Is NASCAR feeling the ‘Netflix Effect’? Early signs positive after strong start


Much has been made of the “Netflix Effect” on Formula 1, with F1’s rise in the United States inextricably linked with the “Drive to Survive” docuseries. NASCAR coveted its own shot at a Netflix docuseries for years, and finally landed one with the excellent “Full Speed” show that debuted in late January.

But while “Full Speed” spent some time among the top 10 U.S. shows on the Netflix charts, it was unclear at the time what sort of tangible benefits that may provide to the stock car racing series.

After nearly two months, the answer may be coming into focus. Aside from a pair of rainouts, NASCAR has seen TV ratings increase for four straight races to open the season. And the last two weeks have been up double-digit percentages (a 19 percent year-over-year increase for Phoenix and 11 percent for Bristol).

Even better for NASCAR: Nielsen data found 88 percent of “Full Speed” viewers did not watch last fall’s championship race. That means the vast majority of people who watched the Netflix show are potential new fans, and the ratings data suggests a significant number may have been hooked enough to start watching the actual races every Sunday.

And though many fans jokingly theorize NASCAR may be scripted at times, the race winners so far this season couldn’t have come at a better time for the Netflix crowd: Four of the five winning drivers were featured as main characters in “Full Speed,” which means they are immediately recognizable to the new viewers.

“To see 88 percent of new fans watching that show, and then you roll into the season and you have some terrific racing and you have a number of winners who were actually featured on Netflix, it really matched up to what we’d hoped for,” NASCAR COO Steve O’Donnell said. “It’s impossible to say exactly how much it’s driving the ratings, but you’ve certainly got to look at that stat and say we exposed the sport to a new audience.”

On the heels of a strong start both on and off the racetrack — NASCAR has set new records for average number of lead changes, average number of different leaders and green-flag passes through the first five races of a season — The Athletic spoke to O’Donnell for his thoughts on the 2024 season so far.


The Clash

With a dire forecast for the Southern California area, NASCAR made the extreme decision to move up its season-opening exhibition race at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum by an entire day and raced the Clash on just five hours’ notice.

The last-minute time adjustment was a “moral victory” because it allowed the race to be completed before taking the chance of keeping all the teams in Los Angeles indefinitely, O’Donnell said, but it turned out to be an even better decision than believed at the time.

Three days later, when the rain started to let up, NASCAR drove a safety truck onto the track, and O’Donnell said “it basically sunk” into the surface because the water had weakened the purpose-built circuit so much.

“So if we hadn’t gotten that race in (Saturday), we probably wouldn’t have raced, which would have obviously been a disaster,” he said.

Gluck’s take: Just finding a way for the race to take place saved teams and industry personnel untold amounts of money while also costing NASCAR millions in lost ticket revenue (the race was run on a free attendance day).

Daytona 500

NASCAR’s biggest race always is a tone-setter for the season’s TV audience, so another rainout (this time a postponement to Monday) seemed brutal at the time and threatened to steal any of the newfound Netflix momentum (which had started to show itself through a ratings increase in Daytona 500 qualifying and the Duel qualifying races).

Officials made a quick postponement call on Sunday to shift the focus to the next day, and the race was entertaining. William Byron was barely ahead of Alex Bowman when a caution came out at the white flag of the race, handing Byron the win (the finish was debated for several hours afterward by fans who thought Bowman had the victory).

“We made the (postponement) decision early to try and get as many eyeballs as we could to Monday and let the fans know when we’d be racing,” O’Donnell said. “Made the best of a tough situation. We certainly thought it was an entertaining race and applaud the teams and drivers for what they put out there.”

Gluck’s take: Ending under caution was a bummer after a crash right when the white flag came out, but it was still an entertaining Daytona 500 overall.

William Byron


William Byron, a recognizable face to new fans from his participation in Netflix’s “Full Speed,” won the postponed Daytona 500. (Jeff Robinson / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Atlanta

NASCAR followed up the Daytona race with an all-time classic at the superspeedway version of Atlanta Motor Speedway, which was a thriller throughout. But the signature moment was the breathtaking, three-wide finish reminiscent of the movie “Cars.”

Mexican driver Daniel Suárez beat Ryan Blaney and Kyle Busch by the narrowest of margins, and NASCAR immediately had a buzzworthy result to continue to keep the attention of new fans — which O’Donnell said will continue to be a crucial ingredient to building a larger fan base.

“I’m going to assume for the most part NASCAR is going to put on some great racing,” O’Donnell said. “There may be a couple of challenging ones during the year, but I’d put our racing up against anyone in the world.

“So our job is then to talk about what is so compelling about the racing. … Doing a better job of telling everything that happens during a race is going to be important for us, because there are a lot of different connection points.”

Gluck’s take: This immediately ranked among the best NASCAR finishes ever and became a race that will be hard to top for entertainment value during the rest of 2024.

Las Vegas

Kyle Larson opened the “real” racing season (the non-superspeedway portion of the schedule) with a tight victory over a hard-charging Tyler Reddick, who dueled with Larson over the final laps but couldn’t make the winning pass.

The Vegas weekend also featured a Truck Series win by Rajah Caruth — a 21-year-old from Washington, D.C., who became just the third Black driver to win a NASCAR national series race and generated more headlines for NASCAR.

But Vegas also was the second straight race in which a Speedway Motorsports-owned track had drivers make visits to their souvenir haulers for autographs and photos on race day, which was a throwback to a prominent and beloved NASCAR feature from the glory days in the mid-2000s (and is a renewed initiative from track owner Marcus Smith’s company).

“Those old-school things with the drivers at Speedway Motorsports tracks and autograph sessions around licensed merchandise is really getting back to what made us successful in the past,” O’Donnell said.

Gluck’s take: A fairly standard NASCAR intermediate track race in the Next Gen Era — close racing, but also some annoyances like air blocking (which is what Larson used to beat Reddick).

Christopher Bell


“Isn’t that what we want?” NASCAR COO Steve O’Donnell said of Christopher Bell’s win in Phoenix, where he charged up from 21st. “He ran through the field and won.” (Chris Graythen / Getty Images)

Phoenix

The hotly debated Phoenix race was viewed as a letdown in some eyes after NASCAR debuted its revamped short-track aerodynamic rules package, with Christopher Bell winning by 5.5 seconds — the largest margin of victory in a Cup Series race since the introduction of the Next Gen car at the start of 2022.

At the same time, Bell charged from 21st to the win after a four-tire pit stop call buried him in the field. So although it wasn’t considered a great race, NASCAR also didn’t think it was bad.

“We were OK with Phoenix,” O’Donnell said. “Certainly, it wasn’t as close of a finish as you’d want to have, but Christopher Bell gained 20 positions. Isn’t that what we want? He ran through the field and won the race. That’s pretty good when you compare it to what else is going around the world in terms of racing.”

Gluck’s take: Phoenix is not a very good racetrack at this point, and this race reiterated how the racing there has become unworthy of hosting the championship. That said, it was still a better-than-normal Phoenix race, and the fastest car won.

Bristol

A shockingly high amount of tire wear at Bristol last weekend turned the famed short track into a tire management race, but most fans responded positively — and NASCAR was pleased with the on-track product, even if the tire wear was “a little extreme,” O’Donnell said.

“We put it back in the drivers’ hands and the teams’ hands for strategy,” he added.

The high wear caught teams off guard, but also created 54 lead changes — the most in NASCAR’s 76-year history of racing on short tracks (and the most at any non-superspeedway since 1991). O’Donnell called on fans and those in the NASCAR garage to not criticize Goodyear, because increased tire wear is exactly what everyone has been pleading for.

“It’s not always going to be perfect, but directionally, they’re going the way we’ve asked them to go,” he said. “So I applaud them for making the effort and trying new things.

“We’ve asked Goodyear to make tires part of the strategy and get back to the true (style of) Late Model racing on short tracks.”

Gluck’s take: Easily the best NASCAR short track race of the Next Gen Era, and the type of race purists crave to see more often. The tire woes were actually a massive benefit to the quality of racing.

What’s next

NASCAR now heads to a road course for the first time this season (Austin’s Circuit of the Americas on Sunday) and O’Donnell is curious if the Cup Series will see a sixth different winner in the first six races. The more different winners in the regular season, he said, “it starts to build the anticipation of the playoffs and who’s in and the pressure gets ratcheted up as well.”

Of course, it’s not all positive. Contentious negotiations regarding an extension of NASCAR’s charter agreement with race teams (similar to franchises) loom in the background, with teams dissatisfied over NASCAR’s offers and communication so far. All parties must come to an agreement by the end of the year, or the charters will expire.

Plus, it’s one thing to have a strong start to the season; it’s another to maintain the momentum with viewers, particularly in a marathon schedule (there are no breaks until mid-July) and when upcoming tracks (Richmond, Texas, Dover) haven’t consistently seen great racing. And NASCAR still has much work to do to build star power, given the lack of a transcendent driver like it used to have with Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr.

“We’ve got a bunch of emerging superstars,” O’Donnell said. “It’s our job to really go out there now and promote those drivers and make them more household names. And if we can do that, I think the sport will continue to grow.”

In the meantime, though, there’s newfound momentum for a series which has struggled to find its identity in recent years.

“It’s still early,” O’Donnell said. “I wouldn’t say we’re high-fiving each other, but we’re certainly encouraged by what we’re seeing (and plan) to keep the hammer down and keep working hard to grow the sport.”

go-deeper

GO DEEPER

William Byron on life after Daytona 500 win and his dangerous bucket list: 12 Questions

(Top photo of Daniel Suárez during the Atlanta race he’d later win in a thrilling finish: Alex Slitz / Getty Images)





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