentionally so, just like motorsports. They are able to be successful by managing the presentation of this melodrama to their audience. NASCAR, as of late, hasn’t.
Let me paraphrase English scholar Peter Brooks here. An audience won’t necessarily take a melodramatic work at face value. There is always a bit of ironic detachment to the way viewers interpret something melodramatic. It is necessarily larger than life, unrealistic, and that’s going to be a bit silly.
NASCAR is a bit silly. We watch forty brightly colored cars drive around in circles for four hours with millions of dollars on the line. Companies put their logos on the cars to try and sell us everything from laundry detergent to car insurance to NFTs. F1 is exactly the same. The fact that the results of this competition are so unbelievably important to the people competing as well as us, the fans, is kind of strange, if you think about it in a vacuum. But the whole point is that it doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Motorsports are an ongoing melodramatic narrative and we take it seriously. Kind of. Sometimes we do silly impressions of Guenther Steiner.
But F1 media would never do a silly impression of Guenther Steiner on the pre-race show. And I think that’s the difference.
FOX started the Richmond broadcast with a skit about a talking watermelon seed in Ross Chastain’s beard. It’s since been torn to shreds by just about everyone, but it’s worth analyzing exactly why it failed to impress.
For NASCAR’s racing melodrama to work, it has to take itself completely seriously with the knowledge that its fans are going to make fun of it for that. The social-media mainstream, particularly among my generation, Gen-Z, has an ironic appreciation for sincerity. Sometimes it is hard to tell if you are supposed to laugh at something or appreciate it for being sincere in a way that you are too self-conscious to publicly present. We are “post-irony,” if you want to call it that, but at the same time, to mis-quote Parks and Recreation, everything we do has to be cloaked in like fifteen layers of irony.
I’m not saying jokes about the watermelon seed in Chastain’s beard aren’t funny, or even that they aren’t a way to improve NASCAR’s popularity. It just shouldn’t be FOX that does them. We aren’t in the age of cable television any more. Fans consume NASCAR media that doesn’t come through official channels. The networks should take NASCAR seriously with the knowledge that fans are going to express their genuine appreciation by poking fun at it on social media and making it their own.
Chastain’s completely intentional performance of the “Melon Man” persona is actually a great example. It’s a ridiculous thing to do: smashing a watermelon when he wins a race, plastering his race car with watermelon stickers and wearing a hat with a watermelon face on it, but it definitely draws our attention and makes Chastain memorable. I firmly believe that he both knows it’s silly and does it out of a genuine love for watermelon.
And that’s the thing, taking itself seriously while being completely over-the-top is what makes NASCAR what it is. This is a sport where we point at a 700-horsepower V8 racecar and say “that’s a Camry.” Fundamentally, we know it’s not a Camry, it’s a quarter-million-dollar custom built racecar covered in M&M’s stickers that sort of looks like what a two-door Camry would look like if such a car existed, and also looked cooler than that.
NASCAR’s melodramatic potential is already a part of the sport, it just needs to be pulled out in a different way to appeal to contemporary social media-based fandom. Formula 1’s impressive growth in that sphere can serve as a guideline, but NASCAR has its own unique characteristics and distinctive culture that can complement F1 without needing to compete with it.
These changes I’ve suggested won’t compromise NASCAR’s character, or even cost anything to implement, but they can better position the sport within the current pop-cultural landscape. As much as fans might love the simple narrative, Drive To Survive isn’t single-handedly responsible for F1’s growth in the American market. Elizabeth Blackstock reported for Jalopnik at the beginning of this month that DtS was only the tip of the iceberg for Liberty Media, only the focal point in a ground-up redesign of the way Formula 1 was advertised.
NASCAR needs to do the same.
Featured Image from RaceFans.net