After a pair of weekends where NASCAR experimented with Cup series drivers qualifying and racing on the same day, the views of the leadership of the venues couldn’t be more opposite.
Pocono Raceway president Ben May thought it worked well for his track. Watkins Glen International president Michael Printup didn’t think his fans liked it at all.
That might not be much of a surprise. Rarely does a NASCAR change benefit everyone. And if the presidents’ words are any indication, this experiment showed that if NASCAR wants a two-day weekend to be the norm, it won’t have unanimous support.
NASCAR will continue to take a look at the formats. Martinsville will have a similar format to Pocono and the Glen with practice Saturday and then qualifying and the race on Sunday. From an inspection and operations standpoint, the weekends have gone as well as expected, NASCAR vice president Elton Sawyer said.
“It has to work for the tracks and broadcast [partners] and NASCAR and the teams and our fans,” Sawyer said. “Our fans speak loud and clear what they like and don’t like — we’re going to take that and go from there.”
Watkins Glen fans apparently will voice on the “heck no” side. The track has enjoyed three races where it has met its attendance goals (including selling out its 32,000 reserved grandstand seats), and Printup worries that a 3 p.m. ET start, which was determined before NASCAR opted for the qualifying-race same-day experiment, was a turnoff for his fans.
“Why would you want to punish a track?” Printup said. “Why would you want to punish the fans? That’s what the fans were saying to me. That’s important and that’s something we better listen to and NASCAR better listen to.”
NASCAR likely wouldn’t want to try a much earlier start with the format as that would require a qualifying session starting at around 10 a.m. or 11 a.m. for a variety of reasons — fans might scoff at wanting to get to the track that early, those partying in the infield need time to recover, it isn’t good for West Coast viewing and since NASCAR starts the tech process four hours before the race, it could require the tech line opening at 6 a.m. (or earlier if not on the East Coast).
Printup said he heard from the fans during his coffee and doughnuts meet-and-greet with them Saturday morning.
“Resounding sentiment was get rid of it quick — don’t like qualifying on Sunday, don’t like the late start,” Printup said. “It was more late start than it was qualifying. … They don’t like qualifying on the same day, [too].
“A lot of us are traditionalists and so are the fans, but the No. 1 reason was ‘Why are we starting at 3:30 because if this race goes late, I’m not coming from Buffalo again.'”
Watkins Glen had one of the shortest races, timewise, on record at 2 hours, 7 minutes, so there was one thing in its favor. But it could just as easily have had a race that went more than 3 hours, Printup said.
The Race Team Alliance played a pivotal role with the scheduling in trying to help provide drivers for fan events Friday. Pocono had an enthusiastic crowd, but Watkins Glen’s was wiped out by rain. Indianapolis, which had a similar Saturday-Sunday schedule for Cup but did qualifying after the Xfinity race, drew a decent crowd for its activities, which corresponded with its hauler parade. The Indy event was on a street near the track and was free, while the Pocono event required a Friday or Sunday ticket (or a $20/carload entry fee to the infield) and The Glen was open to those who were on property (The Glen primarily sells a weekend ticket).
“What we were able to do was give more racing at the same price for a greater value … with that sacrifice of not having Cup cars on the track on Friday,” May said. “The drivers [at the fan fest] were engaged, we believe we showed them and the fans a good time and filled that void.
“All in all, I was really pleased.”
May said the Pocono fan fest hashtag had about 83 million impressions, which made it as valuable, or more, as far as social media buzz as it would if the Cup cars were on the track.
Printup said he wouldn’t be in favor of the Indianapolis format of having qualifying after the Xfinity race. Traditionally, Watkins Glen had qualifying Saturday as the only NASCAR Cup activity and then the Xfinity race.
“Let’s celebrate the race and have fun — the winner is the winner and that’s where racing always stops [for the day],” Printup said. “Get them on the podium, celebrate them and stop the day. Don’t continue what’s Phase 2, that’s anticlimactic.”
The RTA wanted the experiment as teams can save — or reappropriate — money that would have been used for special oils and lightweight pieces for qualifying that they can’t use in the qualifying-race same-day events because they are impounds.
But possibly a bigger deal is quality of life for crew members.
“I know how much the guys appreciate being able to stay at home,” Kevin Harvick said. “That’s really what it’s about, it’s about quality of life for the team guys, giving them an extra day.
“If we can add that up 10, 15, 20 weekends, that’s two or three weeks that you can keep those guys at home and let them spend some time with their families and kids and wives.”
Team Penske driver Joey Logano said it did make for a different day-of-race feel, where he typically would have appearances in the morning and then get ready to race. Now there are some appearances, but obviously there is time taken up for qualifying.
“I don’t think it is a bad thing,” he said. “If someone crashes in qualifying I think it puts them in a pretty big bind to get their stuff ready for the race, but it is what it is. It is the same for everybody.”
An NBC Sports spokesman said the network is still evaluating ratings and costs to see if it is something it would want to do in the future. The network ran more than six hours of continuous coverage from qualifying through the end of the race on Sunday. By not televising any Friday activity, the network can save costs.