By Jakob Fox
With the NASCAR season now officially underway, the drivers head west for the first of three races in a row. NASCAR is returning to California for the second time this month when the Cup Series heads back to the Auto Club Speedway for the first time in two years. While the next few weekends out west may not seem like a big deal, NASCAR is coming off of one of its headline races of the season with the Daytona 500 and looking to bring the excitement back west. NASCAR is looking to build off the success from the Busch Light Clash that was held at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum for the first time on February 6th and continue the momentum of introducing the sport to new fans.
According to Fox News, about two-thirds of the 50,000 fans who attended the Clash had never been to a NASCAR race before, myself included. This is not a major surprise for a sport that has seen recent success while navigating through the pandemic. The Clash was the first race in Southern California since the Auto Club 400 that took place in March of 2020 right before COVID-19 hit. That race took place more than 50 miles away from Los Angeles in Fontana, which is not the easiest place to fight traffic to get to for a casual fan. By building a track in such an iconic location like the Coliseum and having the exhibition race take place in a new market of Los Angeles, NASCAR is continuing to move forward in an attempt to gain more fans. Despite the non-traditional length and location of the Clash race, it was the most successful Clash since 2016. The exhibition event pulled in 4.28 million viewers which is 168% more viewers than the 2021 Clash race that took place on a Tuesday night in Daytona. The Clash race drew more than a million more viewers than the Championship race at Phoenix last November. There are many reasons for the success of the Clash, but ultimately the curiosity of holding a NASCAR race inside a football stadium helped draw in fans, who judging from the positive experiences seem to be hooked. Now NASCAR has to keep these new fans on the west coast interested and engaged in a sport that primarily takes place in the south and east.
NASCAR historically has dominated the southern markets with 18 of the 38 races (Clash and All-Star included) this season taking place in either Alabama, Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, or Virginia. Overall, 80% of the races this season will take place east of the Rockies, which leaves seven races split between Arizona, California, and Nevada. By the middle of March, four of the west coast races will have been driven, leaving fans out west with one race in Sonoma in June and then the two playoff races in Vegas and Phoenix in October and November respectively. This upcoming West Coast swing will be important to gauge how well NASCAR has done to retain their new fans and grow their interest in the sport through the summer months. WSN analyzed Google Trends data to compare NASCAR’s popularity across every state. The map below does not show many surprises but it does add further proof of the issue that they are trying to face.
NASCAR and the West Coast are no strangers. One of NASCAR founder Bill Francis’ biggest things he accomplished in the sports first decade was to make a push on the west coast. In the early years, he established multiple races on the west coast and got west coast drivers involved. Over the last 30 years, NASCAR races have become a mainstay in a handful of west coast towns however not to the extent of other locations in the south and east. Phoenix Raceway has hosted races every year since 1988 and has been the home of the NASCAR Championship race for the past two seasons and will be for 2022 as well. Las Vegas Motor Speedway has held different levels of NASCAR races since the mid 19990s. California has the largest connection to NASCAR, having had numerous different tracks host a race. Riverside International Raceway was one of the bigger locations which hosted races from 1958 to 1988. Sonoma and Fontana are the two most established, active tracks in the state, with Auto Club Speedway (Fontana) hosting at least one Cup Series race every year from its opening in 1997 until now, with 2021 being an exception due to COVID. Sonoma has hosted the SaveMart 350 road race every year since 2003, excluding 2020. In addition to having a solid presence in four tracks every year, nearly a quarter of the Cup Series active full-time drivers come from either Arizona, California, or Nevada, including defending champion, Kyle Larson. The legacy of west coast racing has had a positive impact on the sport and while the west coast may not seem like a NASCAR hotbed, it is one to look out for, especially if the plan is to continue to focus on new markets.
NASCAR has been slowly making moves to build its fanbase by racing in new locations. The Xfinity Series will host a race in Portland, Oregon this year, which will be the first time that the sport heads to the Pacific Northwest. Additionally, this season the Cup Series will be at the World Wide Technology Raceway outside of St. Louis, Missouri for the first time and will return to Nashville for the second straight year. These new locations, along with other shifts including moving the Clash race are part of NASCAR’s recent effort to combat their decline in popularity. With the great success of Formula 1’s Drive to Survive on Netflix, NASCAR is also venturing into docuseries themselves with Bubba Wallace’s Race that premiered this week on Netflix and plans for their own docuseries.
With all of the recent positive changes that NASCAR has made, the question now is what is next? This is a multilayered question, but with regards to their success out west with the Busch Light Clash and their changes to grow their fanbase, they need to continue pushing forward. The Clash race was a great introduction for new fans in a different market and with an exhibition race like that, it is definitely possible to have that be a one-off event that changes locations. The next few weeks will be important to see how much retention NASCAR can achieve with another race in a nearby location. The exact future of NASCAR’s growth remains unknown, but if the Clash race and the progress from recent years are any indications, then we could be seeing the beginning of a larger growth for the sport that could reach all corners of the country and potentially beyond.