Brian Herbst, senior vice-president, media and productions at Nascar, tells Simon Ward about navigating the challenge of coronavirus, and the big changes for 2021.

US motor racing’s Nascar is one property claiming to have fully delivered for broadcasters and fans in the Covid-hit year of 2020, and is optimistic about the prospects for the next 12 months given long-awaited and significant changes to the calendar.

No sport has been immune from the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, but while leagues such as MLB, the NBA and NHL were forced to shorten their seasons and relocate games to ‘bubbles’, and have seen double-digit ratings declines amid competition from the NFL and coverage of the US presidential election campaign, the top-tier Nascar Cup Series has been able to stage a complete schedule, and, through mid-October, viewing figures were flat compared with 2019.

Despite an unanticipated two-month break in the early part of the season, which forced the organisers to play catch-up, with some rounds held midweek, and eight of the first 12 races being impacted by rain, ratings for the events shown by national network Fox and its sister Fox Sports 1 channel were down just 1 per cent year-on-year.

Since the racing has switched to NBC and NBC Sports Network the figures were up 1 per cent (up to and including the Hollywood Casino 400 in Kansas City on 18 October), with a 4 per cent rise for the first seven races of the playoffs.

In an interview with Sportcal, Brian Herbst, senior vice-president, media and productions at Nascar, says: “I think we’ve performed really well for any year, but certainly given the circumstances of what’s happening in the environment more broadly, both from the programming perspective with the domestic sports leagues, as well as Canada, and the impact of an election year in the States and cable news programmes seeing the numbers that they’re seeing.”

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Furthermore, he points out that but for the showpiece Daytona 500, which was held over two days because of bad weather on the Sunday, resulting in a record low average audience of 7.33 million on Fox (compared with 9.17 million in 2019), ratings would be up 3 per cent this year.

Given the unforeseen challenges involved in delivering a full Nascar season and playoffs amid a global pandemic, Fox and NBC are said to be more than satisfied with the results, with Herbst saying that “from an advertising perspective, they surpassed the goals that they had at the beginning of the year.”

The two broadcasters share rights to Nascar in 10-year deals worth a total of $8.2 billion, which run to 2024, and the sport also enjoys significant coverage outside US, with agreements covering 190 countries and territories.

Nascar viewing figures were flat through mid-October

Despite the logistics involved in ensuring strict health and safety protocols at the racetracks, the sport undoubtedly benefited from a relatively early return to action, while there was a largely favourable response to the decision to ban the controversial Confederate flag from events, and the investigation into a noose found hanging in the garage of Bubba Wallace, the sport’s only black driver, at the Talladega Superspeedway in Alabama.

With little competition on other networks, the Real Heroes 400 at Darlington in South Carolina on 17 May averaged 6.32 million viewers on Fox, and, in terms of the major US sports, the series effectively had the airwaves to itself for two months until the MLB season finally got under way and the NBA and NHL campaigns resumed in late July/early August.

In addition, starting with the Geico 500 at the Talladega Speedway on 22 June, limited numbers of spectators have been permitted to attend Nascar events.

Herbst says: “When we took the delay, after the first four races of the season, on Fox our season comparison viewership decline was around 10 per cent because we had that Daytona 500 bogey. By the time we were halfway through the season, we had clawed back to minus 1 per cent… and then with the increase in viewership that we’ve seen in the playoffs during the NBC half of the season we’re back to flat."

However, he stresses that the main achievement had been in being able to stage races at all after the break, saying: “Producing a live event in a Covid environment hadn’t really been done at that point. We just had to use good common sense and worked with doctors and epidemiologists to determine ‘what does a production truck look like?’ and ‘what type of staff do you need in order to safely produce?’

“The Fox guys were great, they scaled down the production crew from the 150 people who are usually at a Nascar event to about 50 people, and there was a lot of remote production from Charlotte, North Carolina [the series headquarters] and Los Angeles where Fox is based.”

Herbst also praises the network for the “flexibility” it had shown over midweek races and when events had to be rescheduled from Sundays to Mondays in the event of rain.

Elsewhere, viewing figures have been up for Nascar-owned IMSA sports car racing events and development stock car racing series ARCA.

"Producing a live event in a Covid environment hadn't really been done at that point. We just had to use good common sense and worked with doctors and epidemiologists to determine 'what does a production truck look like?' and 'what type of staff do you need in order to safely produce?'"

Brian Herbst, senior vice-president, media and production, Nascar

On top of the learnings from an unprecedented championship season, Nascar has been able the digest the success of the eNascar iRacing Pro Invitational Series, the esports competition involving real drivers it organised in partnership with iRacing, the online racing simulation platform, when there was no live action between mid-March and mid-May.

Herbst says: “We’re definitely proud of the innovation and resilience the industry demonstrated, including to go back racing virtually with iRacing. We were actually having calls about iRacing when we shut things down to have it the following week, which we did, and worked with our partners at Fox to deliver the events.

“They were the top rated esports events of all time on [US] TV, with a million viewers per event, and hopefully we can find a way to work closely with the iRacing guys in the years ahead.”

Another area of focus on the digital side has been Track Pass, the direct-to-consumer live streaming service, which Nascar launched in partnership with NBC ahead of the 2020 season. The platform, which replaced, features practice and qualifying sessions of Nascar Cup Series and second-tier Xfinity Series events and lower-level races.

Herbst says: “Track Pass has performed really well, with double the number of subscriptions that we projected internally for the product, even with shutting down the subscription model for three months. I would expect us to add other events to that platform in 2021.”

Other non-linear innovations have included footage from in-car cameras on board the No.18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota Camry of 2019 series champion Kyle Busch, which have gone out on YouTube and Twitter.

Daniel Suarez competes in the eNascar iRacing Pro Invitational Series

After successfully staying on track in 2020, and subject to further Covid-related repercussions, next year is being seen as a time for acceleration for Nascar, with the Cup Series undergoing the most modifications to its schedule in over 50 years.

The calendar unveiled at the end of September shows three prominent new venues in the Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas, Road America in Wisconsin (its first appearance since 1956) and, after a debut in the Xfinity Series this year, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Road Course.

Meanwhile, Bristol Motor Speedway in Tennessee will stage the first premier series race on a dirt track since 1970, while Nashville Superspeedway in the same state returns to the schedule after a decade away, and the Texas Motor Speedway will host the All-Star Race for the first time in its 36-year history.

The changes were devised by Nascar in partnership with the racetracks, teams and broadcasters, and form part of efforts to galvanise the sport and address what has been a general decline in TV audiences and spectators in recent years.

The organisation is also meeting the needs of NBC next year by taking a fortnight break in late July and early August for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games, as it would have done this year had the event had not been postponed by 12 months due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The Circuit of the Americas features in the 2021 Nascar Cup Series

Herbst says: “Over the last five years, we heard a desire and a clamouring from our fans, our industry, our manufacturers and our broadcast partners to change things up a little bit, specifically to add new venues, have new formats and add courses. So, by the time we got to laying out a 2021 schedule, expectations were high that we would be aggressive in making change."

He adds: “The broadcast partners were involved every step of the way. The initial timeline of the 2021 schedule goes all the way back to June 2019 when we asked Fox and NBC what they would like to see in the schedule, and we worked with the teams, the tracks and internally to get as many of the changes pushed through.”

The revamp appears to have been well received with 75 per cent of surveyed Nascar fans approving of the new schedule, a figure that rises to 90 per cent for the demographic of 18-to-34-year-olds, a welcome result for the sport as it seeks to appeal to a younger audience.

Additional excitement has been fostered by the launch of a new team headed up by Michael Jordan, the legendary NBA player, and renowned driver Denny Hamlin, to be called 23XI Racing, and with Wallace on board. 

However, despite the importance of the TV coverage and the significant involvement of the broadcasters in the new calendar, Nascar is in no rush to negotiate renewals of its money-spinning rights contracts.

Herbst says: “There are no early conversations with Fox and NBC. We’ve got a number of years left in the current term, through 2024, so in the short term there is no need to look at negotiating those deals. But I think it’s fair to say that we’re happy with everything that Fox and NBC have done for Nascar in 2020, and the partnerships have never been stronger than they are today.”