A rain delay during a NASCAR race is never ideal for anyone. It’s not ideal for NASCAR, the network broadcasting the race, or the fans watching from home or in the stands. Rain delays are a necessary evil though and when it happens, everyone tries to make the best of it.
It’s even more frustrating when there’s a rain delay during the biggest race of the year and that happened in the Daytona 500 for a second consecutive year. An early crash that took about 40 percent of the field out of contention, along with a five-plus hour rain delay that forced the race to end after midnight, was reflected in this year’s ratings.
The 2021 Daytona 500 reached a record-low 2.8 rating with 4.83 million viewers watching. Last year’s race, also affected by rain, was the previous record holder (4.4/7.33 million).
Fox Sports EVP Michael Mulvihill posted a Twitter thread explaining that ratings from before the rain delay were comparable to the start in 2020 as well as the entire 2019 race which was unaffected by rain. While that might sound like a PR tactic to cushion the blow of impending bad news, Mulvihill has a point.
8.48m viewers watched the Daytona 500 prior to Sunday’s six-hour rain interruption.
That’s +4% better than the 8.16m that watched the comparable portion in 2019, the last time the race was run without a delay. The entire 2019 race averaged 9.17m viewers.
— Michael Mulvihill (@mulvihill79) February 17, 2021
The 2021 Daytona 500 was a “perfect storm” for ratings to be as low as possible. For one thing, even before the rain delay, a huge crash took out a lot of top contenders and popular drivers. Is anyone going to expect a Ryan Blaney fan to sit through a five hour rain delay waiting for the race to resume knowing he’s out of contention? When that happens to 40 percent of the field, and that involves some of the most popular drivers in the sport, a large chunk of the fanbase is going to be disinterested. So even before the rain delay, NASCAR was going to be facing an uphill battle.
Another reason ratings were so low, even compared to last year’s delayed race, was because last year’s race was delayed to Monday and put in a more TV friendly time slot with nearly 24 hours of promotion of the new race time. This year, everyone was at the mercy of the rain and the track drying so when the race restarted at around 9 pm, the race ended past midnight in the East. Contrast that to last year, where the race ended closer to 10 pm on Monday, it’s realistic to assume that not as many people came back to tune into the end of the race because it was too late into the night for many people.
It would be easy to try and make conclusions on the state of NASCAR based on Sunday’s race but the fact is that this was such an anomaly that it’s probably best to treat it as such and not as evidence that the sport is dying. At the same time, if there is no rain delay and ratings triple in 2022, let’s not compare that race to 2021 and use the increase to say the sport is thriving either. Let’s keep things in the proper perspective.