NASCAR’s decision to ban the display of Confederate flags at its tracks has supporters of the symbol threatening to boycott the stock-car racing association altogether, but thus far the TV ratings haven’t taken a hit.
On Sunday afternoon, NBC’s broadcast of the Big Machine Hand Sanitizer 400 averaged 4.34 million viewers and a 2.7 household rating, making it the network’s most-watched sporting event in six months. Viewership for the race, formerly known as the Brickyard 400, was up 46% compared to the 2019 event, which averaged 2.97 million viewers, while the rating improved 42%, from a 1.9.
NBC’s deliveries were particularly strong, given that the network had to contend with a 55-minute lightning delay before the green flag went up in Indianapolis. Then again, comparisons to the 2019 race are arguably of the apples-to-Fiona Apples variety, as last year’s event aired opposite the first Sunday afternoon of the NFL season. (Per Nielsen, the Sept. 8 Brickyard 400 went head-to-head with regional NFL broadcasts on CBS and Fox, which averaged 14.0 million viewers and an 8.2 rating, while overlapping with the first half of the nationally televised Giants-Cowboys showdown. Available in 85% of TV markets, Fox’s coverage of that NFC East battle averaged a staggering 23.9 million viewers and a 13.5 rating.)
Which isn’t to say that there’s no way to assess the health of NBC’s holiday weekend broadcast. When compared with the NASCAR Cup Series race from Daytona that aired on July 7, 2019, Sunday’s deliveries were up 32% from 3.29 million viewers, while the rating improved 29% versus a 2.1.
NBC’s coverage of the Brickyard race also was more lucrative than last year’s NFL-hampered broadcast. According to iSpot.tv estimates, the average unit cost of a 30-second spot in the race was around $80,000 a pop, up 33% compared to the going rate of $60,000 in 2019. Among the biggest spenders on Sunday were NASCAR premiere partners Geico, Ram Trucks, Coca-Cola and Toyota.
Bubba Wallace, the only African-American who competes at NASCAR’s highest level, was the ninth driver to complete the 160-lap Brickyard race, which was won by Kevin Harvick. Wallace’s finish marks the third time this year landed in the top ten. Instrumental in prompting NASCAR to banish the Confederate flag from its properties, Wallace began speaking out against the symbol in May, following the killing of George Floyd.
Eleven days after NASCAR announced the flag ban, a noose was discovered in Wallace’s garage stall at Talladega Superspeedway. Upon investigating the matter, the FBI concluded that the driver had not been the victim of a hate crime and that the noose, fashioned from a length of rope that served as an overhead door pull, had been hanging in the garage since last fall.
The day after Wallace’s ninth-place showing, he was savaged by President Donald Trump, who took to Twitter to accuse the driver of perpetrating a hoax before going on to declare that NASCAR’s decision to ban the Confederate Flag “has caused [the] lowest ratings EVER!”
Trump’s assertion, however, wasn’t true, nor is it the first time he’s misinterpreted Nielsen data. At the Television Critics Association’s 2015 winter press tour, Trump called The Apprentice “the No. 1 show on television;” then in its penultimate season, it wasn’t even the top-rated program in its time slot.
Fox is also putting the lie to any claims that NASCAR is on the skids. Despite multiple rain delays and a rare Saturday start—this was the first Cup Series race to air on a Saturday in 20 years—the network and its cable sibling, FS1, posted a 3% audience lift with the June 27–28 doubleheader from Pocono. Ratings for the weekend event were flat at a 1.6.
In the seven weeks since NASCAR emerged from its pandemic hiatus, Fox’s Cup Series deliveries are up 8% year-over-year.