INDIANAPOLIS — Now that the start times for both the 2022 NASCAR Cup Series as well as the NTT IndyCar Series are out, one under the radar thing you’d notice is a lack of races in primetime. While that’s not necessarily a big deal, it’s one that can’t go unnoticed.
See, in the 90’s, as crowds came to race tracks in droves, a shift started taking place. Why not add lights to these places and run under the lights? A primetime race is aesthetically pleasing to all parties.
Plus, this is dating back to racing’s roots. Short track Saturday night shows. Why not do it on a bigger stage? Those worked at the grassroots levels. Why not take it to the top?
A night time race helps for cooler conditions. Plus, there’s not much sexier than a race car traveling at the speeds that they do under the lights. They look faster and the aroma feels stronger.
But, as we turned into a new pandemic driven decade, race tracks, TV networks and the racing series’ in general have found that night races aren’t as highly demanded as they once were.
Night races may look faster and have better conditions, but day racing has more action. With an emphasis on engineering and downforce on race cars, night time naturally adds more grip and with more grip adds less passing.
Day racing means slipping and sliding and way less grip. These conditions naturally create more action. In turn, they’re better shows which better shows bring better crowds.
Just take a look at the 17 race INDYCAR schedule. None of them will run under the lights so long as there’s no delays. Texas, Iowa and World Wide Technology Raceway all have lights and have each been night races on the schedule. Now, neither of them will have any needs to use lights.
Texas is a 12:30 ET start which is 11:30 locally. Both Iowa races are at 4 ET and 3 ET respectively in late July. That’s 3 and 2 CT time starts. Gateway is a 6 ET start which is also 5 locally. All these races will be completed before nightfall.
A big reason to this is it gives fans time to drive back home. Gateway would be done by 8 ET. Fans in Indy can get back home by midnight or shortly after. Same for Iowa which on a Sunday would wrap up by 5 ET and too get fans home at or near midnight.
Plus, with NBC airing 14 of the 17 races, they have proven that they don’t want racing in primetime. It’s a hard sale. During summer months, not many people devote their evening sitting inside watching a race.
So, they elected to not have to worry about it.
NASCAR is the same way too. They’re also willing to go back to being on Sunday’s again. They have just six of their 36 races starting at or near nightfall. Only three of those races are on Saturday night (Martinsville, Coke Zero Sugar 400 at Daytona, Bristol) with three more on Sunday night (Bristol Dirt, Coke 600, Southern 500). That’s down from 8 of 10 in 2010.
In 2009 and 2010 the Cup Series had 10 scheduled night races on the schedule. They were at Phoenix, Richmond (x2), Darlington, Charlotte (x2), Daytona, Chicago, Bristol and Atlanta.
Richmond went from a pair of night races annually to half day half night to now all Sunday afternoon’s. Kansas will be a day race against the NFL next Fall. Why Sunday’s and not utilizing Saturday night’s anymore?
“I think from a fan perspective our fans, again, are accustomed to tuning in on Sunday afternoon and seeing NASCAR Cup Series racing,” said Ben Kennedy of NASCAR. “For a fan going out there to the track, to have the biggest event of the weekend on that Sunday afternoon I think gives them something to look forward to and builds anticipation around the weekend.
“I would say a lot of our fans, myself included, are accustomed to turning racing on, NASCAR racing in particular, on Sunday afternoon. I think we all have that habit. Certainly helped us kind of drive the decision to move that there.”
Plus, among the past tracks with lights, Phoenix, Richmond and Atlanta doesn’t use theirs anymore for Cup with both visits now being day races. Chicago is also gone.
The shift is clear. Lights are basically a backup plan now for tracks for the event rain pushes them to night to complete.