|A condensed schedule could provide smaller windows for the pit and garage tours typically offered by sponsors.
Traditionally for most races, Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race weekends have had their on-track action spread across three days, with qualifying and practice on Friday, more practice on Saturday, and the race on Sunday. But NASCAR last year studied a scenario where some weekends have on-track Cup Series action only on Saturday and Sunday in part to reduce lodging costs for teams and the toll on their crews, and to attract new fans who want to see more action pressed into less time.
At least four tracks — Martinsville Speedway, Pocono Raceway, Watkins Glen International and Indianapolis Motor Speedway — will use the shortened schedule this year. Those tracks plan to hold fan fests on the Friday of race weekend since there will be no on-track action for the top series, though other national series running that weekend will still see action that day. Those fan fests could include such things as concerts, race hauler parades or driver meet-and-greets.
Team and track sponsor Anheuser-Busch InBev is among those concerned about the shortened schedule, joining Roger Penske, one of the more influential owners in the sport.
Nick Kelly, senior director of experiential marketing for A-B, said the company fears it could essentially lose a day of foot traffic on the fan midway, the area on track property where brands activate, on Friday if fan response to the shortened schedule is tepid, and that a condensed schedule Sunday could affect fans’ time on the midway.
Kelly said A-B invests six figures every weekend it does fan activation on a track’s midway, and the company is concerned that if fans have more incentive to head into tracks earlier on Sunday rather than spending more time on the midway activation area, it could be detrimental to A-B’s return on its investment.
Kelly said A-B executives also are concerned that moving qualifying to the day of a race on Sunday could compress that day’s schedule sizably, potentially leading to less time for driver meet-and-greets and garage tours.
“We build plans that have a retail element, too, but candidly the most valuable stuff for us [with A-B’s NASCAR assets] is B2B opportunities for hospitality with retailers and wholesalers,” Kelly said. “There’s significant concern for us, because in the Northeast with two of our five races up there [in Pocono and Watkins Glen], that Sunday now becomes very complicated.”
A-B, which for 16 races is primary sponsor of Stewart-Haas Racing’s No. 4 Ford driven by Kevin Harvick, will likely see how the move plays out this year before deciding whether to ask for any make-goods from SHR or tracks. Kelly said A-B may be forced to “have those tough conversations,” but he alternatively allowed for the possibility that the new schedules could turn into a positive for the sport overall.
For his part, Penske spoke to Autoweek two weeks ago about the topic. The auto titan was quoted as saying that if “they start hurting our commercial value with these schedules, then you’ll see me put my hand up.”
Jim Cassidy, NASCAR’s senior vice president of racing operations, said the sanctioning body is confident that the move to shorter race weekends will likely become a win-win for all industry partners.
“We do everything today with a very close eye on making sure that we’re striking the right balance across all the players in the industry, so the notion of pulling back a day or taking out a day is really not what we’re looking at,” Cassidy said. “What we’re looking at is trying to enhance the weekend by creating a fan-specific weekend on the Friday before the event.”
Despite the concern from some, other brands and agency executives in the sport say they’re not concerned for now.
Jim McCoy, Nationwide’s director of sports marketing, said that when Nationwide was title sponsor of NASCAR’s secondary series, and the secondary series made a similar move to two-day weekends around some races, he came to view the move as a positive.
“It compresses the timeline, but we never had an issue spending time with our drivers on those days, so you just have to get ahead of it,” McCoy said. “The positive is it frees up your driver on Thursday and Friday to do things that they haven’t historically been able to do [because they’ve had to either prepare for racing or go racing].”
Jimmy Bruns, senior vice president of client services for GMR Marketing, which represents several NASCAR sponsors including Xfinity and Lowe’s, was similarly not concerned.
“With having one less day on the midway, I understand the concern, but I don’t think you’re getting a huge number of fans on Friday that aren’t going to be there on Saturday and Sunday,” Bruns said. “I would hope some of those cost controls would eventually trickle down into decreased rights fees that you’re paying to the teams. If it were my dollar, I would be OK with giving up a Friday of light activation if ultimately it meant some of those cost savings are going to be passed down to my sponsorship.”