The NextGen car, for all of its supply-chain issues, lug nut controversies, and door number position debates, has done what it set out to do.
Ten of this season’s 14 points-paying Cup races have been decided with a pass within the final ten laps. There have been 11 different race winners, enough to prompt questions about what would happen if more than 16 drivers win before the regular season concludes. Justin Marks has convinced F1 champion Kimi Räikkönen to come out of retirement and make an appearance for Trackhouse Racing at Watkins Glen. The Coca-Cola 600 was arguably the best race of the season.
But the ratings have been generally flat, and three of the last five weeks have seen lower ratings than their respective events last year.
I said it in May, and I’ll say it again now: good racing alone won’t save NASCAR’s ratings, especially as NASCAR’s audience grows ever-older while Formula 1 snatches up Gen-Z and Millennial viewers left and right.
At the very end of my piece What Can NASCAR Learn From F1’s American Success, I cited an article written by Elizabeth Blackstock for Jalopnik about the years-long advertising campaign undertaken by Formula One owners Liberty Media and marketing company WARC:
“The goal was to hook the audience into multiple narratives, treating each race as the latest episode in a great, unfolding drama.
There was just one problem: Fans didn’t realize that.
[One of the documents prepared by WARC] noted that fans time and again claimed that “speed” was the thing that drew them to F1, but that real-world evidence consistently proved that as untrue. . . but it turned out that what fans actually wanted was competition”.
Arguably, this was the most important point in my earlier piece, and I only mentioned it in passing. For whatever reason(s), motorsports fans are terrible at describing what we like.
More than fast cars, engineering prowess, or high-dollar payouts, the thing that pulls us in are stories.
My father has been a car enthusiast his whole life, a trait he inherited from his father just as I did from him. Growing up in Massachusetts, his basic knowledge of motorsports came from ABC’s The Wide World of Sports, but it held no real appeal. By young adulthood, he’d rather work on his own Plymouth Roadrunner than watch Richard Petty drive one.
By the time I started watching NASCAR regularly at the age of 9, he thought it was silly. “Professional wrestling on wheels,” he always called it. The cars all looked the same, and he didn’t care who won.
At the end of 2020, my dad became obsessed with Mercedes-Benz engineering history, and suddenly started lingering in the living room when my brother and I watched Lewis Hamilton win Grand Prix after Grand Prix on the way to his seventh World Championship.
By Abu Dhabi 2021, Mr. Swansey was a full-fat member of Team LH. Wrenching on a twenty-year-old SL500, he felt a connection to the Mercedes-AMG F1 team for the first time. That’s all it takes.
NASCAR’s current TV advertising campaign, “I AM NASCAR,” has been running for a few years now at this point and has, unfortunately, coincided with a few years of annual viewership decline. I’m sure you’ve seen the ads, considering they are often played multiple times during a single race.
These spots feature a montage of short action shots: crashes, burnouts, pack racing, while a man with an impossibly deep voice makes abstract claims about what NASCAR means.
“I am chaos, I am the will to win, I am NASCAR.” What does that give a potential new fan to latch on to? I don’t have access to the numbers on this, but I doubt that’s enough to convince a newbie to tune in. Especially if the race doesn’t end up being a no-holds-barred demolition derby, they’ll walk away disappointed.
I’ve said it before, NASCAR needs to plan its media around the fact that some races won’t be all-time classics and still have something to offer new fans in the boring ones. I don’t think the solution is a NASCAR-themed clone of Drive to Survive. As Blackstock said, DtS was the pinnacle of a years-long marketing push that coincided with a few months when everyone had nothing to do other than watch Netflix.
No, the solution is staring NASCAR in the face. After all, it’s what NASCAR does best: TV advertising.
My big fix to NASCAR’s viewership problem is to turn the “I AM NASCAR” TV ads into 30-second episodes of Drive to Survive. Imagine this:
FADE IN to see Tyler REDDICK sitting on a stool, facing the camera. He’s wearing his FIRESUIT. He looks comfortable.
Yeah, I’ve lost a race in just about every way possible.
MONTAGE of FOX broadcast, Tyler Reddick having tire failures, engine trouble, and the last lap of Dirt Bristol.
Low angle of Reddick walking to the grid in SLOW-MOTION.
Everyone says it’s only a matter of time, but I’m done waiting.
Back in the studio, Reddick stares down the camera.
I’m ready to prove I can compete at this level. It’s time to prove I belong.
My name is Tyler Reddick. I am NASCAR.
Then imagine another one where Ross Chastain reacts to having the spotlight suddenly on him. Bubba Wallace trying to explain how he feels going to Talladega. A whole series of them for the drivers on the playoff bubble approaching Daytona. Justin Marks explaining his vision for Trackhouse Racing.
And air these ads exactly where NASCAR airs them right now: before, after, and most importantly during the race.
With an advertising campaign that allows the drivers to honestly present themselves, NASCAR could take the first steps towards mainstream knowledge of the characters of its “great, unfolding drama.”
Yes, NASCAR needs to convince people to tune in for the first time, but more importantly it needs these potential new fans to keep watching when they do. NASCAR can’t assume that the general public knows any drivers by name any more. It’s been a long, long time since Jeff Gordon hosted SNL.
In the very least, people could know Tyler Reddick (for example) as “that guy from all those commercials,” but that’s a start. Anyone who tunes in on the basis of that ad would have a passing knowledge of at least one of NASCAR’s storylines, enough to give them a favorite driver and a reason to keep watching.
Or someone who stumbles across NASCAR when flipping channels would see that ad during a commercial break, and understand a new dynamic in the very race they’re watching.
These ads would even offer something to die-hard fans! I wrote a script, but these ads should really be documentaries. Existing fans would then get a little more content with their favorite drivers, and maybe a unique insight into their mindset.
NASCAR has an opportunity to learn from F1 and piggyback off of its international rival’s success. A rising tide lifts all boats. This is a fantastic time to be a fan of motorsports. People are willing to put their eyes on screens and butts in seats for race cars. NASCAR just needs to give them a better reason to.
Featured Image from Pat Vallely