Small-town, grassroots racing is often the bedrock for racing fandom. Patrons venture out to their local track on a Saturday or Sunday night to watch their hometown heroes compete under the lights. Knowing this, you might wonder if NASCAR ever tries to replicate this feel by racing at night.
NASCAR does race at night, scheduling a handful of night races each season, including 6 in 2022. These are often marquee, high-profile events that carry lots of hype and intrigue. The number of night races in the Cup Series has dwindled slightly in recent seasons, but may increase in the future.
Many factors play into how many races NASCAR schedules at night and why some tracks are better suited to racing under the lights than others. Below you will learn all about the pros and cons of NASCAR night racing.
Do NASCAR Races Happen At Night?
NASCAR races do sometimes happen at night. A few of these races are start-to-finish night events while others begin late in the day and finish after sunset. NASCAR cars have fake headlights, so if tracks want night races, they must invest in high-powered lights to create safe driving conditions.
This was long considered a near impossibility at large tracks, but now most NASCAR tracks have lights. Bristol Motor Speedway, a 0.533-mile short track, hosted the first night race in 1978. While the races were popular and the lighting proved adequate, many wondered if it could be replicated at speedways 1.5 miles and longer, as tracks this size would need so many more lights than tiny Bristol.
Charlotte Motor Speedway was the first 1.5-mile track to experiment with lights. The speedway held the first large track night race for the 1992 All-Star event. Billed as “One Hot Night,” the race was a hit with both fans and drivers, paving the way for NASCAR’s expanded foray into night racing. Six more large tracks added lights for night racing by 2005, hoping to capitalize on a growing market.
How Many Night Races Are There In NASCAR?
There are 6 night points races in the NASCAR Cup Series. The All-Star race at Texas Motor Speedway also races into the night, as do the two qualifying races for the season-opening Daytona 500. Some races, like the Daytona 500, start late in the day and may end at night.
NASCAR’s second-tier Xfinity Series only has three true night races during the 2022 season. Martinsville in the spring is followed by Daytona and Bristol in the fall. The Xfinity Series predominately races on Saturday afternoons, but all their night races fall on Fridays. The championship race at Phoenix starts late on Saturday afternoon but has sometimes finished under the lights in past seasons.
NASCAR’s third-tier Truck Series holds many of its races at night. Of the series’ 23 races, 15 either start or run most of the laps under bright speedway lights. Friday nights are the most common time Truck Series races are run, with nine such events in 2022. This is because a vast majority of the Truck Series schedule is during double or triple-header weekends with the higher series.
Holidays And Saturdays
Three of the true night races for the 2022 season take place on Sundays during holiday weekends. The Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway has long been NASCAR’s Memorial Day weekend race. Considered by many to be a Crown Jewel event, the race caps a high-profile day of motorsports. Formula One’s Grand Prix of Monaco and IndyCar’s prestigious Indianapolis 500 precede NASCAR’s longest race.
NASCAR scheduled the 2022 spring Bristol Dirt race for Easter Sunday night after racing in the day in 2021. NASCAR made this change to decrease the dust disruption the cars created and to increase viewership with a highly hyped event in primetime. The other Sunday night race is the Southern 500 at Darlington on Labor Day weekend, a longtime NASCAR tradition.
Three 2022 NASCAR Cup Series races are scheduled for Saturday nights. The April race in Martinsville is the first one, followed by the final regular season race at Daytona on August 27 and the famed Bristol night race on September 17. The Daytona night race was long held during Fourth of July weekend before being moved later in the schedule in 2020.
High-Profile Night Races
Some of NASCAR’s biggest races are held at night, including the Coca-Cola 600. This race is 100 miles longer than any other and tests car durability and driver stamina in unique ways. The Coca-Cola 600 begins during the day but usually transitions into full night racing before reaching halfway. The changing track conditions challenges drivers and crew to adjust in ways they rarely have to.
The summer Daytona race is the final race of the Cup Series regular season. This adds high stakes to an already hyped Saturday night for all drivers still looking to secure a playoff berth. The Daytona night race has long been a fan favorite, dating back to its longtime spot as the annual Fourth of July weekend event. It has not lost any prestige or excitement in shifting to late August.
Playoff Night Races
The Southern 500 at Darlington Speedway is NASCAR’s annual Labor Day weekend race. Like the Coca-Cola 600, it starts late in the day and lasts well into the night. This has been the opening playoff race since 2020, adding even more importance to a race already considered to be a Crown Jewel event because of the track’s difficulty and the race’s historical significance in NASCAR.
Bristol is one of the most popular tracks, and its night race is one of the hottest tickets in NASCAR. The Bristol night race is the Round One playoff cutoff race, meaning four of the 16 drivers vying for a championship are eliminated after the checkered flag waves. This makes a race already accustomed to fierce battles on the track and strong emotions after even more significant.
Do All NASCAR Tracks Have Lights?
Not all NASCAR tracks have lights. None of the 5 true road courses have lights, but the Charlotte Roval, a hybrid road course through the speedway’s infield and parts of the traditional oval, has lights. The oval tracks in New Hampshire, Dover, Michigan, Talladega, and the Pocono Raceway also don’t.
Road courses pose a logistical challenge to night racing. NASCAR road courses range between two-and-a-half and four miles in length, so the cost to install lighting, even if temporary, would be massive. With winding turns and changing terrain at some courses, it’s understandable why night racing is not always pursued.
Normally, NASCAR has no problems completing a race at a track without lights. These races are scheduled early enough in the day to allow plenty of time to finish without darkness becoming a factor. However, unforeseen delays can cause impending darkness to alter the course of a race.
Consequences Of No Lights
The 2021 New Hampshire race was called eight laps shy of its scheduled conclusion because the race lasted much longer than anticipated. NASCAR started the race despite a few sprinkles and more rain in the area, but only five laps were completed before the moisture became too much to race with and leader Kyle Busch spun on the damp track. The weather delay lasted two hours before racing resumed.
As the laps wound down and darkness became more of an issue, NASCAR was forced to shave laps at the lightless New Hampshire Motor Speedway. Officials made their decision with 18 scheduled laps to go, giving drivers 10 laps to compete for spots rather than waving the checkered flag out of nowhere.
Aric Almirola was able to hold off hard-charging Christopher Bell for the race win. Bell said he wished he could have had the eight cancelled laps to try to close his gap to the lead but understood NASCAR’s decision. New Hampshire’s lack of lights absolutely played a factor in this race and could happen at any of the other lightless tracks on NASCAR’s schedule.
Cost Of Track Lights
The cost of lighting an entire track to allow for safe racing conditions runs well into the millions of dollars. Martinsville Speedway, a 0.526-mile short track, spent $5 million to add lights around its paperclip-shaped track in 2017. Martinsville is the shortest track on the NASCAR circuit, so this is the low end for speedway lighting costs.
For larger speedways, the cost increases significantly. Indianapolis Motor Speedway explored the idea of adding lights as part of a massive infrastructure around the 2.5-mile track in the 2010s. Speedway officials estimated the cost of lighting the track and other areas for night racing would cost around $20 million before deciding against moving forward with lights at that time.
Many fans have called for Talladega Superspeedway to install lights in hopes of replicating Daytona’s night race. Not only would the cost rival Indianapolis’ reported price tag, but the surrounding infrastructure would also need improvements. Parking lots and roads leading away from Talladega would need extra lighting too, adding to the already substantial cost for night racing to occur there.
Are NASCAR Night Races Popular?
NASCAR night races seem to be popular among fans. They enjoy the different elements night racing can bring, like sparks visibly flying and brake rotors glowing. But TV networks appear to be hesitant to add more Saturday night races because they often draw fewer viewers than Sunday afternoon events.
This makes sense, as people across demographics are more likely to be away from their homes or have their attention elsewhere Saturday nights compared to Sunday afternoons. This thinking is why few broadcast networks air new episodes of original programming on Saturdays. Despite the online fervor for more night races among certain sections of NASCAR fans, the numbers don’t support the idea.
Take Martinsville for example. The exciting short track is one of the premiere racetracks on the Cup Series schedule. Its 2021 fall race, featured on a Sunday afternoon on NBC, drew a 1.61 rating and 2.740 million viewers. NASCAR decided to schedule the 2022 Martinsville spring race on a Saturday night. The night race, airing on FS1, drew only a 1.1 rating and 1.885 million viewers.
The two races did not air in a vacuum. NBC is carried by more providers in more homes than FS1 is, and the fall race is a playoff elimination race versus the spring regular season race. This makes it impossible to assuredly say the start time is the only reason for the lower ratings. But this is the reason often cited for why there is a relatively low number of Saturday night races each season.
If ratings are likely to be lower Saturday night than Sunday afternoon, it can be hard for broadcasters to justify lobbying for more night races. The die-hards will likely tune in regardless, but Saturday nights are more difficult to attract casual fans. This could explain why tracks like Richmond and Kansas have shifted Saturday night races to Sunday afternoon in recent years.
The NASCAR Cup Series does host a handful of night races, and the Truck Series holds most of its races at night. Lighting a track to make it suitable for night racing is expensive, and these costs have dissuaded 5 oval tracks on the Cup Series calendar from installing them.