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Commentary: Weeknight races a great idea that won't happen

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INDIANAPOLIS – A quick comment in a pre-Brickyard 400 press conference just piqued a bit of curiosity.

Ryan Newman, the 2013 Brickyard winner and a NASCAR veteran, said the one thing he’d do if he were in charge of the sport was to schedule some of the summer races on Wednesday nights.

Quelle horreur! Sacre bleu!

OK, no self-respecting NASCAR fan is ever going to speak French. But, translated, “there’s no way that would work. NASCAR is a Sunday (and Saturday night) sport!”

Let’s be honest. Weekends are for track attendance. Weeknights are for television. But in 2014, professional sports have essentially become TV shows, with the in-arena crowd the studio audience.  

Attendance is down virtually across the board in NASCAR. It’s become a broken record throughout sports – NFL teams, including the Colts, were facing playoff blackouts last year. Even some of the bluest of the blue-blood college football programs are having difficulty filling their seats.

Meanwhile, NASCAR is receiving a sum somewhere close to the GDP of a small country from Fox and NBC Sports for television rights for the next decade.

Newman’s point was that NASCAR could run the same number of races, but give drivers and teams more weekends off – essentially compacting the schedule.

There could be side benefits – clearing weekends for fans who would otherwise watch a race on television to attend local short tracks, for example.

NASCAR does the one-day shows with Nationwide and truck races often – roll in, practice in the morning, qualify in the afternoon, race at night and be on the way to the next city the next day.

A few hurdles would have to be overcome. First off, a significant amount of the money a track receives is from that gate attendance. A weeknight race obviously would significantly depress attendance, which means NASCAR would have to either guarantee more television money, or give the track a break on its sanctioning fee. Second, most major racetracks – the kind large enough to host a NASCAR date – often have to make up their operating cost in a couple of weekends a year. Indianapolis has three major racing events. Nearby tracks Chicagoland Speedway, Kentucky Speedway and Michigan International Speedway have two each – all headlined by NASCAR. It’s highly unlikely that either would give up a prime weekend date for a weeknight event. And no track is going to shed a valuable event at all.

Even though a night race in Joliet or Kentucky would be spectacular television, it’s unlikely to happen.

As a result, Newman’s goal of clearing up race weekends would likely not be realized.

Where weeknight races would be feasible would be in re-opening some of the short tracks – where some of the most spectacular racing has taken place. The annual truck race on the Eldora Speedway dirt track is a fan favorite. It would allow some of the old “grass roots” tracks like Rockingham, South Boston, Milwaukee and even the semi-shuttered Pike’s Peak small oval to be showcased to a national audience – tracks with less overhead.

But, with a 38-race schedule, it’s safe to say NASCAR isn’t adding more dates and more work for its teams.

However, it could be a winning strategy for other racing series looking to gain some traction in North America – with added value to a racetrack. The IMSA United Sports Car series race held in Indy the Friday of Brickyard 400 weekend is a great example. It’s a pot-sweetener for fans and something completely different than the events of the rest of the weekend.

IndyCar would be much more poised to run a weeknight race – especially taking advantage of a lull in the summer sports calendar such as the MLB All-Star Break. But the series’ already-compressed schedule is pretty taxing on teams in the summer months.

Weeknight races would be great for television, great for teams and great for fans. They’re tremendous for everyone except the paying customer. But there are way too many moving parts to actually make them a reality.

Andrew Smith is a Daily Reporter correspondent and former sports editor. Contact him at grsports@greenfieldreporter.com.

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