FOR THE first time in more than two months, this week Australian and New Zealand motorsport fans had no racing to watch on a Wednesday night.
Okay, some don’t think that virtual motorsport is actually motorsport, but it did draw a large audience willing to sit on the couch in the middle of the week and enjoy a few hours of prime-time motorsport.
And that’s got me thinking – is there the chance to do more of it, you know, in the real world?
Weeknight racing is a staple in the United States, especially in Speedway and short-track series across the country, but this year it has become more mainstream thanks to NASCAR’s decision to race mid-week as well as on weekends.
Mid-week races hadn’t been staged in the top NASCAR series for decades, however growing pressure on the sanctioning body to dramatically shake up what some felt was a stale schedule had seen increasing discussion about the topic in recent years.
And then Covid hit and the old adage, through adversity comes opportunity, came to the fore; the delay to their season essentially handed NASCAR an opportunity to test the waters and see if Wednesday races would work, while at the same time making sure they squeezed in as many races as they could to make up for lost time.
Initially, the feedback was hugely positive.
The first weeknight race at the famous Darlington Raceway was a beauty, the racing intense and competitive despite everyone rolling in without any practice or qualifying beforehand. They backed it up with weeknight races at Charlotte and the Martinsville half-mile oval – in that instance, the first at the circuit under lights.
While the product has been good, fans and the broader industry, including many of the series regular media pack, have embraced the shorter races seen on Wednesday nights.
Regular NASCAR events often stretch well beyond the three-hour mark, the mid-week races have been run over a shorter distance and as such have timed in at just over two and a half hours.
While NASCAR has attempted to spice up their racing by introducing stages, essentially breaking up their long races into three shorter ones, the length of their events remains a major talking point within the series moving forward.
So while on the surface the (re) introduction of mid-week racing has been successful, it’s not quite as rosy as it seems because the TV ratings have not been good.
According to US industry site Sportsmediawatch.com, the three mid-week races rank in the 11 least watched races on TV since the year 2000. Martinsville and Charlotte were both in the bottom 10, while the first Wednesday night race at Darlington was just outside of it in 11th.
Given NASCAR has staged more than 30 races a year for the better part of those two decades, it is not an auspicious list to be on.
Context is required, of course. All three of the mid-week races have been shown on the Fox network’s cable channel, FS1, rather than the broadcast network. As it does here, it means less people will be watching.
The three races have averaged 1.78 million viewers, which is still more than IndyCar drew to the main NBC channel last Saturday night, US time.
And, broadly, NASCAR numbers have not been bad this year, up approximately 1% on their 2019 figures to the same point in the season. Still, it won’t be the kind of response that broadcasters and the series were hoping for to encourage them to do more mid-week racing.
Which brings us to the topic of Supercars and the potential for our home-grown series to also engage in some mid-week battles.
It’s been a constant talking point through the Coronavirus-enforced shutdown with plenty, us included, suggesting that the Supercars All Stars Eseries was something of a proof of concept for the series to introduce its own mid-week racing – a task made significantly easier thanks to the advent of permanent lighting at Sydney Motorsport Park.
While that wasn’t forthcoming in the first release of the revised 2020 Supercars calendar and will be unlikely to follow in a revised version, expected to be released soon, it remains an interesting talking point for the future.
While ratings for the Eseries started strongly and dropped over the course of the 10-week run, digital numbers were impressive at a time of the week when most are not thinking about motorsport.
There is little argument that Supercars owned Wednesday nights for more than two months and it stands to reason that a weeknight Supercars event would be a draw; especially if free-to-air coverage was wrangled as part of the deal.
A one-off event, as compared to the 10 consecutive weeks of the Eseries, would be very appealing.
What’s more, it’s already been proven; the only weeknight Supercars race in the series’ history was held in Perth last year. Racing under lights on Friday night, the race drew more than 350,000 on Fox Sports and Channel 10, despite being up against premium Friday Night Footy fixtures on Channels 7 and 9, as well as two other Fox Sports channels as well.
Racing mid-week removes the footy equation meaning the sport would have all they eyeballs to themselves.
And even footy has been pushing further into the week: Monday and Thursday night footy is now a staple in both Aussie Rules and the NRL.
Variables? If, when fans are allowed back to live sport, any would be able to attend a mid-week show in significant enough numbers to make it worthwhile is a key question. The same goes for the valuable corporates that underwrite so much of the sport.
The reality is, however, it’s probably too early to tell if it would work or not – the sample size is still small and the results seem either hit or miss, especially based on the NASCAR situation.
However, what is pleasing is that there’s real innovation and thought being put into reshaping the way we are accustomed to going racing.. which can only be a positive thing.
It will be interesting to see if it can become something more regular moving forward.