Originally created 05/12/05

Local economies feeling the pinch of night racing



DARLINGTON, S.C. - It is race day and servers at the Roger's Bar-B-Que and Seafood Restaurant are waiting for a rush of customers that would never come.

Instead of serving heaping portions of chopped pork, rice, lima beans and fried chicken, they sat at a table and talked.

"Normally, they pile in here," said a server named Janice, who didn't want her last name revealed. "But it's been a normal weekend. I don't know where the race crowd is."

The workers at Roger's, a local favorite in nearby Florence, wore NASCAR T-shirts to celebrate Saturday's Dodge Charger 500 at Darlington Raceway. But as far as most businesses were concerned, NASCAR's traveling circus barely made a dent in the local economy.

"Changing to a night race changed everything," Janice said.

While NASCAR continues to hail the move to prime time as a key step in the sport's future, the numbers don't support the switch.

Television viewers continue to like the traditional Sunday afternoon races, according the Nielsen Media Research. So do local businesses.

Two of the first 10 regular season races on the NASCAR Nextel Cup Series circuits have been at night, and both share the distinction of being the lowest-rated races of the year.

The race at Darlington, which started at 7:10 p.m., had the lowest rating of the season with a 4.7 rating and a 9 share. Based on Nielsen, that means 5,151,200 viewers tuned into Fox Sports' broadcast this past Saturday. The second-worst rating came April 23 at Phoenix International Raceway. That race on Fox, which started at 7:55 p.m., drew a 5.1 rating with a 10 share.

Sandwiched between the two night races was the Aaron's 499. That race, which started at 1:20 p.m., drew a 7.6 rating - 8,329,600 national viewers - and an 18 share.

As expected, the season-opening Daytona 500 remains the cornerstone of the racing season with a 10.9 rating and 23 share.

According to Nielsen, a rating is the percent of homes in the top 210 television markets being measured. Each rating point translates to 1,096,000 viewers.

A share is the percent of households using a television during the time the race is aired.

Wanda Arnett, owner of the Shoney's in Florence, doesn't know much about television rating points. The only numbers she understands are sales.

For 54 years, Darlington had daytime races. A $3.5 million renovation included the installation of lights at the oldest speedway on the NASCAR schedule. While the race was a sellout with 60,000 fans - the first sellout at Darlington since 1997 - it was a bust in the surrounding community.

The nighttime start allowed fans from racing-rich Charlotte, N.C., Fayetteville, N.C., and Columbia, to drive less than two hours on race day. Most driving home after the race for Mother's Day.

Homestead-Miami Speedway recently announced it was adding lights for the season-finale Ford 400. That will give the Nextel Cup Series nine prime-time races in a 36-race schedule.

Saturday night's race started a string of four consecutive races that will start under the lights.

NASCAR insists the move to night races is good for the sport.

"NASCAR is a national sport that continues to grow into new markets," NASCAR chairman Brian France said.

Arnett isn't so sure.

"We're going to have to change the way we think about races at Darlington from now on," she said.

Reach Don Coble at don.coble@bellsouth.net.