Dirt will be back on NASCAR’s schedule next year and likely again on Easter Sunday if Fox Sports has its way.
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NASCAR delivered the most-watched race at Bristol Motor Speedway since 2016 on Sunday night, when an average of 4,000,000 viewers tuned in as the Cup Series raced on dirt roads for its second consecutive season.
It was the first time since NASCAR’s first season in 1949 that the Cup Series would race on Easter on purpose; 10 times before due to weather-related reschedules, most recently in 1989.
It was Fox who had asked NASCAR to use its traditional off-weekend to chase a primetime holiday crowd. Based on Sunday night’s numbers, Fox wants Easter in its planning talks.
“Look, we’re excited,” Bill Wanger, Fox Sports executive vice president and chief of programming and scheduling, told The Associated Press on Wednesday. “We’re talking to NASCAR about plans for ’23 and that’s obviously part of the mix.”
Despite two late rain delays, Bristol viewership was up 28% over last year’s race, which also had a rain delay but was held on a Monday in daylight. It was also 20% more than the ninth race of the year last season (Richmond).
The race was the most watched among the 18-to-49 demographic since the Daytona 500 in February.
“I like doing the dirt race, I think it’s a different format, and obviously the numbers go up when it’s on dirt,” Wanger said. “Also the younger demos on Easter with the dirt, we love the dirt.”
Bristol Motor Speedway president Jerry Caldwell has already said the 2023 spring race will be a gravel race for the third consecutive year, but noted the date has not yet been set.
Wanger didn’t have to consult a calendar to discuss NASCAR returning to primetime Fox at Easter. He knows that the holiday falls on April 9, 2023, which he says is known by television programmers as “Masters Sunday.”
NASCAR learned in its first year that the event had to take place at night due to visibility problems caused by the swirling Tennessee red clay that covered Bristol’s 0.533 mile concrete arena. Sunday’s race started at 7pm and a similar approach is expected next year.
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“The Masters is over at 7 a.m., and then we started our race coverage,” said Wanger, adding that the NBA will still be in the regular season by Easter in 2023. NASCAR ranks second as the most-watched sporting event of the weekend behind the first round of the NBA playoffs.
Television ratings were strong during the first eight races of the season, the first of NASCAR’s new Next Gen race car. The car debuted in February at the made-for-Fox Clash exhibit at the Los Angeles Coliseum, kicking off the season with a “rest” with an Ice Cube concert.
The Clash was followed by the sold-out, season-opening Daytona 500, the first in three years without rain. Wanger believes the momentum for the network started then and made it through the first nine races of the season.
He praised the collaboration between the television partners, track promoters and NASCAR led by President Steve Phelps and Ben Kennedy, the senior vice president of race development and strategy. Kennedy, 30, is the great-grandson of NASCAR’s founder and is credited with some of NASCAR’s more forward-thinking recent ideas.
Wanger said NASCAR set the tone for this season’s successful start in 2020, when it was one of the first professional sports leagues to resume competition at the start of the pandemic. NASCAR held events two months after the national shutdown and was the first league to complete the entire season.
“NASCAR has made some really great decisions during the pandemic,” Wanger said. “It was one of the few big sports that backed up and I think that helped get new viewers.”
Wanger said there could be an opportunity for other circuits to host an Easter race depending on where it falls on the calendar. For example, if Easter falls in March, it will probably be too cold for Bristol to host the race in the mountains of East Tennessee.
Promotion of the event is key and Fox was determined to sell Bristol on dirt as a major event on NASCAR’s 38 race schedule.
“What we’ve seen at Fox is that if you’re hosting a high-profile sporting event on vacation, you can show some numbers,” Wanger said.
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