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Closing Shot: On The Rise With Bright Ideas

NASCAR moved its dirt track race to prime time on Easter Sunday, the latest of several bold decisions intended to shake up its schedule and draw more viewers to the sport.

By Erik Spanberg
Ryan Blaney, Chase Elliott and the rest of the field had to battle problems created by dust and sun at last year’s Food City Dirt Race — the first race on a dirt track for NASCAR’s top series since 1970 — which was won by Joey Logano.getty images

In March 2021, NASCAR’s top-tier Cup series ran a race on a dirt track for the first time in a half-century. Bristol Motor Speedway hosted the event, which resonated with younger fans but wasn’t without hiccups: Because it was scheduled in the afternoon — and then delayed a day because of rain — a combination of dust and sun created difficult conditions for drivers. Plus, the weather delay hurt attendance and chipped away at potentially larger TV ratings.

All of which gave Fox Sports and the track and NASCAR an idea: Why not move the race into prime time to improve visibility for the drivers and shift the date to Easter Sunday? NASCAR has traditionally not raced on that holiday, but as executives toyed with the idea, they seized on an additional benefit of a nighttime event: giving fans, drivers, and everyone else the first part of the day to celebrate the holiday.

Beyond that, “We thought through, you know what, there’s been such a movement of putting great sporting events on holidays,” Bill Wanger, Fox Sports executive vice president, head of programming and scheduling, told Sports Business Journal. “Over the last few years, take Thanksgiving-NFL, take Christmas-NBA, and most recently, Christmas-NFL. We felt there was an opportunity to create the next great holiday tradition with putting the Bristol dirt race on Easter night. That’s kind of how it came together.”

Brian Herbst, NASCAR senior vice president of media and productions, said the Easter prime-time race is representative of how everyone in the sport has become more willing to try new things to reach broader audiences. 

Last year, NASCAR held a Cup event on Mother’s Day, another date that has been mostly off-limits throughout stock car racing’s history, and it will be brought back this year. And NASCAR started 2022 with one of its most audacious switches, moving the exhibition Busch Light Clash to a custom-built temporary track at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum from Daytona. That event, also on Fox, attracted 4.3 million viewers, more than doubling viewership in 2021.

Speedway Motorsports, owner of Bristol and other tracks, and the company formerly known as International Speedway Corp., whose portfolio of speedways includes Darlington, both went from public to private companies in 2019. NASCAR’s Herbst said that those moves paved the way for trying new formats and locales for races without the pressure of quarterly Wall Street financial reports. Another big factor: NASCAR wrapped up five-year contracts with major tracks in 2020 and opted against renewing long-term arrangements to allow more wiggle room in scheduling.

Mike Burch, Speedway Motorsports chief operating officer, said that the company first wanted to make sure title sponsor Food City — which this year is celebrating its 30th anniversary backing the race — was comfortable with an Easter event. They were. Even so, Burch added, the company remained a bit hesitant.

“I think it was really a phone call between Eric Shanks and Marcus Smith that really kind of sealed the deal,” Burch said, referring to, respectively, the CEOs of Fox Sports and Speedway Motorsports. “[It was] Eric’s commitment to making sure that Easter could be observed in a meaningful way as part of the event weekend, that Fox was willing to commit resources to have some sort of televised celebration.”

Burch said advance ticket sales “have been phenomenal.” The three executives are hopeful that the Bristol race will become a new Easter tradition for NASCAR fans.

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