When NASCAR announced before the September 16 Bristol Night Race that the 2024 spring version of the race on The World’s Fastest Half-Mile would be changed from dirt back to concrete, many purists rejoiced, as it felt like the governing body’s decision had verified their long-held belief that dirt was never intended for the high-banked track in the Appalachian Mountains.
However, the latest TV ratings for the 2023 night edition were released on September 17, and when looking back on numbers for the last three years of both races, it appears NASCAR might have made a major mistake.
Bristol Night Race Numbers Show a Dramatic Decline
The Bristol Night Race, what some fans consider the best of the season and worthy of crown jewel status, delivers a short-track special each year, with plenty of beating and banging, hot tempers, and a conflict or two. Chase Elliott and Kevin Harvick in 2021 comes to mind.
While the event has historically produced entertaining races, that isn’t necessarily reflected in the most recent television ratings, according to Sports Media Watch.
This year, 1.562 million viewers tuned in to watch the race in The Last Great Colosseum, which ranked 14th overall for the whole day, behind a dozen college football games or related activities, including post-game shows and ESPN’s SportsCenter.
What’s concerning is this year’s number is a 12% decline from the 2022 version, which pulled in 1.776 million viewers. And those numbers are an even sharper drop-off of 20% from the year before, with 2.20 million watching in 2021.
Bristol Dirt Race Viewers Have Been Solid for Three Years
There’s no denying that the television ratings from the Bristol Night Race are on a sharp downward trajectory, dropping a total of 29% from 2021 to 2023. What’s even more problematic is that those numbers look significantly worse when compared to their dirt brethren.
If you’ll recall, the inaugural Bristol Dirt Race in 2021 was delayed until Monday because of torrential rains and flooding around the track. Despite that date change, 3.11 million managed to tune in for the race.
Critics of the dirt event suggested it was a novelty that produced general curiosity, so viewership would naturally be elevated, with many of the skeptics predicting a drop in the second year. That didn’t happen.
In 2022, those numbers on dirt went the opposite direction of the fall race, dramatically growing to an impressive 4.007 million viewers or a 22% increase from the first year.
That brings us to this year – the 2023 dirt edition. On April 9, Easter Sunday, 3.45 million watched the first driver with a dirt background take a trip to victory lane after Joe Gibbs Racing driver Christopher Bell out-dueled his Toyota teammate Tyler Reddick in Thunder Valley.
While this year’s viewership total from the Dirt Race is a 14% decline from last year’s number, it’s still more than double the number of people who tuned in to watch this year’s Night Race.
What Does the Future Hold?
The one caveat critics will point out is how all three Bristol Dirt Races were carried on Fox and the night events in the fall were shown on NBC’s cable networks of NBCSN and USA, resulting in the difference in viewership numbers. That theory is partially accurate. The numbers for the spring race on concrete in 2019 and 2020, both carried on FS1, were still lower than the dirt ratings, but not significantly at 2.81 million and 2.93 million, respectively.
In the end, Fox opting to move the spring dirt race to its main channel while NBC showing the fall race on cable is a network decision, which ultimately, NASCAR has control over when it signs the contracts with its partners. NASCAR is currently in the middle of negotiations with potential broadcast partners for the next TV package set to begin in 2025 and there’s no reason to believe it couldn’t request certain stipulations, including where the races are shown for maximum television exposure.
Based solely on the numbers, the NASCAR fans watching on TV, which are considerably higher than those attending a race each weekend, are more enthusiastic about watching the Cup Series and other series drivers battle on the dirt than on the concrete.
NASCAR’s decision to remove the dirt in 2024 from Bristol has been made. There’s no going back on it now. But when looking at those ratings from both races over the last three seasons, it does make one pause and wonder if the decision-makers were listening too much to what an outspoken segment of racing fans had to say on social media instead of paying attention to the numbers, which clearly indicate that dirt is the more appealing product.