Three-day Cup Series weekends will be fewer in 2018, according to NASCAR’s president.
The typical Cup race weekend for a Sunday race begins with practice and qualifying on Friday followed by practice on Saturday, the day before the race. NASCAR has experimented with two-day race weekends for four races in 2017, and Brent Dewar told NASCAR.com those type of weekends will be more common in 2018.
“Our feedback has been really on the positive side,” Dewar said. “We’ve tried something different. I think there was kind of a mixed message early on, that we were cutting back the weekend. That’s the furthest thing from the truth. What we’re trying to do is be more thoughtful to having greater fan experiences. You’ll see more of this direction next year. The goal going forward is to keep innovating and try different things, and to do more of that direction.”
Two-day race weekends are common for Saturday night races, but are uncommon for Sunday races. In the four races NASCAR has tried the condensed weekends — Indianapolis, Pocono, Watkins Glen and Martinsville — Friday activities at the track have been replaced by fan fests involving drivers.
Moving the official start of race weekend to Saturday can help teams save money with one fewer day where road crews have to be on the road. And in an era where dollars are harder and harder to come by, that’s not a bad thing.
NASCAR spending is the epitome of the analogy of putting toothpaste back in a tube. As teams learned to spend extravagantly as sponsor dollars were plentiful, it’s hard to cut back when the money gets scarcer. Shorter weekends are a step to putting at least a little bit of the toothpaste back in the tube.
The sanctioning body has tried to call these two-day weekends “enhanced” weekends, because no new initiative in the sport can’t go without branding. In reality, they’re shorter weekends, no matter what anyone from NASCAR tries to tell you. The four “enhanced” weekends in 2017 each have featured approximately an hour less practice time than the corresponding race weekend in 2016.
In an era where teams run hundreds of simulations before getting to the track, an hour less practice time may be more of an impact for the few thousand fans who typically go to a NASCAR track on Friday. And while that number of fans at a track on a Friday may be small, they’re also fervent. Or they may be new and experiencing NASCAR on the cheap. Committing to a Friday of practice and qualifying at the track is often a fraction of the cost of a race ticket.
Is the affordability for race teams more important than fans’ affordability? It’s a worthy question, even if the needs of a few thousand race fans are probably collectively worth less than the needs of the garage.
The expansion of two-day race weekends needs to be done carefully, however. Once Labor Day weekend hits, NASCAR falls behind the NFL, college football and Major League baseball on the weekend sporting spectrum. Taking away Fridays at the track in the fall may be self-defeating.
Fridays at the track are typically full of press conferences. Those press conferences, along with qualifying, give NASCAR a chance to establish storylines in a less-cluttered media environment. Remember, this is a sport that needs eyeballs more than ever. Moving press conferences and all at-track activity to Saturday gets the sport drowned out by college football. And Sundays are still owned by the NFL.
If NASCAR wants to move to more two-day weekends, they need to happen from February through September to minimize the impact of lessened media exposure. Once football season — along with NASCAR’s playoffs — begins, three-day weekends should be the norm so NASCAR can remind casual fans that it exists during football season.
Shortened race weekends are a novel idea and could go a long way to helping the sport survive in a more streamlined fashion. But they need to be utilized appropriately. Otherwise they could end up doing more harm than good.
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