Feedback compels NASCAR to go to earlier starts

In response to feedback from its core fans, NASCAR announced Thursday that its Sprint Cup Series races will have earlier and more consistent start times in 2010.

Most races next season will start at 1 p.m. Eastern time, with West Coast races starting at 3 and evening races starting at 7:30. All of NASCAR’s broadcast partners were consulted on the change.

“Between consistency and earlier start times, we think we know that we’re delivering what our core fan has been telling us for a while,” NASCAR president Brian France said.

Twenty races will move to the 1 p.m. time slot, including the Daytona 500. In all, 28 races will have earlier start times. The Coca-Cola 600 on Memorial Day weekend will keep its 5:45 p.m. start.

Television ratings for Sprint Cup races have dipped by more than 4 percent this year. Officials said standard start times should create “appointment viewing” for fans who watch on television while also allowing fans who attend races to get home sooner. Earlier starts also give NASCAR a larger window to finish races in the event of rain.

In researching the schedule issue, NASCAR learned that half of its avid fans admitted to being confused about when races start. Two-thirds of fans said they preferred an early Sunday start time.

Fox Sports president David Hill acknowledged that the logic of the new start times runs contrary to some broadcast research that suggests more people watch television later in the day. He said he expects a temporary dip in ratings next year as people get used to the change. But he said the network supported the move because the consistency of start times would result in higher viewership in the long run - and because of NASCAR’s history of holding earlier races.

“The great thing about this sport is its wonderful, wonderful traditions,” Hill said. “So we realize that even though we’re artificially trying to goose the figures, that it wasn’t doing us any good whatsoever with that core fan that created this sport and turned it from a regional sport into a major national sport.”

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