How the NASCAR Schedule Works


Why does it seem like NASCAR racing is a year-round sport?
Why does it seem like NASCAR racing is a year-round sport?
Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

­If you're unfamiliar with NASCAR, you might think that the rac­ing season never ends. After all, NASCAR is all over the air waves on Saturdays and Sundays, not to mention throughout the week on ESPN and the SPEED network. To the casual observer, NASCAR racing may seem like a perpetual sport with no end in sight.

Actually, NASCAR does have a defined season, albeit a long one -- 38 races spanning 10 months. The race season starts in February and ends in November every year. And you thought Major League Baseball (MLB) had a long season -- baseball season is only seven months long.

­Amazingly, a 10-month, 36-race schedule (not counting the All-Star race and Bud Shootout) pales in comparison to what NASCAR drivers ran in years past. In the 1964 Grand National Series, now known as the Sprint Cup Series, drivers competed in 62 races that, oddly enough, ran from November 10, 1963 to November 8, 1964. Now that's a long season. Of course, times have changed and the NASCAR series (and its schedule) has continued to evolve.

NASCAR races on privately owned race tracks -- all of which are asphalt or concrete. In the early days, NASCAR drivers had to race on a variety of surfaces, including dirt, asphalt and even a sandy beach. Drivers in the series towed their cars from race to race, slept in seedy motels or camped out in their trucks -- they definitely didn't live the high-profile lifestyle that modern drivers like Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Tony Stewart enjoy. One thing that hasn't changed over the years is the fact that the drivers focus on competing in as many races as possible in order to earn as much money as possible. Consider this; the 1964 NASCAR champion earned $114,771 in race winnings [source: Racing Reference]. Today, that amount equates to around $801,816 according to the consumer price index (CPI). While that isn't bad, that amount doesn't even come close to the $15,313,920 Jimmie Johnson, took home as the 2007 champion [source: Racing Reference].

­Stewart and Earnhardt Jr. fly from race to race on private jets and own million-dollar racing teams. Needless to say, times have changed. Considering the NASCAR circuit leaves Daytona, Fla. on Sunday and must be ready to race in Fontana, Calif. by the next Thursday, who can blame them? But you can't fly every race car and hauler to each track. Instead, NASCAR teams become road warriors for 10 months out of every year. This article will explain some of the idiosyncrasies in the NASCAR schedule. To get things started, take a look at the next section where you'll get a better understanding of the differences between the NASCAR series and four other major North American sports.

The NASCAR Sanctioning Body

Indianapolis Motor Speedway is just one of three tracks on the NASCAR circuit not owned by SMI or ISC.
Indianapolis Motor Speedway is just one of three tracks on the NASCAR circuit not owned by SMI or ISC.
Rusty Jarrett/­Getty Images for NASCAR

­NASCAR officially dropped the green flag on its existence in 1949. That first year consisted of just eight races -- seven were run on dirt-surfaced tracks and one on a road course. Daytona was on the schedule, just not the same 2.5-mile (4.02-Kilometer) superspeedway that NASCAR fans know today. From 1949 to 1958, Daytona was a 4.15-mile (6.7-kilometer) road course including a 2-mile (3.22-kilometer) strip of the beach itself. Slowly, NASCAR evolved from dirt and sand racing surfaces and settled on paved tracks. At present, the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series visits 22 different tracks for 36 regular season races and two exhibition races. Of those 22 tracks, two are road courses (Infineon Raceway and Watkins Glen), six are superspeedways (Daytona, Fontana, Indianapolis, Michigan, Pocono and Talladega) and the rest are various oval shapes ranging from a half-mile to 2 miles (0.8 to 3.22 kilometers) in length.

NASCAR is unique when compared to some of the other major North American sports. Unlike the National Football League (NFL), Major League Baseball (MLB), the National Hockey League (NHL) and the National Basketball Association (NBA), NASCAR is a sanctioning body rather than a league of teams. Yes, those four major sports leagues consist of independently owned teams, but the number of teams in each league is finite and strictly defined by the league. NASCAR is a more of an organization that dictates rules and procedures and if you would like to try to play, you're welcome to give it a shot. This primary difference also contributes to making the NASCAR Sprint Cup schedule vastly different from any other sports schedule.

Sports teams in those four leagues are associated with a city and have a certain obligation to the community. For example, in order to be considered for an NFL team, the owner of the team must find a suitable community that will meet the requirements set forth by the league office. But once that city and the team's owner reach an agreement, the team receives a guaranteed percentage share of home games. NASCAR, on the other hand, has no home and away teams. Race tracks are owned and operated independently from NASCAR. Along the same line, the various tracks are not exclusive to any specific racing series and NASCAR can (and does) choose whatever track it wants to hold races on.

Speedway Motorsports Inc. (SMI) and International Speedway Corp. (ISC) are considered the two heavy-hitters in the racing facility and track ownership world. Between the two companies, NASCAR visits tracks owned by SMI or ISC for 31 out of 36 races. In all, ISC owns 12 tracks on the NASCAR circuit while SMI owns seven. Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Pocono Raceway and Dover International Speedway are the only tracks on the circuit not owned by either SMI or ISC. This bit of info may interest race fans: ISC is owned by the France family, the same family that founded and currently owns NASCAR. While it may sound like a conflict of interest to own tracks as well as the racing series, NASCAR officials are smart enough to also give fans races at popular tracks such as Bristol Motor Speedway and Atlanta Motor Speedway -- both tracks owned by SMI.

One way SMI or ISC can attempt to finagle another race at one of its tracks is by purchasing a track on the current NASCAR race schedule with the intent of moving the event to another track owned by the corporation. That's exactly what SMI owner O. Bruton Smith did in 2004 when he purchased Rockingham Speedway and proceeded to swiftly shut it down. NASCAR gave one of the former Rockingham race dates to Phoenix International Speedway (an ISC track) and one went to Texas Motor Speedway (an SMI track). That seems fair, right? Well, not to the NASCAR fans in the Rockingham, N.C. area.

­Unfortunately, not every race track can have a NASCAR race. The next section will explain what NASCAR officials take into consideration when they set the schedule. Also, how would you like it if the NFL scheduled the Super Bowl as its first game of its season? Sound a little crazy? Read the next page to find out how NASCAR pulls something like that off each and every year.

The Current NASCAR Schedule

The Daytona 500 is like the Super Bowl of NASCAR racing -- sort of.
The Daytona 500 is like the Super Bowl of NASCAR racing -- sort of.
Matthew Stockman/­Getty Images

­Can you imagine if the Super Bowl was the first game of each NFL season? Well, NASCAR fans can relate, because that's precisely how they feel about the Daytona 500 race -- it's like their Super Bowl. Race teams typically put a great deal of effort into preparing for the Daytona 500, for some, its one of the most important races of the season -- and with good reason. The Daytona 500 draws the biggest crowd, attracts big-time sponsors and also pays the most of any race on the schedule. But unlike other major professional sports, the biggest "game" of the year for NASCAR begins the season instead of ending it.

Realistically, the NFL couldn't play the Super Bowl at the beginning of the year for obvious reasons and the other major sports play more than one culminating game. But that hasn't stopped NASCAR. The Daytona 500 captures the same vibe and is considered the most prestigious race on the NASCAR schedule. Fans wait in anticipation through the short off-season for racing to begin once again, and NASCAR starts the season with a bang. The Daytona 500 sets the tone for the rest of the season.

­For a typical event, NASCAR employees and race teams arrive at the race track on a Thursday and don't leave until late in the evening on Saturday or Sunday, after the race ends. Because of some of the distances between venues, the race car hauler drivers have very little downtime during the week. The schedule does have a few breaks throughout the year, but not many -- just three, to be exact.

Each year NASCAR officials factor in several considerations when deciding the schedule. NASCAR currently has little or no inclination to add races to the already long schedule; however, it does evaluate race dates to determine whether a race should be moved to another time of the year or in some cases, dropped from the schedule altogether.

Sometimes a race is lost due to attendance. If NASCAR deems a surrounding community cannot support a race, it can (and will) take away the race date. In 2003, Darlington, S.C. hosted its last Labor Day race. Since then, the Labor Day race, formerly known as the Southern 500, has taken place on the 2-mile superspeedway in Fontana, Calif. The Darlington, S.C. race suffered poor attendance for years and NASCAR finally made the decision that it could make more money racing at the California Speedway that weekend.

­NASCAR officials can't please everyone when they sit down and make up the race schedule each year. The logistics involved are enough to give anyone a headache. So what about contingency plans? Why is it that race officials watch the approaching weather with their fingers crossed for luck? After all, a 10-month schedule is brutal enough without needing to make up a race. But as you may have guessed, weather always has the potential to play a major role in race day plans. Read on to learn what NASCAR does if rain or a tragedy cancels a race.

Rain Delays and Race Cancellations

At a high-speed oval track, rain on race day means no racing.
At a high-speed oval track, rain on race day means no racing.
Jamie Squire/­Getty Images

­As you know, all types of weather can play havoc in NASCAR racing -- especially rain. Because stock cars depend on downforce to maintain grip on the high-banked oval tracks that make up the bulk of the schedule, NASCAR racing comes to a grinding halt whenever it rains.

As we mentioned earlier in this article, NASCAR formerly held nearly twice as many races during a season as it does today. That left very little wiggle room in the event of a rain delay or race cancellation. At times, daylight issues made things even more difficult. Most tracks didn't have lights that illuminated the racing surface. In fact, that didn't come along until SMI owner O. Bruton Smith installed lights at Lowe's Motor Speedway in 1992. But nowadays, NASCAR teams have a little more flexibility in case of rain. Typically the race will be run on the next available day. If rain cuts a race short, NASCAR officials can officially determine a race winner as long as at least 50 percent of the laps have been completed. If rain comes early in the day and the drivers don't have the opportunity to even start the race, the entire race will be run on the next day. In the rare occurrence that a race cannot be rescheduled before it's time to prepare for the next race on the schedule, NASCAR will hold the race after the end of the regular season. To date, that has only happened once -- during the 2001 season after NASCAR cancelled the fall race at Louden, N.H. in the wake of the terrorist attacks on September 11. The rescheduled race was held on November 23; a week after crowning Jeff Gordon the 2001 champion.

­Most NASCAR teams are accustomed to traveling 10 months out of the year, but for some, the demanding schedule takes its toll. Drivers such as Mark Martin and Bill Elliott have competed in the series for many years but cite the overwhelming schedule as too arduous to keep up with full time. Perhaps the challenging schedule is part of the reason NASCAR seems to be turning into a young man's sport. In the early days of NASCAR, drivers pulled their own race cars from track to track and the smaller prize money necessitated the need to race year-round. These days, prize and sponsorship money at even a single race can make drivers an instant millionaire, and as long as the prize money continues to flow, NASCAR can cherry pick the best races for its schedule.

For more information about NASCAR and other NASCAR-related topics, follow the links on the next page.

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Sources

  • Fryer, Jenna. "NASCAR Bans Testing in 2009 to Save Teams Cash." Associated Press. Nov. 14, 2008. (Nov. 17, 2008) http://sports.yahoo.com/nascar/news?slug=ap-nascar-testingban&prov=ap& type=lgns
  • Lowes Motor Speedway. (Nov. 18, 2008) http://www.lowesmotorspeedway.com/speedway/history/
  • Racing Reference.info. (Nov. 16, 2008) http://www.racing-reference.info/wc.htm
  • Ricardo, Tiffany. "Minor Schedule Change for 2008 = Major Happiness for NASCAR." Fastmachines.com. Aug. 13, 2008. (Nov. 17, 2008) http://www.fastmachines.com/nascar/minor-schedule-change-for-2009-major- happiness-in-nascar/

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