The Trucks at Eldora: My Analysis (& Other Ramblings)
NASCAR made its long-anticipated return to dirt track racing on July 24 with the Camping World Truck Series’ race at Eldora in the Mudsummer Classic, a 150-lap, 75 mile race that featured Truck Series regulars, dirt racing stars and even some Cup and Nationwide Series drivers making rare appearances in the series, all in hopes of winning NASCAR’s first dirt race since the summer of 1970.
The racing was okay. I’m not going to say it was horrible (it wasn’t). I’m also not going to say that it was amazing (it wasn’t). It was decent, a solid C+ or so of a race. There was a good bit of decent battling for position, even if in the heat races passing was practically non-existent.
However, the track surface made it extremely difficult to pass in both the heat races and the main race itself. While Trucks would regularly be three, four, or even five-wide in the corners, passing was at a premium (and nearly impossible). This was true even when the leaders would catch slower Trucks to put them a lap down: it could take several laps for the leaders to get around a truck that was otherwise slower by a full second a lap (or more). In fact, it was Timothy Peters’ struggles in passing slower trucks that allowed Kyle Larson to take the lead from him and almost check out on the field, until he too struggled passing lapped traffic and lost the lead to Austin Dillon.
Not to mention that the race was a sellout, with tickets for the event selling out completely in only a couple days. The downside of course being that the Eldora Speedway only holds about 18,000 people, making a sellout a bit unimpressive. While a sellout is great for the series, the attendance was still very low even for Trucks. Comparatively, 18,000 people in attendance would be tied for the 107th best (out of 122 races) for the Trucks between 2008 and 2012, the last 5 seasons with attendance figures available, as seen in the figure below.
As you can see, the attendance figures for Trucks over the last 5 years have quite literally been all over the place. Races range from 2500 (down from 10,000 on the initial race date) at Martinsville for a rain-delayed race, to 90,000 for a season-opener at Daytona. One thing that immediately jumps out about this figures is that there has been a steady decline in total attendance each season in the last 5 years. The average attendance however has been relatively steady the last 3 seasons in the 30-31,000 range, with the 5-year average around 33,500.
These numbers though shouldn’t bode well for an Eldora race with only 18,000 people in attendance. So why is it that NASCAR’s own VP is celebrating the race and even talking about a return? There’s really not one simple answer for this, although the most obvious one is that track attendance isn’t the end-all, be-all (just like how TV ratings aren’t either). A large number of tracks don’t make any money on ticket sales; it is at-track purchases (concessions) and TV/media and sponsorship deals where the tracks typically make their profits. This is why a track like Indianapolis, whose attendance has fallen off a cliff the last several years, still makes a profit and remains on the schedule.
The ratings for the race, a total of 1.4 million viewers, bodes well for the track, Speed Channel, and NASCAR, as the ratings were really high for a Truck race.
The race had its moments of good, bad, ugly, and the indifferent. Here’s a rundown of some of them:
The racing was okay. Nothing that most other short tracks don’t do (lots of close racing, some beating and banging, etc.), but still okay. There wasn’t (weren’t?) a large number of cautions. Whereas the practice sessions had more spins and wrecks and trucks bouncing off the wall than seemingly any other in series history, the race was amazingly clean. In fact, only one caution in the entire 150 lap feature race was due to a wreck, and it wasn’t for a series regular who was running their first dirt race.
Norm Benning and Clay Greenfield duking it out for the final spot in the feature during the Last Chance Qualifier race- and then apparently in the infield as well according to reports- was easily one of the night’s highlights. The sad part is that such a battle only existed because series officials decided that simply doing the same 36 Truck field, with 25 teams locked into the race- was too problematic, and cut the field for the race down to 30 trucks. However, I guess I’ll give series officials some credit for the decision, since the battle for the final transfer spot was really good. Plus, Norm Benning’s “One Finger Salute” to Clay Greenfield after the checkered flag of the Last Chance Race was absolutely classic.
The race had 1.4 million viewers, more than any other Truck race this year, and Speed Channel’s 10th highest Truck race since the network took over broadcasting the series.
The Race Quickly Devolved into a 3-way Battle… of ‘Dirt Ringers’
While Timothy Peters was able to hold onto the lead for 23 laps after passing Ken Schrader on lap 16, after Peters lost the lead the dirt ringers basically had a stranglehold on the top spots and refused to let go for the rest of the race. On lap 39 Kyle Larson took the lead, and from then on he and Austin Dillon led the remaining laps. Add in Ryan Newman’s 3rd place finish and dirt ringers in the race ended up sweeping the Podium; Joey Coulter in 4th was the first Truck regular in the finishing order.
Don’t get me wrong, when the battling up front is good, it’s not a problem that the specialists in the field dominate as expected. However, Austin Dillon was pretty much impossible to pass, even though Kyle Larson had a better Truck for much of the night. Any time Larson got a chance, he would be pinned to the inside on the restart and would have no chance of regaining the lead for several laps. While some people may see the Austin Dillon-Kyle Larson-Ryan Newman battle as one for the ages, I actually found it to be… dare I say it about the Trucks?… boring. It seemed like the only way to pass someone was to restart to their outside and then to simply not let them in line, or to put them in the wall and hope that they couldn’t recover until you passed them.
The Only Wreck was by a Dirt Ringer…
… And it had potential championship implications. Jared Landers bounced off the wall, spun, and then collected Ty Dillon and Johnny Sauter, who were 4th and 5th in drivers points, respectively, entering the event. Ty Dillon would go on to finish 16th (a sure disappointment), while Sauter would end up out of the race and finished 29th. Coupled with Matt Crafton’s 8th place finish on the night, both drivers lost a significant number of points to Crafton.
The “there was only 1 wreck” line was a potential positive, too. Practice was filled with spins and trucks bouncing off the walls, and miraculously the feature race was pretty clean- Max Gresham and John Wes Townley didn’t try to one-up each other in the spins department. But the one wreck in the race ruined decent runs for two drivers that ultimately were wrecked a ringer, and by simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Meanwhile, Other Title Contenders Had A Poor Run
Matt Crafton came into the race with a points lead that encompassed nearly a full race: 38 points over Jeb Burton. While Crafton was able to maneuver around the melee and earned a Top 10, his title competition was not anywhere near as lucky.
Jeb Burton seemed to struggle throughout a good portion of the race after winning his heat race and starting 5th for the feature. He quickly fell out of the Top 10 and never really made his way back. He ultimately finished 18th.
James Buescher ended up having a similar night. Although he finished 2nd in his heat race behind Kenny Wallace, he never seemed to really have much in the feature, and fell all the way to 19th at the end of the first segment, which was also where he finished.
I’ve already mentioned Ty Dillon and Johnny Sauter being caught up in Jared Landers’ wreck (Landers finished 12th, by the way- higher than either driver that was caught up in his wreck).
Ryan Blaney came into the race 6th in points, and with a chance to race against his dad, Dave, in Brad Keselowski Racing trucks, seemed like it would be a night to remember. Unfortunately, he struggled to move through the pack from his 23rd starting spot (it wasn’t until the final segment that he even broke into the Top 20), and even though he finished 15th- better than many of the drivers on this list- it was a night to forget, not one to remember.
Speed’s TV coverage of the events leading into the Last Chance Qualifier race and the feature. Nothing like failing to broadcast two of the three practice sessions (and after all of the hype that was put into the race), or the time trials. To add insult to injury, then the heat races were tape-delayed by up to 30 minutes, so that Speed Channel wouldn’t have so much filler content between the heats and the last chance race and the feature. This decision seemed to really resonate with fans- although it certainly was not in a good way. The media seems to actually comprehend this issue for once with many members saying that, should the event return in 2014, the schedule needs to be condensed a bit.
The 9:45PM start time on the surface appeared to be a bad idea. While also being a “throwback” to the dirt tracks across the county that run on Saturday nights, it appeared like the race could potentially last past midnight should there be a lot of cautions. All told though, NASCAR’s official race results put the race at only 1 hour, 8 minutes, and 6 seconds. While a lot of fans are calling for shorter races (although I’m not one of them), that’s a bit too short. Upping the race length to either 200 or maybe 250 laps would make the race short enough that it could still end at a decent hour (assuming that the schedule is condensed down), but it wouldn’t be so short that it almost felt like a ripoff.
TV Ratings: Great, But Still Horrible?
Speed’s 1.409 million viewers for this “historic” race was still abysmal overall, even though it was the highest-rated Truck race this year, and the 10th-highest Truck race in Speed Channel’s history of broadcasting the series. But that figure is very misleading. Why? Just keep reading:
The race was only the 61st-highest viewed show on cable TV on Wednesday. It was only #5 in the 9:30 PM timeslot, and in the same timeslot, it was beaten out by “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo” by a full 1 million viewers (1.409 million for Eldora vs. 2.434 million for Honey Boo Boo). Duck Dynasty on A&E got almost 400,000 more viewers (1.796 million) in the same timeslot. Between 7:00PM and 11:00PM- the timeframe in which Speed aired racing from Eldora- it was only #35 in viewership. So while the race was a huge success ratings-wise compared to other Truck races, in the grand scheme of TV, it was still a rather bad showing.
What I think might be the worst part is that the media is hyping this as some huge accomplishment. Don’t get me wrong, when you’re the highest-rated non-restrictor-plate race in Speed Channel’s Truck Series broadcast history, that’s a big deal. And Eldora got marginally better viewership than this year’s season-opener at Daytona, the track which holds the top 8 spots in those rankings (Talladega’s October 2009 Truck race is #9).
The scariest part of these ratings is that, in two more years, this very same channel (albeit, renamed to Fox Sports 1) will be showing Truck, Nationwide, and Cup series events. If Trucks, in an over-hyped “historic” race struggle this badly for viewers, how much success can a Cup race at a “boring” track- such as Fontana, Texas, or Kansas- on that same network have? I know, comparing Cup, Trucks, and Nationwide ratings is pointless, because the series aren’t equal in their promotion, channel, or anything, but it’s still something to think about.
NASCAR is already struggling with sagging ratings with the ever-increasing move away from broadcast networks to cable. If Eldora was a glimpse of the future- as so many people, especially media members, want NASCAR to make it- this isn’t good for NASCAR. After all, the Gatorade Duels at Daytona in February were broadcast on Speed- and failed to get even 2 million viewers, although I guess the bright side there is that at least the Duels beat out Spongebob on Nickelodeon at 3pm in viewership. Meanwhile, Daytona 500 qualifying on Fox’s broadcast channel also had low viewership; only 2010’s Saturday qualifying (instead of Sunday) had lower TV viewership since 2009.
While the media is applauding TV viewership for the Trucks at Eldora, they aren’t understanding the true ramifications of these ratings. They might be good for NASCAR’s #3 series, but in the grand scheme of TV, they’re complete shit.
Apparently, tickets for this race were $36. I know that NASCAR fans are fickle people, but considering that a number of fans continually bitch and moan about ticket prices, it seemed odd that there wasn’t a peep about how tickets to the Mudsummer Classic were more expensive than most Nationwide and several Cup races. I guess when the stands are at capacity, the “tickets are too expensive” excuse can’t be used.
I’m just really surprised that when tracks such as Indianapolis are giving away 40,000 tickets to the Brickyard 400 just to get a semi-respectable crowd in the stands yet people will still bitch about tickets being too high, I’m really surprised when they don’t complain about tickets for a Truck race being $36. Apparently tickets to Eldora could have been priced even higher, given that they sold out in only a couple days.
Scott Bloomquist’s struggles all day Wednesday, from a horrible qualifying run (31st quick out of 35), to an even worse heat race (7th in the first Heat race), to a just-as-bad feature race, where he went from his 21st starting spot straight to the last truck in the running order and stayed there for a while. While he ultimately finished 25th, he only managed to pass Norm Benning in the running order on his own accord; everyone else he passed either fell out of the race or had other issues. The official report from the television booth was that he opted to run a truck setup that lacked a front sway bar, which turned out to be a very bad idea and ultimately brought the #51 Kyle Busch Motorsports team its third finish this season of 25th or worse.
I put this under the Indifferent category, even though a large number of fans in the stands were there to see Scott Bloomquist compete, simply because it wasn’t that huge of a personal item. While it was news in the grand scheme of things, ultimately I personally didn’t care about his struggles, aside from finding it disappointing that he was a non-factor all night long, even though he has several Late Model wins at the track. I do realize though that a large number of people would say that this was actually part of the “ugly” aspects of the race.
While NASCAR may see the race as an overwhelming success- and most fans have as well- I’m still sticking by my philosophy that NASCAR could easily go to a number of paved short tracks and see great racing like they did at Eldora. In fact, the racing on dirt reminded me a lot of a race at IRP (now Lucas Oil Raceway at Indianapolis), and I have seen tweets from other fans- and some media- that felt the same way.
Too much of the race just screamed “gimmick” to me. I know that’s NASCAR’s fashion in recent years, but last night seemed to be NASCAR trying to get away from being NASCAR and being someone else, much like their move to group qualifying on road courses beginning this year. The “Four-Wide Salute” to the fans on the pace laps was something that the various dirt racing series do (especially the World of Outlaws). Don’t get me wrong, it was cool to see, although when certain members of the press tweet out that there will be “something special on the pace laps” it was rather easy to predict. It just wasn’t anything I don’t see at the local dirt track. Granted, to the local dirt track it’s an hour’s drive each way- totaling about $19 in gas, about $15 per person to get in, and concessions are competitive with at-track prices in NASCAR, and I watched Eldora on my flat screen TV for free (aside from the cable bill, and electricity to power my TV and cable box).
I know that watching on TV is nothing like being there in the stands. However, until I hit the lottery, I’m going to be relegated to watching on TV (or online if/when that’s an option) or listening via MRN/PRN for pretty much every race on the calendar. Overall, while a lot of people (some 95%, according to Jeff Gluck’s Wedgies Poll) enjoyed the race, I simply am not among them. It was better than I was expecting, but after practice and the heat races, I really didn’t have high expectations for the event (which is very disappointing in itself).