Why so serious? Four valuable lessons F1 can learn from polarising NASCAR series

Elizabeth Blackstock
Kyle Busch (#8 3CHI Chevrolet Richard Childress) leads a group during the NASCAR Cup Series Championship Race

F1 and Nascar: Share the same problems

As Formula 1 continues to grow its audience in the United States, it should be prepared to learn its fair share of lessons from an unlikely American sport: NASCAR.

While F1 and NASCAR seem like drastically different beasts, one look beneath the surface shows that the two have followed somewhat similar trajectories: Each discipline saw massive growth among an American fanbase, becoming seemingly unstoppable when at the height of their powers.

But NASCAR’s power faded, and F1 is increasingly at risk of oversaturating its U.S. fanbase in a much similar way. It’s time for the pinnacle of motorsport to learn from stock car racing’s examples, before it’s too late.

More races = more burnout

As Formula 1 looks to capitalize on its ever-expanding audience by tacking more and more events onto its season calendar, everyone involved – drivers, fans, team personnel, and more – risk burnout, and no series displays that struggle quite like NASCAR.

NASCAR’s top-tier Cup Series calendar is composed of 36 points-paying races with the addition of two mandatory exhibition events. Many crew members hit the road in early February and see no appreciable time off until the series finale in November.

As the season progresses, fans often begin to lose interest – especially if their favorite driver or team isn’t performing well. At the end of each year, countless crew members leave the highly demanding sport, resulting in staffing concerns.

Formula 1’s 24-race calendar is nowhere near as extensive as that of the Cup Series, but the added pressure of travel can be extremely hard on the teams, and in an era of one-driver dominance, fans can get easily bored.

In much the same way that NASCAR would benefit from reducing its schedule to feature fewer but more compelling events, F1 should also truly ask itself if fans need to be bombarded quite so regularly with Grands Prix.

Fans hate complex rule changes

Listen to a group of NASCAR fans chat, and it can become clear what eras of the sport influenced them; for example, they may refer to the season-ending races as the “Chase” or the “Playoffs,” while still others may require refreshers on the rules.

That’s because NASCAR has tweaked its Championship format FIVE times since 2004, and fans have had to regularly re-learn how drivers can qualify for the title and what they’ll have to do to achieve it.

NASCAR introduced these complex changes as a way to keep fans engaged: Drivers like Jimmie Johnson had become dominant, and NASCAR wanted to artificially keep audiences entertained right down to the last race. The result? A whole lot of fans who can’t keep their championship rules straight, and a whole lot of others who abandoned the sport completely.

F1 has faced similar problems of dominance and attempted to solve them with similar formatting tweaks, most recently with the introduction of the Sprint Race and the subsequent tweaks to the Sprint Race format.

F1 fans are frustrated that these confusing formats have been forced upon them, and some are losing interest because of it.

NASCAR has already been fighting this battle for years, and rather than engaging audiences, it has frustrated fans to such an extent that the Cup Series hampered its own momentum in the mid-2000s.

By trying to get too creative in its attempts to introduce something new, F1 can easily follow down that same path.

Recommended reading

Four things F1 actually got right during chaotic Las Vegas Grand Prix

Lacklustre Miami now under the spotlight after Las Vegas GP success

Let the racers race

In the past few years, NASCAR has authentically engaged new audiences with one simple trick: letting its racers race.

There are various different manifestations of that concept. With the introduction of NASCAR’s Next-Gen Cup Series vehicle, the sport signaled its interest in having drivers of different disciplines get behind the wheel for a race or two.

Former F1 drivers Kimi Räikkönen and Jenson Button have both encouraged non-NASCAR fans to tune into a race, while Supercars champion Shane Van Gisbergen’s stunning rookie victory at the series’ inaugural Chicago street race will go down in history as one of the finest drives in NASCAR – with a delighted audience to boot.

F1 limits one-off participants from competing in Grands Prix, and in many ways, it’s understandable; the series wants to foster long-term commitment and continuity.

But NASCAR offers a different solution: allowing its drivers to compete in other series as well.

In a bygone era, F1 drivers used to need to compete in just about everything to actually make a living; that’s why you’d see World Champion Jim Clark heading over to America to contest the Indy 500, or compete in regional saloon cars, or pick up an F2 race from time to time.

It’s a good thing that modern racers aren’t forced to overextend themselves to make a living — but they should also be encouraged to pick up events that mean something to them.

We’ve seen some drivers take on this challenge in the modern era, including Nico Hülkenberg contesting the 24 Hours of Le Mans and Fernando Alonso skipping the Monaco Grand Prix in favor of the Indy 500.

But it doesn’t quite compare to the freedom that NASCAR drivers have, or the interest they can garner by competing in sprint cars, endurance races, off-road excursions, and more.

It’s not that serious

Perhaps one of the biggest things F1 could learn from NASCAR comes from the stock car series’ more laid back mindset.

Yes, motorsport is serious business, and with the amount of money and danger that comes into play at F1’s level, a certain amount of level-headedness is required.

But not everything needs to be treated with such gravitas. Look no further than the pre-race spectacle at the 2023 Miami Grand Prix; the F1 world turned up its nose at a little bit of cheesiness, and many international fans couldn’t wrap their heads around a build up to a Grand Prix that wasn’t treated as if it were the most important event in the world.

NASCAR implements a pre-race ritual very similar to the one seen in Miami: Drivers are announced to the crowd one at a time with theme music that corresponds to their personality or the role they’re playing in the sport.

Series antagonists will pick a song designed to stoke the crowd’s boos, while fan favorites will show off a little bit of personality with a deep cut or a jokey tune. It gets fans emotionally invested in the event, and it makes for a bit of fun.

There were legitimate criticisms from the F1 camp regarding Miami, such as the fact that the driver intros took place too close to race start – and that’s entirely reasonable.

We can allow drivers plenty of time to get “in the zone” while also enabling them to have a little fun; getting too serious only serves to dampen the mood.

Read next: 75 days of hell: F1’s last woman driver has a shocking story to tell