CHARLOTTE, NC (AP) — Dirt will be back on the NASCAR schedule next year and likely on Easter Sunday again if Fox Sports has its way.
NASCAR staged the most-watched race at Bristol Motor Speedway since 2016 on Sunday night, when an average of 4,007,000 viewers tuned in as the Cup series raced on dirt for the second consecutive season.
It was the first time since NASCAR’s inaugural season in 1949 that the Cup Series was deliberately scheduled to race over Easter; 10 times before were due to weather-related postponement, most recently in 1989.
It was Fox who had asked NASCAR to use its traditional weekend to hunt a prime-time holiday audience. Based on Sunday night’s numbers, Fox wants Easter in its planning conversations.
“Look, we’re thrilled,” Bill Wanger, executive vice president of Fox Sports and head of programming and scheduling, told The Associated Press on Wednesday. “We’re talking with NASCAR about plans for 23 and that’s obviously part of the mix.”
Despite two late rain delays, Bristol’s viewership was up 28 per cent on last year’s race, which was also rain-delayed but was held on a Monday during the day. It was also up 20% from last season’s ninth race of the year (Richmond).
The race was the most watched among 18 to 49 year olds since the Daytona 500 in February.
“I like having the race on dirt, I think it’s a different format and obviously the numbers go up when it’s on dirt,” Wanger said. “Also young Easter demos with dirt, we love dirt.”
Bristol Motor Speedway chairman Jerry Caldwell has previously said the 2023 spring race will be a dirt race for the third consecutive year, but noted the date has not been decided.
Wanger didn’t need to consult a calendar to discuss NASCAR’s return to Fox primetime next Easter. He knows the holiday falls on April 9, 2023, which he says is known to television programmers as “Masters Sunday.”
NASCAR learned during its first dirt year that the event was to take place at night due to visibility issues created by swirling red Tennessee clay covering Bristol’s .533-mile concrete arenas. Sunday’s race started at 7 p.m. and a similar approach would be expected next year.
“The Masters is over at 7, and that’s when we started our coverage of the race,” said Wanger, who added that the NBA would still be in its regular season come Easter 2023. NASCAR ranked second as the most-watched sporting event of the weekend. behind the first round of the NBA playoffs.
TV ratings were strong in the first eight races of the season, the premiere of NASCAR’s new Next Gen race car. The car debuted in the Fox-designed Clash exhibit at the Los Angeles Coliseum in January, a season kickoff that featured a “half-time” featuring an Ice Cube concert.
The Clash was followed by the sold-out season-opening Daytona 500, the first in three years unaffected by rain. Wanger believes the network’s momentum started then, and he completed the first nine races of the season.
He credited the collaboration between television partners, track promoters and NASCAR under the leadership of Chairman Steve Phelps and Ben Kennedy, the senior vice president of development and racing strategy. Kennedy, 30, is the great-grandson of the NASCAR founder and has been credited with some of NASCAR’s most progressive recent ideas.
Wanger said NASCAR set the tone for the successful start to this season in 2020 when it was one of the first professional sports leagues to resume competition at the start of the pandemic. NASCAR was holding events two months after the national shutdown and was the first league to complete its entire season.
“NASCAR during the pandemic really made some big decisions,” Wanger said. “It was one of the only big backup sports and I think it helped bring in some new viewers.”
Wanger said there could be an opportunity for other tracks to host an Easter race depending on where it is on the schedule. When Easter falls in March, for example, it will likely be too cold for Bristol to host the race in the mountains of eastern Tennessee.
Promotion of the event is key and Fox is committed to selling Bristol on land as a showpiece event on NASCAR’s 38-race schedule.
“What we’ve seen at Fox is that if you’re having a high profile sporting event over the holidays, you can show numbers,” Wanger said.
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