At a time when attention spans are short and as NASCAR deals with a generational gulf that sees it struggle to reach a younger audience, a possible solution comes to the forefront in Saturday’s Xfinity Series race at Bristol Motor Speedway.
In a concept unveiled in January, Bristol is the first of four races in NASCAR’s second-tier series that will feature a pair of heats preceding the main event. The twin heats won’t award points nor count as an official race, but will determine the starting lineup and seen as a way to divide one big block of racing into more manageable segments.
For example, Saturday’s event is no longer a straightforward 300-lap race as in years past. Instead, it’s now comprised of two 50-lap heats with the main reduced to a 200-lap contest.
While on the surface it may sound gimmicky, just another NASCAR mechanism to recapture a fan base not as enchanted as they once were, heat races are common in lower divisions of stock car racing and used to great acclaim when the Truck Series makes its annual visit to the Eldora Speedway dirt track.
When you consider the average time of a 2015 Sprint Cup Series race was 3 hours and 12 minutes (excluding rain delays and not accounting for two events shortened due to weather), the idea long bandied about within the industry and publicly advocated by several drivers, needs to go beyond just a one-off at Eldora.
The length of races is primarily due to NASCAR historically setting premier division events at 500 miles, viewed as the proper gauge to test man and machine alike, and in recent years preferring a distance of 400 miles. But as drivers better conditioned themselves and with mechanical reliability less of a factor, the allure of 500 miles became less relevant and even some 400-mile events have grown mundane.
Although not every race would require heats, for a bulk of the tracks on the Cup schedule the revised format presents significant appeal. What’s intriguing more to a television viewer: two heats and a 300-mile main at Pocono Raceway, which comes with natural breaks; or a 400-mile race with moderate intensity?
In a culture where consumers have myriad options and sports across the spectrum continually cultivate ways to captivate the eyeballs of a society that’s easily distracted, condensed races that amplifies the action present an ideal solution — and allow tracks to provide the same value to those attending, albeit in a different form.
Think of it as a five-course meal re-portioned into a more palatable three-course spread.
“I think it’s exciting for the fans,” said Erik Jones, ranked fifth in Xfinity points. “I think it’s a good idea — something to change it up. I think we’re doing the right thing and taking the right steps to doing things that have been voiced by the fans that is something different than what’s been done in the past.”
The current format that sees every driver transfer into the main, therefore siphoning any drama, isn’t perfect but it certainly represents a start. The prism for how Bristol, Richmond International Raceway (April 23), Dover International Speedway (May 14) and Indianapolis Motor Speedway (July 23) should be seen is as a four-race live-action trial to formalize the ideal template that then is applied liberally to Cup events going forward.
Because if attention spans are to continuing being short, then it behooves NASCAR to adjust its races accordingly.