In an era of frequent NASCAR change, could bringing back international exhibition races help build a bigger audience for the regular season?
The offseason before the return of NASCAR in 2017 has been one filled with change. But could coming winters also bring more racing to fans of stock car racing? In a time where the top national series are fighting sagging attendance and television ratings, perhaps the new viewers that can help buck that trend are coming from overseas.
There is a long history of non-points races for NASCAR, with two still existing today in the Daytona Clash and the All-Star Race. Formerly the Can-Am Duels at Daytona were not for points, but will now award points under the new 2017 rules. Stock cars from America have rarely raced on an international stage, however. The Xfinity Series previously raced in both Mexico City and Montreal, while the Camping World Truck Series now races at Canadian Tire Motorsports Park.
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Of the few times NASCAR Cup races have been run outside the United States, a number came as exhibition races in Asia and Australia. The first non-points event came in 1988 at the Calder Park Thunderdome in Melbourne, Australia. There would not be another event like it for eight years when the series began a three-year stretch of exhibition events in Japan. Two were held in Suzuka, followed by the final one at Motegi.
One of the most unique aspects of these events outside North America was the use of local drivers, especially in the Japanese races. Each of the three events held had a handful of Japanese competitors racing alongside the best in the Cup Series. The best performance among the locals came in 1997 at the Suzuka circuit where Keiichi Tsuchiya finished 11th.
So what’s the appeal of running these races? NASCAR has quietly become a sport restricted to North America primarily. While other American sports such as football, baseball, and basketball have international appeal, the draw for stock car racing is somewhat limited. Part of this can be pinned on the broad competition they in international motorsports, while blame can also be put at the feet of NASCAR management, who have been reluctant until lately to become more involved globally.
With the growth of their still young Euro Series and the return of the Mexico division, the time might be perfect to try something different. The wintertime provides a solid time period to experiment with NASCAR races in Australia or perhaps Asia. Both have robust motorsports cultures, with tracks like Mount Panorama, Fuji, and Motegi certainly ready to serve as potential venues.
While some teams may be resistant to the idea of dedicating time, money, equipment, and people to this effort, they have a lot to gain from further overseas exposure. New viewers will get to see stock car racing for what could be the first time, while the series can help sow the seeds of development for future drivers, sponsors, and other partnerships for the future.
The world is becoming a more interconnected place for business, life, and sports. NASCAR has been a bit behind in some aspects of this, but perhaps adding some international flair with exhibition races can help close the gap.
What international venues would you like to see NASCAR’s Cup Series visit in the future, for an exhibition race or even a regular season event?